Thursday, December 17, 2009

Zennists, Materialism, and some Wild Fox

Everybody's favorite Buddhist text man, The Zennist, has an interesting post worth checking out today. The crux of it comes in the following paragraphs:

For a number of years I have been aware of the infiltration of materialism into Buddhism. It appears in the form of “no-self” or, for example, the questioning of rebirth and karma, or getting in bed with neuroscience which, I would argue, seems bent on a quest to reduce all psychical processes to little strands of molecules.

All this, incidentally, is the result of a serious failure of many modern Buddhists and scholars to read the canon correctly having beforehand (and I would suspect in a trance) put on blinkers to make sure they can’t read Buddhism any other way than being a form of materialism!

I can hear the groans now. More heady zen! Time for a cup of tea. I can dig it; sometimes it's me heading for that cup of tea. But I also think the above is worth considering at some point.

I like science. Some of the research being done on meditation and yoga is very fascinating, and I'm all for more awareness and intelligence when it comes to the human body. We should know our house better, don't you think?

But isn't there also, behind a lot of scientific work, a desire to pin things down, to have fixed answers about life?

And isn't it also true that the very methods of science, especially reproducible results, kind of fly against the basic teaching that life is constantly changing, and that it's folly to hope for things to stay the same?

Maybe I'm missing something. No matter what, I'd never argue to toss science out the door. It's a valid method of learning and understanding. But I have some questions about the heavy reliance on scientific results many of us seem to have.

The Zennist also brings up the questioning of the laws of karma and rebirth as an issue. It's the kind of issue that feels like taking off your boots before stepping into the swamp - a lot of us would just rather avoid it all together. Some just accept it without questioning that karma and rebirth exist. Others see it as a tack on Buddhist teaching that can be tossed off and forgotten about. Both of those positions seem faulty in my opinion.

The Buddha constantly reminded his students to try the teachings out, to not just accept or reject in your head. So, doesn't it seem like we have to, if we're serious about our practice, reflect on karma and rebirth?

Well, here's the infamous Wild Fox Koan from The Gateless Gate collection. Enjoy the ride!

Every time Baizhang, Zen Master Dahui, gave a dharma talk, a certain old man would come to listen. He usually left after the talk, but one day he remained. Baizhang asked, "Who is there?"

The man said, "I am not actually a human being. I lived and taught on this mountain at the time of Kashyapa Buddha. One day a student asked me, 'Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?' I said to him, 'No, such a person doesn't.' Because I said this I was reborn as a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. Reverend master, please say a turning word for me and free me from this wild fox body." Then he asked Baizhang, "Does a person who practices with great devotion still fall into cause and effect?"

Baizhang said, "Don't ignore cause and effect."

Immediately the man had great realization. Bowing, he said, "I am now liberated from the body of a wild fox. I will stay in the mountain behind the monastery. Master, could you perform the usual services for a deceased monk for me?"

Baizhang asked the head of the monks' hall to inform the assembly that funeral services for a monk would be held after the midday meal. The monks asked one another, "What's going on? Everyone is well; there is no one sick in the Nirvana Hall." After their meal, Baizhang led the assembly to a large rock behind the monastery and showed them a dead fox at the rock's base. Following the customary procedure, they cremated the body.

That evening during his lecture in the dharma hall Baizhang talked about what had happened that day. Huangbo asked him, "A teacher of old gave a wrong answer and became a wild fox for five hundred lifetimes. What if he hadn't given a wrong answer?"

Baizhang said, "Come closer and I will tell you." Huangbo went closer and slapped Baizhang's face. Laughing, Baizhang clapped his hands and said, "I thought it was only barbarians who had unusual beards. But you too have an unusual beard!"


Richard Harrold said...

Interestingly, I've been contemplating similar thought trails. I was really "geeked" about the site Buddhist Geeks and think the podcasts are quite cool. But lately, I'm viewing more as entertainment rather than serious inquiry. Why? Just seems to me to be a lot of simsapa leave I don't need to mess with. While it's very cool to think about how the brain handles the notion of self, does this information lead me to the end of suffering? Does it help me follow the path that will lead me to the end of suffering? Will knowing the answer lead me to release?

Nathan said...

Hi Richard,

I like the Buddhist Geeks and they've done some good work. I did see those three recent podcasts on neuroscience, though, and haven't bothered to listen for similar reasons to what you mentioned. I like it when they've interviewed teachers addressing issues in practice, or when they've discussed a topic as a group. The archives are worth checking out for some of this stuff.


Unknown said...

Neuroscience is making fascinating leaps and bounds - plenty of material for me to geek out on. Especially thought-provoking are some of the implications of mirror neurons “that fire not only as we perform a certain action but when we watch someone else perform that action (” What happens when what was once simply something we sensed and took for granted becomes "scientific fact?" Neuroscientists could be seen as fruitlessly attempting to etch in stone what can only be ripples in the great and ever-changing mystery, yet I’m affectionate toward scientists, who observe and love creation in their odd way. Humor me and compare, for a moment, a new scientific discovery entering mainstream media to a page falling from an ancient text amid a group of students: the group looks at the page together, thus what is probably a fresh twist on an old concept has entered the dialogue of the group. We are learning. I see nothing wrong or right about seeking a physical explanation. The important thing for me to remember is that the wisdom of our many ancient teachers is in no way threatened by science, nor needs physical explanation to be valid and to guide us to more vibrant living.

Nathan said...

Hi Eliza,

I definitely didn't mean to sound dismissive of science, and am also interested in neuroscience as well. It's most important to me that both science and spiritual wisdom can share space, and are not considered enemies. My post was pointing at the tendency for people in science-heavy societies to accept new research uncritically, or to simply dismiss the same work as irrelevant.

I don't see scientific work as fruitless by any means, but sometimes the conclusions drawn limit us in false ways if we accept those conclusions as final answers.


seanrobsville said...

Buddhism versus Materialism

Marguerite Manteau-Rao said...

I am with you, Nathan, and the Zennist also . . . Neuroscientists' efforts to pin down "happiest man in the world" did it for me. Our Western culture's need to quantify, acquire, materialize really knows no bound.

Back to the Dharma, and just sitting, and paying attention to breath . . . Traveling on the path, without trying to accomplish anything in particular, other than being mindful, and compassionate.

Anonymous said...

I believe that there are neuroscientists who are able to maintain a sense of sacredness and mystery, even as they delve into neural substrates and meditation. Often they are meditators themselves, and I've heard a number of them through the Mind/Life dialogues.

But I also agree that there is a tendency among scientists, perhaps inherent in the paradigm of the physical sciences (and to a lesser degree as well in the social sciences), to reduce everything to its smallest component and thereby miss the grandeur of the bigger picture.

I once wrote a report called "A Powerful Silence: The Role of Meditation and Mindfulness in American Society" and ended it with these paragraphs:

"...these developments [the widespread use of meditation and scientific studies of it] have resulted in a demystification and democratization of contemplative practices. Demystification can have many positive consequences. In any field, it describes the process of taking a body of knowledge that has traditionally been perceived to be "owned" by an elite group and beyond the understanding of "ordinary" people, and reclaiming it...

And yet, demystification literally implies that mystery is removed. In this midst of this process, how can we remember that the essential role of contemplative practices has been to help guide us through the great mysteries of life: questions of life, death, meaning, suffering? What might it mean that these practices are, as Paul Gorman reminds us, a path to liberation? And how do we reconcile these decidedly immeasurable concepts with our society's need to measure and quantify? These may well be the great challenges for contemporary practitioners of the contemplative disciplines."