Monthly Archives: January 2016

A Variety of Religious Roads

Let’s consider a number of seemingly disparate paths that religious seekers have taken. They will connect–or disconnect for that matter–at a level which I cannot put in words. But I think at the end you will get the idea. Not all roads lead to….. Some roads simply lead to…..more words…..and a mirage wrapped in an illusion encased in an intellectual riddle…. Then you become engaged in unraveling the riddle, perhaps earning yourself a bit of a reputation and maybe even some money.

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Stephen Batchelor. The man has earned quite a name for himself as a leading voice of this new movement of what is sometimes termed as secularized, rational Buddhism. These people see Buddhism as a resource for a “better,” “happier” life using a kind of technology of the mind as a tool for self-improvement. Batchelor spent quite some time both in a Tibetan Buddhist setting and in a Korean Zen setting but he dropped out of all that and pretty much rejects the “metaphysical and mystical” aspects (whatever they be) of Buddhism. He believes that the monastic element of Buddhism is unnecessary baggage, and what he promotes is a kind of attenuated mindfulness and secular meditation. He doesn’t believe that all the elaborations of Mahayana Buddhism have any place in the modern world. His aim is to get back to the “original teaching” of the Buddha–he rejects almost all developments in Buddhism outside some elements of the Pali Canon. This reminds me of the scholars trying to figure out the original words of Jesus. As an intellectual exercise that may be an interesting enterprise, but for spiritual and religious purposes it can be quite misleading. The implication is that there is this original teaching and all later development is an unnecessary and even erroneous accretion. The thing is that the heart of the original teaching can and does have a real development potential and over time the full meaning of what the founder said needs to be unpacked and developed. An acorn is an acorn and a tree is a tree, but the tree is truly a legitimate development from the acorn. Certainly a lot of extraneous things can get introduced over time and a religion needs some pruning on occasion and certainly a new kind of formulation has to be used at times, but it is a kind of intellectual arrogance and dogmatism that rejects the tradition of the religion. The problem here, however, is not intellectual–you are not going to argue your way to the truth with these people.

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Nanavira Thera. A very peculiar character. Also, a culture hero of sorts for the secularist Buddhists like Stephen Batchelor. He is British by birth(Harold Musson by name), well-educated, financially reasonably well-off. As a young man, after World War II, he is under stress from a profound dissatisfaction with his life and the culture around him. He and a friend give up everything, leave for Sri Lanka, and become Theravada Buddhist monks in a monastery. Not satisfied with what he finds he moves out to a hut in the jungle and lives as a hermit for the rest of his life. He does not have any teacher or guide and that may explain some of the problems he runs into. Like Batchelor, he rejects a lot of the development of Buddhism in the Mahayana tradition.   As one commentator put it: “Nanavira gives no credence to later manifestations of Buddhism, both Theravada and the entirety of Mahayana, only deeming the earliest suttas to be genuine, to reflect what the historical Buddha must have expressed.” His practice of mindfulness meditation is especially intense and from his writings we can see that he has seen something of the truth of Buddhism. Note this remark about him from his publisher: “For Nanavira his major breakthrough was, after many years of effort and practice, realising that, with the exception of the Buddha, we have all got this wrong. For the Buddha alone makes it clear that, contrary to what we think, there is actually no ‘I’ or ‘self’ present in our experience. As Nanavira points out, this is the unique insight of the Buddha which, if developed, will ultimately lead to ‘extinction’ or ‘enlightenment’.” You can see in this language something very profound but it needs quite a bit of explanation or elaboration as in the Mahayana School. Nanavira writes a book about all this and it is a very complex account including forays into Western existentialism and phenomenology, and modern logic and science. Nanavira claims to have achieved a kind of enlightenment which is in effect a liberation from desire in the sense that you see its essential nature and are not ruled by it. The Wikipedia entry says this about him: “ Ñāṇavīra Thera apparently attained sotapatti, or stream-entry, on 27 June 1959. The one who has “entered the stream” has ipso facto abandoned personality-view (sakkāya-ditthi), which is the self-view implicit in the experience of an ordinary worldling not free from ignorance, and understood the essential meaning of the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths. Ñāṇavīra Thera’s writings after 1960 express this very kind of certainty: no more wandering in the dark, no more doubt or speculative guessing.” Now there’s some big problems in his position, and I don’t mean one verbal explanation versus another one. To argue with him would be useless because he would refer to his own experience. But enlightenment is not something that one HAS as an experience, but this is something that one is…..and you cannot bring that out as another object for someone to see. To talk about it that way is to miss the target by the width of the universe. What you do see in an enlightened person is the quality of life lived by such a person and then you can judge the level of enlightenment there.   So finally there is this great sadness (for me at least) about this enigmatic spiritual figure: he commits suicide. Explanations are given, but none of them add up for me. They say he is beset by physical ailments and almost uncontrollable urges to lust which is somehow connected to the ailments. The only way out is to leave the jungle and get modern medical treatment and probably never to return. But he fanatically “desires” to deepen his “breakthrough experience” and will not leave. But staying has become impossible also.  The only way out that he sees is suicide. Not good. Very, very sad.

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Recall the Zen goose. Remember, there’s this goose in this large bottle with the typical narrow neck. Now….how do you get the goose out without breaking the bottle…or…without harming the goose?

Follow the path that gets the goose out of the bottle….

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Silence and solitude.  There is the path of solitude and silence. But this silence is not merely the absence of words and this solitude is not merely the absence of other people. There is a depth here that few ever touch. Merton wrote about it …on occasion…but among his various writings there is nothing better than the Introduction to the Japanese publication of Thoughts In Solitude. It begins: “No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees. These pages seek nothing more than to echo the silence and peace that is ‘heard’ when the rain wanders freely among the hills and forests. But what can the wind say where there is no hearer? There is then a deeper silence: the silence in which the Hearer is No-Hearer. That deeper silence must be heard before one can speak truly of solitude.”

Simply living in an isolated manner is not this reality of solitude. Merton again: “…if you imagine the solitary as ‘one’ who has numerically isolated himself from ‘many others,’ who has gone out of the crowd to hang up his individual number on a rock in the desert, and there to receive messages denied to the many, you have a false and demonic solitude. This is solipsism, not solitude. It is the false unity of separateness, in which the individual marks himself off as his own number, affirms himself by saying, ‘count me out.’”

We live in a culture of many words, many explanations, many arguments. Agitation and perpetual movement is in the air; there is a name and a number for everything; and if we are not engaged in perpetual communication we seem to lose our existence. Whatever spiritual path we are on, it becomes infected with this dynamism of desperate self affirmation (recall Thoreau’s “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”). Merton sums up what is at stake in Christianity:

“Christianity is a religion of the Word. The Word is Love. But we sometimes forget that the Word emerges first of all from silence. When there is no silence, then the One Word which God speaks is not truly heard as Love. Then only ‘words’ are heard. ‘Words’ are not love, for they are many and Love is One. Where there are many words, we lose consciousness of the fact that there is really only One Word. The One Word which God speaks is Himself. Speaking, he manifests Himself as infinite Love. His speaking and his hearing are One. So silent is His speech that, to our way of thinking, His speech is no speech. His hearing is no-hearing. Yet in His silence, in the abyss of His one Love, all words are spoken and all words are heard. Only in this silence of infinite Love do they have coherence and meaning.”

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Do you want to know what kind of life an enlightened being would live? One could consult the Sermon on the Mount for a bit of a glimpse into what that would mean. There are other glimpses. Consider this set of verses from, I believe, Shantideva, as found on the Dalai Lama’s website:

With a determination to achieve the highest aim
For the benefit of all sentient beings
Which surpasses even the wish-fulfilling gem,
May I hold them dear at all times.

Whenever I interact with someone,
May I view myself as the lowest amongst all,
And, from the very depths of my heart,
Respectfully hold others as superior.

In all my deeds may I probe into my mind,
And as soon as mental and emotional afflictions arise-
As they endanger myself and others-
May I strongly confront them and avert them.

When I see beings of unpleasant character
Oppressed by strong negativity and suffering,
May I hold them dear-for they are rare to find-
As if I have discovered a jewel treasure!

When others, out of jealousy
Treat me wrongly with abuse, slander, and scorn,
May I take upon myself the defeat
And offer to others the victory.

When someone whom I have helped,
Or in whom I have placed great hopes,
Mistreats me in extremely hurtful ways,
May I regard him still as my precious teacher.

In brief, may I offer benefit and joy
To all my mothers, both directly and indirectly,
May I quietly take upon myself
All hurts and pains of my mothers.

May all this remain undefiled
By the stains of the eight mundane concerns;
And may I, recognizing all things as illusion,
Devoid of clinging, be released from bondage.

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And we conclude with something totally wordless, an icon of that deep solitude and silence which surrounds all and is within all:





Chinese Hermits

For Christmas I got this beautiful book, Road to Heaven, by Red Pine (Bill Porter). What a marvelous work, so refreshing and illuminating–it’s all about modern day hermits in China and the whole hermit tradition in China which has a very venerable and ancient lineage. While making my way through this book I became aware of several journalistic pieces on Chinese hermits. So I think it would be enjoyable to visit with these folks for a while. Sometime back I referred to this article in the British paper the Daily Mail:

The photos are fascinating. And the unintentionally ironic photos along the right side of the webpage containing the images of various pop icons of our time–what a combo!

Some items to note from this article: the surprising resurgence of the hermit life in China. During the heyday of the so-called Cultural Revolution in the late ‘60s this tradition was almost totally stamped out by the Communists. Now the official line is very different but still very ambiguous. The official attitude is one of tolerance. Actually the government has rebuilt some of the temples and shrines and wants monks there as caretakers. And it pretty much leaves the hermits alone in the mountains as long as they register with the authorities. It seems that all this is to attract tourist money. And to a certain extent they have a more “Chinese” attitude toward their own cultural heritage: preservation and respect. In any case, with the economy booming for the last 20 years, the paradoxical thing is that there has been quite a growth in people withdrawing from all that toward a hermit life.

Another piece on the Chinese hermits appears on this “official” Chinese website for tourists:


The photos are absolutely precious. Not much new information here, but the photos are a good companion to Red Pine’s book because he talks about this very area of hermit resurgence, so you can picture what he is talking about.


Then there is this fascinating account in the Kyoto Journal:

Basically this is an interview with Edward Burger who lived in China for a number of years and made a film about these hermits back in 2005–“Among White Clouds.” Here is an introductory quote by him: The first time I walked into the Zhongnan Mountains I was 23 years old and I had only read Bill Porter’s book [Road to Heaven] and some thousand-year-old poems. I’d stared at the little woodcutters and zither-toting scholars in the landscape paintings at the Cleveland Art Museum. I had all these ideas about hermits. The thing that surprised me when I met Zhongnan hermits for the first time, was that most of them had very little to say about, and had very few thoughts about themselves as ‘hermits.’ I mean, they don’t care that they are ‘hermits’ and don’t do lots of things we think hermits do.”

Precisely! I am very skeptical about people who make a big deal about themselves as monks or hermits or like to wear that “badge” “very loudly.” The modern self-absorption infects religious seekers also! I always wonder about monks who are too wrapped up in their identity as monks.

The rest of this interview is an absolute must read for a real insight into this contemporary phenomenon. One thing that really struck me was how “underground” this urge was during the repression period. People lived as quiet Buddhists/Taoists, even getting married to maintain appearances. Then, when the ban was lifted, they immediately were ordained as monks and went their separate ways.

Now just a few words about Red Pine’s marvelous book. It’s an account of his journeys to China over several years, around 1990, when this phenomenon was just beginning. The book begins with a brief survey of the Chinese hermit tradition and history including its primordial roots in the shaman traditions of prehistoric China. Red Pine is fluent in Chinese, having studied it in school in the U.S. and then in Taiwan. There he spent some time in a Buddhist monastery and as a hermit for a short time. He knows the hermit tradition quite well from the classic texts, but he is eager to see what if any of this tradition is still alive in China. So he enters China in 1989 in search of real hermits. The traditional place for them is the Chungnan Mountains in Central China, and that’s where he goes to.

Here we need to point out one of the problems in reading this book for a Westerner not deeply steeped in Chinese materials: all the names are difficult to keep track of, and the spellings Red Pine uses are no longer used in current literature, but fortunately the differences are not often major…just annoying. Like the Chungnan Mountains are now the Zhuangnan Mountains…and the ancient capital of this area, Sian in Red Pine’s book, is now on all the maps as Xian. So you have to be alert, and good luck keeping track of all the personal names….!

So Red Pine and a friend begin in Beijing and are told by both some officials and some “official monks” that there are no more hermits up there in those mountains. But they still go there, and by persistence and with good luck and with the willingness to venture into some rugged territory, they meet one hermit after another. They all tell him things aren’t what they used to be but they are getting better now that the government has lifted the ban on religious practice and allows monks and hermits. (So this is about 1990 and now there appears to be thousands of hermits up in those mountains and elsewhere–for example, Han-shan’s old stomping grounds were not these mountains but ones close to the southern coast, just about 30 miles from the ocean, and that too has its own hermit history.)

Some of these hermits are recent arrivals or only there for a few years; others have been living there for decades. There is this one famous quote from the book which makes you think of our Desert Fathers: “A Buddhist layman we met on the trail led us to a cave where an eighty-five-year-old monk had been living for the past fifty years. In the course of our conversation, the monk asked me who this Chairman Mao was whom I kept mentioning …. His practice was the name of the Buddha, Amitabha, Buddha of the Infinite. After so many mountains and so many hermits, we were finally feeling at home.”

Interesting that there are also many women hermits, by some estimates almost half the hermits are women! I once quoted one of these women hermits: “I won’t come down from this mountain until I know who I am.” Also interesting is that there is often a blending of Buddhism and Taoism (new spelling would be Daoism), though they also tend to their respective traditions. There is a whole controversy about the relationship of Chinese Buddhism to Taoism, but we won’t get into that here. Interesting also how universal the problems are in teaching monastic life to people today. Here is a Daoist master telling his story: “To find people who truly believe is the biggest problem we have. Taoism teaches us to reduce our desires and to lead quiet lives. People willing to reduce their desires or cultivate tranquility in this modern age are very few. This is the age of desire. Also, people learn much more slowly now. Their minds aren’t as simple. They’re too complicated.”


Here’s a lovely account of Red Pine meeting one of the women masters:

“One of the nuns at Lungwang Temple told us that Yuan-chao was living in an adobe hut on a small plateau that had been leveled off…. We followed the nun up the slope to Yuan-chao’s hut. She was sitting cross-legged on her k’ang, an adobe bed with a built-in oven….(!) As I walked in, she said, ‘You’re back. Good. Now we can talk. Last time I wasn’t sure. Now I know you’ve come back for the Dharma.’ I was glad I had made the effort to visit her again. She was eighty­-eight, but I’ve seldom talked with anyone as alert…. From my bag, I took out a sheet of calligraphy paper and asked if she would write down for me the essence of Buddhist practice. She put the paper aside, and I didn’t raise the subject again. Two months later, back in Taiwan, I received the sheet of paper in the mail with four words: goodwill, compassion, joy, detachment. Her calligraphy was as strong and clear as her mind.”


Red Pine tells us about Empty Cloud (love that name!), probably the most respected monk in modern Chinese history. He died in 1959 at the age of 120 during the period of repression. He lived in deep solitude in a very remote area of these mountains. But his reputation spread far and wide.


Then there’s this marvelous concluding account. Red Pine has returned to the big city of Xian and is visiting this obscure temple:

“The metal gate creaked. The front courtyard was deserted…. The temple buildings were old and in such sorry repair, I almost turned back. Past the inner courtyard, I went inside the main shrine hall. After lighting some incense and paying my respects, I noticed a small stone Buddha. The attendant told me it had been carved at the end of the fifth century. He also pointed out a T’ang dynasty painting of Kuan-yin. Incredible treasures for such a dilapidated temple. Just as I was leaving, several monks appeared at the door. When they asked me what I was doing, I told them I was visiting hermits. They laughed. One of them said, ‘Then you have come to the right place. We’re all hermits here.’ I couldn’t help but laugh too. The monk’s name was Ju-ch’eng. He was obviously the abbot, though he denied it–he said he was too dumb to be an abbot. Then he explained that Wolung Temple refused to have an official abbot. He said, ‘If we choose an abbot, he has to be approved by the government. We prefer to be left alone. That’s why we don’t fix up the temple. The government has offered us money to repair the buildings. But this is a Zen temple. We don’t need fancy buildings…. He told me there were fifty monks living at the temple. Two of them were in their eighties…. He said they got up every morning at three and didn’t go to sleep until shortly before midnight. They spent most of their waking hours on their meditation cushions. I asked Ju-ch’eng who their master had been, but I should have known the answer. He said, Empty Cloud. We talked for half an hour about Wolung Temple and about the Chungnan Mountains. The temple, he said, had four seventy-day meditation sessions every year. Then he started listing all the hermits he knew in the mountains. I knew all of them. I smiled and told him this was the first time I had met city hermits. He laughed, and so did I. And then I remembered the Chinese saying: ‘The small hermit lives on a mountain. The great hermit lives in a town.’ Having nothing left to say, I bowed and said good-bye.”





Shedding Some Light on Meditation

There is a spiritual teacher by the name of Lama Surya Das. I don’t know much about him except that he is an older Western spiritual seeker who has apparently achieved a certain mastery of meditation in one line of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He is connected to the Dalai Lama, and he also is very familiar with the Theravada meditation schools and the Zen of Japan. He has been a teacher of meditation for decades. Can’t vouch for him overall, but he does have sensible, incisive and wise things to say about meditation and its popularity in our culture. I saw an interview with him and here is one quote:

So many people seem to be moving narcissistically — conditioned by our culture, doubtless — into self-centered happiness-seeking and quietism, not to mention the use of mindfulness for mere effectiveness. True meditation generates wisdom and compassion, which may be very disquieting, at least in the short term.”

True, and it is amazing how easily any spiritual path can be absconded in a sense and used for purposes almost the opposite of what the path has as a goal. The “meditation movement” in our society is one of these phenomena. Meditation, abstracted from any religious or theological framework and devoid of real spiritual discipline, has become a kind of pop icon for “spirituality”–whatever that is. “Mindfulness” is a key term for a lot of these people, and it is a term that can be applied without any commitment to any religious way of life. Surya Das has some acerbic comments:

“Mindful divorce, mindful parenting, mindful TV. Why not mindful sniping, poaching, or mindful waiting to find the opportunity to take advantage of and exploit someone when there’s a chink in their armor?”

Mindfulness has become a tool for many New Agers and others to become more effective persons, whatever they are engaged in. I have also seen Buddhist meditation practice and Zen promoted as “practices” to enhance your capabilities as a businessperson, as a soldier, as a lover, as an artist, etc., etc. Whatever be the merits of such claims, the heart of the problem is that such an approach only reinforces the ego-identity and in fact inflates it even more so. Nothing like these expensive retreats where mostly it’s your ego that gets massaged–in addition to the rest of you!

Surya Das points to this problem, but he also is worried that only one kind of meditative practice is being pushed as “meditation,” which then discourages people who have a difficult time with this approach. Let’s have him explain this: “’Quiet your mind’ or ‘calm and clear your mind’ are instructions I hear way too much. Some teachers actually encourage people to try to stop thinking, when in fact meditative awareness means being mindful of thoughts and feelings, not simply trying to reduce, alter or white them out and achieve some kind of oblivion.”


It’s important to realize that even within one given religious tradition, like Buddhism, there can be some very real different approaches to the spiritual life and actual practices. It is no good to insist on one and the same approach for everyone. What Lama Surya Das teaches comes from one line of Tibetan Buddhism and it has a strong mental activity aspect to it (like visualizations). This is not everyone’s cup of tea, but then again neither is the silent Zen meditation; and to insist on one approach only is to frustrate a goodly number of spiritual seekers. Surya Das is wise in acknowledging that he is mainly trying to help people who have a hard time with the “silent” meditation approach.


And it is interesting that also within Christianity there is that same variety of approaches to the Divine Mystery. For some it is the words of Scripture pondered slowly and thoughtfully that lead one into the depths of an inner silence; for others it is the rosary; for many others it is a mantra of sorts, like the Jesus Prayer. Merton almost never wrote or spoke about his personal prayer life–except once in a letter to a Sufi friend in Pakistan. He spent a period of time both in the morning and in the evening doing what might be called meditation, but it definitely has this theological framework and very solidly rooted in the mystical tradition of Christianity. What is interesting here is how he explains it to his Sufi friend in terms that would connect to Sufi understanding and at the same time you sense hints here how he was benefitting from Zen and how he would later learn from the Tibetans. Let me quote him here:

“Now you ask about my method of meditation. Strictly speaking I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to His will and His love. That is to say that it is centered on faith by which alone we can know the presence of God. One might say this gives my meditation the character described by the Prophet as ‘being before God as if you saw Him.’ Yet it does not mean imagining anything or conceiving a precise image of God, for to my mind this would be a kind of idolatry. On the contrary, it is a matter of adoring Him as invisible and infinitely beyond our comprehension, and realizing Him as all. My prayer tends very much to what you call fana. There is in my heart this great thirst to recognize totally the nothingness of all that is not God. My prayer is then a kind of praise rising up out of the center of Nothing and Silence. If I am still present ‘myself’ this I recognize as an obstacle about which I can do nothing unless He Himself removes the obstacle. If He wills He can then make the Nothingness into a total clarity. If He does not will, then the Nothingness seems to itself to be an object and remains an obstacle. Such is my ordinary way of prayer, or meditation. It is not ‘thinking about’ anything, but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible, which cannot be found unless we become lost in Him who is Invisible.”


What Merton is describing is in a sense pure simplicity, but a simplicity that hides some unspeakable depths that can give one a kind of spiritual vertigo! Many probably would actually prefer a more “complicated” approach to prayer/meditation because it then seems to give the ego something to do. At some point in the spiritual life the simplicity that Merton describes is best–but be assured that is not so easily done or everyone’s way.