Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Heart-Mind Split in Modern American Buddhism

This will be an incomplete post. One that isn't really polished or backed up with links or really specific examples. I just plan on writing and seeing what comes forth on a topic I've been wrestling with for a while now.

When I look out at the American Buddhist landscape these days, I see two camps have formed, around which rallying flags seem to be quite vigorously shaking.

The first camp is the majority from what I can tell. It's overriding tenants are the following:

1. Practice and the teachings are focused on our individual, every day lives, with a particular focus on emotional states and psychological experiences.

2. Enlightenment or awakening is downplayed, or even eliminated all together.

3. In general, intellectual engagement with the teachings and/or practice is also downplayed. In fact, there's often a deep - if almost unconscious - disposition against intellectual understandings or approaches to the dharma and practice forms. Thinking, in other words, is an enemy to practice/understanding, even when there are direct teachings brought in to counter judgements around thinking.

4. There's a fair amount of openness to more intangible parts of spiritual life and the teachings, such as karma, rebirth, a belief in spirits or underlying energy patterns, etc. However, along with this openness seems to often come a New Agey looseness or lack of grounding. In other words, people say things like "It's my karma" without having any real understanding of what the teachings around karma actually are, and/or how that might actually unfold in their lives. The more extreme members of this camp sometimes sound like fundamentalist Christians, replacing concepts like "God's will" or "Jesus will save us" with karma or reincarnation. When folks speak of the "Protestantization of Buddhism," this is one form of that.

5. The majority of the time, using the teachings and/or practices to address social issues, various forms of oppression, or anything collectively outside of the immediate sangha is simply off the table. Or only considered briefly before returning to our individual challenges.

On the flip side, the other camp (which I see as, in part, a reaction to the first one), has the following characteristics:

1. A heavy focus on that which is empirically "provable." For these folks, science, human reason, and intellectual debate/rigor are the pinnacle. Some of these folks seem to be straight materialists. Others perhaps are agnostic on elements of Buddhist teaching/practice that aren't easily pinned down, or which require faith in some form or another.

2. Along those lines, things like karma, rebirth, even faith in practice to some degree are not only rejected, but often are fiercely argued against. Beyond that, I saw a discussion online recently about the scientific research being done around meditation practice. And for some folks, nothing short of rigorous and repeatable double blind studies was worth considering when it comes to speaking about the potential "benefits" or "impacts" of meditation practice. In these discussions, I saw the hard science/soft science distinction come up a few times, with attendant dismissals of things like case studies as "not real science."

3. Deep textual study and intellectual research + debate are hallmarks of strong practice for these folks. Whereas folks in the first camp talk a lot about being compassionate in a general sense, these folks strive to get really clear and precise about what it means to be compassionate according to the Buddhadharma. In addition, I'd say that the push to strip away traditional forms and rituals (chanting, bowing, robes, statues, etc.) is driven more by these folks than people from the first camp.

4. This group seems much more open to discussing and focusing on social issues. However, it sometimes seems like it's mostly as part of an overall intellectual project that doesn't really extend into actually doing anything concretely in the world. Other than produce lots of documents and discussions.

5. Sometimes, it really difficult to locate the individual, living, breathing, feeling person in the worldview these folks offer. Whereas there seems to be a lot of heart, but not much mind present in the first camp, the second camp is almost the reverse.

In offering this, I'm well aware that few fall completely or neatly into either group. However, the overall split I'm presenting here - which perhaps could be called a "Heart-Mind Split" - feels deeply palpable to me. And also troubling. Because neither camp offers anywhere near a full, holistic expression of the dharma. Both have something vital to offer the other side, and yet both seem pretty convinced that they have THE truth, and that the other side is deluded or lacking in some manner or another.

So, that's what I have to offer today. A sketch. Perhaps a bit of a straw man one at that, but still useful I think. What do you make of all this?


Robyn said...

Hi Nathan, Must say that your description doesn't ring true to my own experience. Feel like training in the MRO is neither a vague "let's talk about our feelings" situation nor too heavily laden with academic study. In fact, I think there is a very considered balance between emphasis on the actual experience of zazen and how it translates into everyday life and serious study of the sutras and Dogen's work. I think the teachers are quite good at pointing out when someone gets too far in either direction. But, you know, I am biased : )

I will say that I do see a lot of what you describe in your first category reflected in most of the larger Buddhist publications. I sort of get why..the reality of Zen training, or Buddhist practice in general, would scare a lot of people away if there wasn't some element of feel-good in it, at least at first.

I so wish this was not the case but I am becoming more and more convinced that it is. In both instances that you cite - the practitioner is trying to find the escape hatch and not stay with what is uncomfortable, whether it is feelings or a lack of understanding. Why is it so difficult to be with the discomfort of not knowing? I am not asking that rhetorically or as someone who IS comfortable with it! I get why people would want to create some ground to rest on...believe me...I get it! But I am so grateful to have a teacher who gives me a good, hard push every time I try to do that.

Not sure if this is helpful....but it is the view from here.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

It rings true to my experience, Nathan.

Jundotreeleaf said...

Heart-Mind Not One Not Two.

Gassho, Jundo

Nathan said...


I'm actually glad your experience seems different than those two camps. That's a plus in my book :)

In my sangha, our teaching staff certainly make an effort to balance intellectual study with "everyday life" discussions. We also have retained more of the ritual and liturgical elements than some of the other local zen centers.

What's interesting is that as the teaching leadership has shifted from a charismatic man running the show to a team of mostly female teachers, a fair number of the clearly "2nd camp folks" have left. But because the teaching staff has tried to maintain a balance between some of the elements from both camps, the community hasn't shifted to the other extreme. Still, there's probably more camp 1 energy than camp 2 energy from what I see.

"In both instances that you cite - the practitioner is trying to find the escape hatch and not stay with what is uncomfortable, whether it is feelings or a lack of understanding."

Yes! This makes a lot of sense to me. I also agree with you that actual Buddhist practice and living - as opposed to sanitized fragments or half measures - is pretty scary.

From my experience, not knowing brings up all sorts of questions and fears. Who am I? Where am I? Am I good enough? Will I be rejected by whatever group I'm in for not knowing? A whole lot of "I" stuff! It's much easier to not go there. To either soothe it all away, or build elaborate philosophical constructs to cover it over.

yeti said...

Nathan I dig your blog and dig this post. You asked what do I make of it? Well, as you said, it is somewhat incomplete. I am being honest (and hopefully supportive) when I say I think you need go further than this, maybe expand upon the camps and categories of Western zennists; and from this go deep, deep, deep into the whys and wherefores. Only then I think will you have finished what you set out to do in this post.

As to the heart mind thing, I do have a specific comment, which is the Hsin Hsin Ming was to my view an attempt to refocus practice away from China's intellectualization of Zen and more toward intuitive realization. So I would point to that wonderful poem.

But I think without that intuitive development, which comes only from dhyana (in this lifetime or another one, perhaps), and which cannot be tricked or coerced, the attempts to intellectualize Buddha's teachings will fall awry either in egoic self absorption, the eagerness to be right and thereby substantiate emptiness, or simple misunderstanding the parts and the whole.

But I will add one thing from the old ways: never underestimate a beginner or someone who is befuddled along the way, caught up in this or that trap we have perhaps already transcended. Small lizards can grow to enormous dragons. Likewise we should not retreat from our practice, thinking we have it mastered, because then surely we will increase our offenses.

Nathan said...

Hi Yeti,

Thanks for the comments. I felt like trying to put down some of what I was seeing when I put this post up, knowing that I wasn't "there yet" in terms of depth.

We studied the Hsin Hsin Ming at zen center a few years ago, and I chanted it almost daily for several months. Your comment definitely makes me want to return to it.

More later. I have to head offline right now.

Junkstylediva said...

Hello Nathan,

I think I understand where you are coming from. I too read different articles about scientific studies about the effects of meditation and of course, mindfulness 2.0.

If that is all I had to go by, I would think Zen philosophy/teachings have been hi-jacked by capitalist ventures, but I read many writings by everyday people, looking to figure things out, asking questions, etc. and I see a different story.

Challenging ones beliefs is a scary thing. I understand why many choose to accept whatever dogma is given to them and go with that.

I do believe we are in a paradigm shift though, where old ways are being challenged by the new generation. They are asking the questions and refusing to just go along with the old rules.

I see it with spiritual thinking and political thinking. They seem to be more open to new ideas. Maybe because technology allows them to meet people from different cultures they would never had met before.

We are always growing and changing our beliefs, but there are some (many) who want to move through life without thinking about anything of substance, until maybe they have a crisis?

I look forward to reading more of your thoughts...

Nathan said...

"I do believe we are in a paradigm shift though, where old ways are being challenged by the new generation. They are asking the questions and refusing to just go along with the old rules."

I agree with this. In some ways, the folks offering a heavy, Western intellectual focus with a stripping away of everything they deem "superstitious" or mere ritual are part of this new generation. They're using an old colonialist mindset, but it seems like a lot more folks are writing/practicing in this manner than a generation or two ago.

The truly new approaches that do seem to be arising are mostly under the mainstream radar at this point. You have too make an effort to read a lot, talk to a lot of folks, listen and pay attention.

That's definitely the case when it comes to politics and social issues. We're all still painted as either liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, when the reality is that constructs are falling apart, and really only being held up by the control of the elite and the continued fear of the majority of the populace. It's not quite the same situation in American Buddhism - which already is a diverse pool of schools and independents, despite the heavy presence of these two camps. But some of the same issues are present.

Sometimes, I envision the old shell cracking apart one day as the critical mass of something new spreads forth. On the whole works of society.