Tuesday, November 08, 2005

My Experience with Buddhism

Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. -- Buddha

Introduction

When I left Orthodoxy, I spent some time reading up on other religions. Buddhism, coming from an entirely different tradition, taught me a lot of stuff I hadn't really thought about before. It's particularly appealing to me as a skeptic and an atheist because, although there are many dogmatic Buddhists, there has been an anti-dogmatic aspect to Buddhism since the beginning. Buddhism, or at least the kind of Buddhism I'm attracted to, is empirical, albeit not as formally as science. Additionally, as a Western Jew, I am under no societal or familial pressure to accept Eastern claims which conflict with science, so I may comfortably pick and choose among Buddhism's ideas. Interestingly, so many American Jews are drawn to Buddhism that a term, "Ju-Bu," has been coined to describe them. I suspect that this happens because Buddhism contains values -- like iconoclasm, liberalism, and a reluctance towards violence -- that many American Jews share and find lacking in the stricter forms of Judaism in America.

A Note on Buddhism and Skepticism

Being a skeptic, an atheist, and an empiricist, I cannot simply believe in far-out claims like reincarnation, chi, and spiritual karma without evidence. However, I have found that many Eastern ideas, when viewed metaphorically, make enough sense to be useful.

Disclaimer

I am not a Buddhist. This post is about my experience of Buddhism and Yoga and probably does not accurately represent the views of actual Buddhists and Yogis.

The Practice is the Philosophy

Buddhism has its sacred texts, which I have so far ignored, but it also has a number of practices with which you can learn simply by doing. The fundamental practice of Zen, a kind of Buddhism, is meditation.

How to Meditate

Here's what I do. Sit or lie comfortably. Be aware of your breath. Watch as thoughts arise in your brain. Don't get lost in them. Realize that "you" are not your thoughts. Your thoughts arise by themselves. Watch as emotions arise. Realize that "you" are not your emotions. This is more or less mindfulness meditation. There are many other kinds of meditation.

No Self

One of the most important ideas of Buddhism is that the self is an illusion, that we are all part of the Divine. I am you is the rock are God. It is from our false belief that we are individuals that arises all of our suffering. Because we think we are separate, we grasp. Because we grasp, we are always unsatisfied. We want a bigger house, a beautiful object, or a smile from a loved one. When we sit in meditation, we come to realize that "we" are not our wants.

This idea of "no-self" meshes interestingly with science. Empirically, it appears that what we consider "I" is an emergent phenomenon of the complexity of neural interactions in the brain. Fundamentally, we are made of the same stuff as a rock or a star. Furthermore, experiments show that decisions are made in our brains before we are conscious of making a decision, casting doubt on the very existence of free will. The Buddhist idea of "no-self," at this point, cannot be said to be definitively true, but it also cannot be disproved. You might think that I would object to the notion of the Divine, as an atheist, but I believe that the Divine in Buddhism is more-or-less equivalent to "the universe" or "existence" in Western thought. It's commonly believed that many Buddhists can be reasonably called atheists as well.

What I Have Learned from Buddhism

I have learned about the importance of being present. Once you get a taste for meditation, it can affect how you relate to the world. When I am present, I experience heightened sensation, a deep calm, and positive emotions towards all Beings. (It's difficult to talk about spirituality without being cheesy or using cliches. However, anybody may try meditation and see for themselves. No God and no faith are required.) When I am present, I am less likely to engage in hurtful behavior like overeating, arguing too much online, procrastinating, or otherwise distracting myself from life. I enjoy having things not going my way more while being mindful than I do having things go my way when I'm not being mindful. As an example, waiting in line while being mindful is more enjoyable than eating great food while not paying attention.

I have also learned to see that people who do great destruction often do so because they fall to this grasping that Buddhism teaches about. I always wondered why millionaires like Ken Lay, the CEO of Enron, would engage in illegal and unethical behavior simply to make more money he couldn't possibly need. The answer is that people who think of themselves as totally separate always think they need more and that they can take it at the expense of other people. He probably thinks that if he can just make another $100 million, he'll be happy. I can see him as a lost, sad human being rather than just as a caricature of evil. People numb themselves (which is the opposite of being mindfully present) to the damage they are doing to themselves and others.

Resources

Buddhism, Taoism, and Yoga touch on many of the same ideas. I recommend learning about any of them.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance was my introduction to Zen Buddhism, as it is for so many young Westerners. It's not really about Buddhism, but it's very readable and is likely to whet your appetite, particularly if you tend to intellectualize.

Wherever You Go, There You Are : Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who runs the very well-respected Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Guided Mindfulness Meditation is a great 4-CD secular introduction to meditation also from Jon Kabat-Zinn.

A.M. and P.M. Yoga for Beginners is a great introduction to the practice of yoga, which is another form of meditation. I also recommend Crunch: The Perfect Yoga Workout.

Mindfulness In Plain English is a free, online book.

Tara Brach has some very interesting speeches available online for free. I also recommend her book, Radical Acceptance : Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha.

Infinite Smile is an intellectual Buddhist podcast.

Meditations from the Mat is a deep book by a former college football player, Army Ranger, and recovered addict. My Christian readers might want to start with this, since the author is a devout Christian. I think it's great and I've read it at least twice, a couple of pages a day.

The Book : On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are is an amazing blow-your-mind experience from the British scholar Alan Watts. Many of Watts's speeches are available online if you look around.

18 comments:

Sadie Lou said...

This was one of your more interesting reads, JA. Thanks for posting it.

asher said...

I have heard about meditation for many years. At one pointit was called TM or transidential meditation and actually received a copyright.You were to concentrate on your personal mantra which you weren't allowed to tell anyone else. Foolishness?

I read a book or two on meditation and it's described pretty much the way you stated. My problem is: "to what end" If the idea is to empty your head of thoughts, then it is the very antithesis (opposite) of thinking and it's really hard to defend something that is anti-thinking. Then, again, what is the difference between thinking and meditation?

Buddists Monks have meditated for hundreds of years and have produced what? Thinking people have produced literature, science and the internet.

Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Jewish Atheist said...

Thanks, Sadie Lou. :)

asher:

TM... Foolishness?

I think so. It seems like a racket where they make you pay all this money to get what's free in a million places. No honest religion charges so much money.

My problem is: "to what end" If the idea is to empty your head of thoughts, then it is the very antithesis (opposite) of thinking and it's really hard to defend something that is anti-thinking.

That's a good question. I guess the answer is that once you learn to empty your head of thoughts, you learn to be more skeptical of your thoughts -- you realize they just sort of arise on their own and just because you think something doesn't make it true. And then, once you are thinking about something, you can think much more clearly.

Buddists Monks have meditated for hundreds of years and have produced what? Thinking people have produced literature, science and the internet.

Again, it's not fair to say Buddhist monks don't think. They spend time meditating, but they don't go their whole lives without thinking. There is good buddhist literature out there. Also, monks influence the culture around them. Billions of people have been influenced by Buddhism, and you may recall that the ancient Chinese were way ahead of everybody else in technology. I don't know if there's a Buddhist equivalent of Mendel.

Eric said...

Buddists Monks have meditated for hundreds of years and have produced what? Thinking people have produced literature, science and the internet.

The goal of meditation isn't production of things. Did you actually read this post? Buddhism seeks to extinguish desire. It seeks no achievement, therefore it is satisfied with simply existing. So your question of "to what end" doesn't require an answer. It's like the zen koan where a master asks the students:

"Why do you ride your bike".

Some answer in terms of efficency, etc. But one student offers:

"I ride my bike to ride my bike"

asher said...

Emptying you mind of thoughts helps you think? Buddism seeks to extinguish desire? Existing is a goal in itself?

Ever read the Dali Lamas's book on Happiness?

Aha, said the Dali, if you take the spoon out of the tea cup it will no longer hit you in the eye each time you drink.

Very profound.

Actually I attended a Chabad evening where they were talking about something called "Hitboninut". I asked them if it was from the word "boneh" to build or from maveen, to understand. They told me, after much thinking that it was the knowledge of understanding. "Very good", I answered, "you've just described philosophy".

Nothing can be achived by thinking of nothing. The brain is supposed to be active; even when we sleep it is working on our dreams. But by going out of your way to suppress the engergy of the brain you are undoing it's function.

By the way Jews are attracted to Buddism mostly cause they are also attracted to medicine, law, socialism, science, business and comedy. Basically, I hate to say it, but jews are attracted to anything but their own religion.

Ever read The Jews and the Lotus?

Jewish Atheist said...

You are raising an interesting point. It doesn't seem like Buddhism has the same idea of progress that Judaism and Christianity have. Each individual may ultimately acheive nirvana, but there's no messiah coming in the future and no focus on increasing knowledge.

It's interesting to think of the ramifications of such a belief on society.

Shlomo said...

We are nothing more than a conglomeration of chemicals formed by Nature into a specific pattern which as a by-product produces a
creature possessed consciousness. Our sense of identity is merely a by product of that consciousness which, once the chemical man ceases to function, so too does that consciousness and the identity spawned from it. The parts return and the thoughts about those parts disappear forever.

Spinoza shadowed much of Taoist and Budhist thought in his rationalism. Spinoza speaks of 'Deus sive Natura', the natural word is, in effect, God. It creates us, it is everywhere, we exist within it and at its whim, and when we die, we are recycled back into it. There is no escape from it. Identity is only a matter of differentiation and is quite temporary.

Descartes said "I think, therefore I am." Spinoza said " I am, therefore I think." Descartes placed identity above biology. Spinoza saw identity as a by-product.

Spinoza's ideal is called 'substance monism'. It is material, rational, empirical, and practical. I have been a Spinozist ever since I thought about the Ein Sof and began to wonder about the properties that God must have in order to be god by logical necessity.

Kol Tuv

July Al said...

"Free will" is a concept that is bandied about here quite casually, as if it were as well-established as sunshine. I'm glad to see that it is called into question in your original post, however fleetingly. I think "free will" is a convenient fiction used as a lame, wanting excuse for "the problem of evil" - the suffering in the world.

I also don't agree that "thinking about nothing" (or, at least, trying to be dispossessed from the tyranny of one's thoughts) is necessarily unproductive. Computers think about nothing in that they are not yet self-aware, yet they still perform vast amounts of productive work. We have no idea (yet) how to build a self-aware machine, and I think it is possible that a deeper understanding of the origin and process of consciousness, thought and non-thought could arise from such meditation.

Non-skeptical religionists should rightly fear meditation, since any detachment from dogma creates the possibility that the flaws of said dogma may enter conscious awareness.

Anyway, I am reminded of an old story about a Buddhist in psychotherapy.

Therapist: "Tell me what you are feeling right now."

Buddhist: "You and I, we are one."

Therapist scribbles a note: "Patient has difficulty distinguishing between self and others."

Buddhist: "Inner peace comes from freedom from want."

Therapist scribbles a note: "Patient appears detached from reality, depressed, and may be having suicidal thoughts."

Shlomo said...

July AL is correct. Free will is nothing more than a poor attempt to reconcile a theological problem.

Spinoza, a Dterminist, describes his notion of human freedom as 'self-determination.' It is a sort of cognitive retraining that comes through a growing self-awareness and the knowledge of the causes, effects, and influences that one lives under. In Jewish circles we say that "knowing is 1/2 the cure." Knowing what influences our behaviors thinking, tastes, etc., means that we have the knowledge to make educated choices that are at least to some degree, 'freer' than the choices we made prior to that self-awareness.

Budhism is a wonderful means of achieving that self-awareness, but by no means the only method of doing so.

Kol Tuv

Random said...

"It's interesting to think of the ramifications of such a belief on society."

You hinted at the answer earlier, though I don't think you realised it, when you talked of how China was way ahead of everybody else in technology - stasis, retreat from the world and decline. yes, China invented paper, the printing press and noodles before the West, but we invented the steam engine, aeroplane and penicillin before China did. Having such a big head start and being so comprehensively over taken that you're helpless to prevent the ghost-faced barbarians from sacking your capital is not much to be proud of.

Eric said...

Random - it's even more interesting to note how little you know about China. China's had a lot of religons over it's very long history. Buddhism didn't enter China until the 1st century BC, and I'm not sure it was ever the majority religon. As far as penicillin, China had developed effective medical practices long before western 'physicians' had stopped bleeding and leaches.

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

Fascinating, JA. You and I have been walking almost opposite spiritual paths. I had been dabbling in Buddhism - even considered myself a "practicing Buddhist" - when I started to explore Jewish traditions seriously. (No one ever caled me a "Ju-Bu", maybe because I'd abandoned all of the little Judaism I'd had).

Anyway, my journey eventually led me to Jerusalem, where I studied in several different yeshivas and privately with a Kabbalist, and one day realized that when I was doing the "Shema" or even a Bracha (blessing) properly (as defined by my teachers), the experience was extraordinarily similar to the Buddhist meditation I'd been doing.

I started to explore this theme both in practice and intellectually, and that pet research project resulted in a book (or here) recently published by Penguin. The original title of my book was The Jewish Meditation Handbook as I saw it as an entry-level prequel to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's book, Jewish Meditation (which I do not necessarily recommend for beginners; however, I do recommend his book Meditation and the Bible).

Basically, for the benefit of the uninitiated, my view is that several Jewish meditative practices resemble what is found in Buddhism and other Eastern religions but differ on key points of epistemology and purpose. What happened while writing my book was I realized that "meditation" is not a sufficient term for naming that group of Jewish spiritual practices that I had dubbed "meditative" - hence the term "the Art of Amazement", which was coined, I believe, by Heschel and revived recently with considerable force by Rabbi Cardozo.

What I tried to achieve is a book that would appeal to both beginners and advanced readers. Its footnotes contain not only references to the primary Jewish texts (Torah, Talmud, Kabbalah) but also comparison-contrasts with Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoga etc.

The blogosphere may be particularly interested in a fascinating cognate (some would suggest false cognate, but I believe its real):

Avraham = Brahama
Sarah = Sarasvati

Sarah, of rourse, is the primary of Abraham's 2 wives, according to the Torah. Sarasvati is the primary of Brahama's 2 wives. The priestly caste of India are the Brahamas. What would explain such a correspondence, if it is indeed real and not a false cognate? The traditional dates for Abraham and Sarah is ca 1700 BCE, which is just before the apparent arrival of the Aryans whose arrival to India ca 1500 BCE sparked the beginning of Vedic religion that later spawned Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and others.

Does this correspondence of names point us to the destination of Abraham's children of his old age, whom he "sent eastward, to the land of the east, before he died"? (See Genesis 25:1-6).

I don't spend a lot of time in the book on this topic because it's really a side point to the main story, which is Jewish, but it is the main topic of my current doctoral research and I've so far drafted about 20 pages of the evidence and thesis surrounding the above correspondance. Hopefully will be publishable one day.

AS

Jewish Atheist said...

Rabbi Seinfeld:

Wow, that looks like really interesting stuff. I'd actually forgotten that the Kaplan book was probably the first book I read about meditation.

Personally, I found that the spirituality aspect of Orthodox Judaism is completely separate from the halakhic and dogmatic aspects of it -- and that one could easily be spiritual without being Jewish or Jewish without being spiritual.

Jewish Atheist said...

Sarah, of rourse, is the primary of Abraham's 2 wives, according to the Torah. Sarasvati is the primary of Brahama's 2 wives. The priestly caste of India are the Brahamas. What would explain such a correspondence, if it is indeed real and not a false cognate?

That is also interesting. Another explanation could be that they're both based on longstanding oral traditions which spread one way or the other. Since there wasn't any writing back then, it's hard to know what was going on.

The traditional dates for Abraham and Sarah is ca 1700 BCE, which is just before the apparent arrival of the Aryans whose arrival to India ca 1500 BCE sparked the beginning of Vedic religion that later spawned Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and others.

I'm not sure I buy that Aryans sparked the Eastern religions. We don't have any idea (as far as I know) when the stories of Abraham or Brahama started. It could be an ancient oral tradition or it could have gotten started (or significantly changed) much later in the Axial age.

Jewish Atheist said...

(That Aryans sparked the Eastern religions sounds almost racist to me, implying that the Asians couldn't have formed their own religions, but I'm sure that isn't what you mean.)

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

Personally, I found that the spirituality aspect of Orthodox Judaism is completely separate from the halakhic and dogmatic aspects of it -- and that one could easily be spiritual without being Jewish or Jewish without being spiritual.

Right: and I believe there is a 3rd category (in addition to material and spiritual) which is trancendental, which is distinct from spiritual. When a person (of any relgion or belief) savors a piece of fruit, he's living spiritually. When he meditates (correctly) he is living transcendentally.

(That Aryans sparked the Eastern religions sounds almost racist to me, implying that the Asians couldn't have formed their own religions, but I'm sure that isn't what you mean.)

I don't think that any theory of origins implies that another history could not have happened. The archaeological evidence supports the idea that Vedic culture arose when the migrating Aryans mixed with the indigenous Indus valley culture. Some (particularly Indian nationalists) dispute that idea altogether. We're certainly past the 19th C European theory that the Aryans were essentially European and brought culture to Asia. However, I don't believe the scholars have jettisoned the notion that migrant Aryans did something; the Q is from whence did they come and what did they do. Note that Aryeh in Sanskrit means "noble" and in Hebrew means "lion".

Anonymous said...

And, for my tilting at windmills (aka "the ultra-Orthodox viewpoint), see "Letters to a Buddhist Jew", which I co-authored with Rabbi Akiva Tatz. Available on amazon, in frum bookstores, and, starting about now, in "secular" stores.
--david
(http://trueancestor.typepad.com)

Anonymous said...

JA wrote:

"Each individual may ultimately acheive nirvana, but there's no messiah coming in the future..."

Buddhist have Maitreya. You'd be surprised at how Messianic the Buddhists can be.

Meditation is really big in the western Buddhist community. If you go to Japan though, you'll find that for the most part they don't meditate, consider Buddhism irrelevant, and head to the Temples only for funerals, and even that is diminishing. Buddhism in Japan is declining.

And as far as Buddhism being non-theist, once the Mahayana form (in contrast to the Hinayana form) became dominant, there arose a strongly theist form of Buddhism. Shin Buddhism, which is probably the largest sect, has as its primary practice the beseeching of Amida Buddha to allow them to be reborn into the Pure Land. It's also called "Pure Land Buddhism".

Read the Lotus Sutra and then see of you can say, with a straight face, that Buddha is not a supernatural deity! Good luck...