Dress Rehearsal for Rebirth

I recently went to a short retreat with Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu. The subject of the retreat was “awakening.” At the retreat, Ṭhānissaro described the death and rebirth process. Ṭhānissaro was almost electrocuted when he was 35 years old, so he had a near death experience. Thus, his description was from a first-hand experience, not just something that was handed down to him from the tradition.

Ṭhānissaro described four possible stages. In the first stage we see whatever things we hang on to from this life. For some people, this will be the only stage before they are reborn. If you have a lot of regret, the rebirth is not likely to be auspicious. The texts describe just such an event. Queen Mallika, who was the wife of King Pasenadi of Kosala, was a very virtuous woman, very sweet, kind, and selfless. However, she had committed an act of sexual indiscretion, and then she compounded the act by lying about it. When she died, this weighed on her mind. She was reborn in one of the hell realms.

However, because she was an otherwise virtuous person, she only spent seven days there. Then she was reborn in the Tusita heaven.

This story is reminiscent of the Buddha’s teachings on the Lump of Salt, in which the Buddha described how an otherwise virtuous person will have the occasional indiscretion absorbed like a lump of salt that is thrown into the Ganges. It will not affect the taste of the water. However, for the normally immoral person, it is like putting a lump of salt into a cup of water. That lump of salt will make the water undrinkable.

If you can let go of your earthly attachments, you enter the next stage. Here you think of all the kind and generous things that you did during your life. This may help you overcome any regret, and it prepares the mind for an auspicious rebirth.

The next stage is that you begin to cycle through the heavenly realms, seeing each one in turn. This is all happening very quickly. Think of times in your life when you flashed on something. These experiences are happening like that. Your mind is processing them at lightning speed. And as you cycle through seeing the heavenly realms, if you have an affinity for one of them, that is where you will be reborn. That is not such a bad thing. It is certainly better than being reborn in one of the lower realms.

However, if you can overcome any attachment or affinity for any of the heavenly realms, you may get the ultimate prize, and that is to escape the rounds of rebirth altogether. In that case you will awaken, and enter the realm of Nirvāṇa.

One of the things that struck me was how similar the first stage is to the Buddha’s instructions for meditation, where he says, “Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu abides contemplating the body as a body, ardent, fully aware, and mindful, having put away covetousness and grief for the world.”

“Putting away covetousness and grief for the world.”

How many times have you heard a meditation teacher give this instruction, or something like it? When you sit down to meditate, you must put aside any thoughts about worldly affairs. If you are concerned about your job, family, health, etc., you are not going to be able to settle the mind. And when we wish mettā for ourselves, that is akin to the second stage where we establish a mind that is happy and content. Finally, if we can enter jhāna, or at least get the mind quiet and somewhat serene, this is like entering a heavenly realm. The commentaries even tell us that there are heavenly realms that map to the jhānas.

What Ṭhānissaro’s story tells us is that our meditation can be a dress rehearsal for our death and subsequent rebirth. We can use the start of our meditation to let go of all of our earthly thoughts and attachments. We wish mettā for ourselves and then get the mind as quiet and serene as possible. Ultimately this practice may help us gain entry into one of the heavenly realms, or perhaps even attain awakening.

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Scholarship and Practice

I have written about this before, but it has come up again, and I think some of the points bear repeating. It has to do with scholarship vs practice in the Buddhist world.

I recently started to read an interview with a very prominent Buddhist monk. He is a self-described scholar. I am quite familiar with his work. For about two years all of my reading and study was with him. I read his books, did an online course with him, and I went to a ten-day retreat with him. He is certainly a nice enough person, and he is intellectually brilliant.

What I remember most about that time is two things. The first is that I learned a very good way to study the discourses. At some point I want to document that process. I am always encouraging people to read the discourses, and his way of analyzing them is, I think, very helpful. So that is on the positive side.

But on the negative side, at the retreat there was a young woman who I got to quite like. She is bright, creative and artistic, and very dedicated to Dharma practice and study. On the first or second day of the retreat, she was asking a lot of questions. And the monk got short-tempered with her and treated her, I thought, quite rudely.

Thich Nhat Hanh, who may be one of the sweetest people in the Buddhist world, says that everything that you do should be a Dharma talk. To be sure, I fall quite short of that. But I have been blessed to have teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, Larry Rosenberg, and Thanissaro Bhikkhu who don’t just talk the talk. They walk the walk. They embody the Dharma.

Inevitably when you go to a retreat, there will be people who will test your patience. This is exacerbated because of how raw your nerves can get during a silent retreat. But this is when we need to give the gift of patience and forbearance. This is especially true of our teachers.

I have been to so many retreats over the years that I can hardly even remember them all. And to be honest, I hardly remember anything that was said at those retreats. But I certainly remember if a teacher was harsh or mistreated someone.

To be sure, I am very grateful for some of the wonderful scholars who have brought the Dharma to the West. How could I not be? There are some extraordinary people who are a lot smarter than I who have learned how to study and translate the vast gift of Dharma literature that we have.

But to simply be a scholar and not aspire to something greater than that is, I think, terribly misguided. The Buddha was quite clear that he was not creating a philosophy or a religion or a description of ultimate reality. He described a path. It is a training. He defined our dilemma as being inevitably subjected to aging, sickness, and death. Nothing saves you from that fate. He found a way out, and he taught us how to follow that way out.

Think of it this way. Your car breaks down by the side of the road. Some kind person gives you a repair manual. You have two choices. You can read the manual, understand it as best you can, and try to fix the car.

Or you can study the manual. Maybe you will compare it to other manuals. You can write treatises on the manual, how it describes how to fix your car. You can debate alternative ways to describe fixing the car. You might even get a Ph.D. in writing car repair manuals. In any event, the car is still broken. You have not solved your basic problem.

When I talk to people about studying the Dharma, I encourage them not to get too hung up on trying to have a perfect understanding of every word. I think the way to read the discourses is simply to read them and understand them as best you can. But when you sit, keep it simple. Just sit.

One of the things that I found interesting when I researched my biography of the Buddha is that in the last 18 months or so of his life, almost every discourse he gave (except for one) had the same three themes: virtue (ethics and morality), concentration, and wisdom. This is particularly interesting given the emphasis on mindfulness in Buddhist today. But the Buddha emphasized concentration.

The way I have come to understand practice is this. When you read or study a discourse you are planting seeds in your subconscious. Perhaps you have had something like the following happen to you. You read something or you hear something in a talk, and much later, even years later, suddenly you understand it. It just pops into your head like one of those cartoon thought bubbles.

The practice of concentration creates fertile ground in which those seeds grow. The mind gets still, and then the subconscious has a chance to mull things over. This is how the creative mind works. You need to get the conscious, intellectual part of the mind to quiet down so the subconscious can do its work. This is why you can be struggling with a problem, and you put it down and go for a walk, and suddenly the solution appears to you.

When I started my career as a software engineer, I read about a technology called “b-trees.” Almost every database system in the world uses b-trees. And for a long time, I could not make any sense of them. Then suddenly one day it all seemed terribly obvious, and I could not understand why it took me so long to figure them out.

Practicing the Dharma is often like that. You take up a topic like dependent co-arising. That is a particularly tough one. But then over time, pieces of it begin to make sense. One day you catch yourself self-identifying with some mental phenomena, and you think “becoming.” It is a little startling when that happens. It should also be very gratifying. This is the practice working.

So back to the original point. The Dharma has very little meaning if it is not a way of life, a training, a way to become happier and a way to become more skillful. If it is a topic for study, that is missing the point. And if your only goal is to be a scholar, then that is all you will ever be. You will never attain the perfection of being an arahant. You will never be a teacher who can be infinitely patient and loving toward a student who is pestering you with a lot of questions. We only learn through questioning, and we can only learn from teachers who truly manifest the perfection of the Dharma.

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Love Trumps Hate

It never ceases to amaze me what a difficult and challenging path the Buddha’s way is. Our habits are so ingrained to look outward. But following the Buddha’s path is like being in a room full of mirrors. Even the ceiling and floor are mirrors. And no matter what direction you look, the reflection is always back to you.

The election this last week has sparked a lot of fear, anxiety and anger. There is a lot of uncertainty about the future. And we have seen a litany of anger, hate and fear mongering. It’s not pretty.

But the Buddha always told us to turn that outward looking back inwards. How do we respond to hate mongering? We do not have any control over what happens “out there.” If we cultivate good qualities, especially wisdom, we may hope to have some influence “out there” by the dignity of our conduct and speech. But that is the best we can hope to do. This is the way of the world.

So again and again we point our fingers out there and the Buddha gently tells us to turn that finger around and point to ourselves. Where is your mind? Is there fear? Why is that? To what are we attached? Are we attached to our sense of self? Are we attached to our opinions and views?

If we have anger, why is that? In one of his many poetic turns of phrase the Buddha advised us that the one time when killing is justified is when we kill anger:

“Having slain anger, one sleeps soundly;
Having slain anger, one does not sorrow;
The killing of anger, O brahmin,
With its poisoned root and honeyed tip:
This is the killing the noble ones praise,
For having slain that, one does not sorrow.”
– [SN 7.7.2]

Anger only leads to more anger. Only love Trumps hate. There was a demonstration against the results of the Presidential election this week in Albuquerque and some of the protestors turned ugly. They defaced and damaged property. Where is the benefit in that?

The future is, of course, uncertain. But it is always uncertain. We just delude ourselves into a false sense of stability. Once again, the problem isn’t out there. It is in our own hearts and minds.

No matter who the President is or how ugly the political and social situation is, our marching orders are the same. Cultivate compassion, love and wisdom. Guard your mind, speech and body. Be kind. Be generous. In times like this we may need a little more courage and strength. But if the Buddha’s way were easy anyone could do it.

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More Books

Books 6 & 7 in the Little Books on Buddhism series are now available on the Books tab. Book 6 is on rebirth. It has four sections. One is on whether the Buddha taught rebirth, the second one is on whether there is evidence for the truth of rebirth, the third is on whether it is necessary to believe in rebirth to Awaken, and the fourth is on the Buddhist cosmology.

Book 7 is on Awakening (Enlightenment). This was a very difficult book to write. The Buddha gave different descriptions of what it means to Awaken. And since nirvāṇa lies outside the dimensions of time and space you cannot use conventional language to describe it. In addition, the experience of Awakening is different for everyone. The exact path is not the same, although fundamentally the moment of Awakening is when the meditator sees into the truth of dependent co-arising. It is like the difference between reading about and seeing pictures of Macchu Picchu and going there and experiencing it for yourself. When you Awaken you see into the causal nature of existence. But getting the mind quiet enough and insightful enough to see that is not so easy. And our habits and conditions, which so strongly reinforce the idea of a permanent “self”, resist this insight.

I found myself resorting to the enigmatic language of Zen. If you take Zen Buddhism as described by Dogen and put it on top of a good understanding of the Pali Canon it all fits together. And the descriptions of Awakening from Zen offer some good pointers on the experience. But as the saying goes, even then you are only a finger pointing at the moon. You can only give hints about what it is like.

There will be one final book. Book 8 will be on Daily Living. It was an oversight on my part not to include it earlier. The Buddha said that he taught the Dhamma and Discipline. In the monastic world the Dhamma is the discourses and the study and practice of meditation. The Discipline is the Vinaya, the monastic code. In the lay world we have the Five Precepts. In most Buddhist countries lay people do not practice meditation, but they do follow the precepts. They also practice generosity by supporting the monks and nuns.

But in the West we have a more hybrid practice, and it is not always easy for lay people who meditate to bring the practice from the cushion into their daily lives. Further, we do not practice the Five Precepts and generosity as rigorously as they do in Asia. So Book 8 will try and address our unique Western flavor of lay practice. I am using the Vinaya as a basic source, and trying to see how the monastic code can be used as a basis for lay life. Some of what will be in Book 8 will simply be common sense, skillful ways of living that are consistent with what the Buddha taught. The goal is to bring together elements of monastic life into the sort of lay-monastic practice that we have in the West and to create a lay Vinaya, something that greatly expands on the Five Precepts.

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Learned Helplessness

I just got an email from one of my very dearest Dharma sisters. I met her in India and her friendship has been one of the great blessings of my life. I know that I have said this before and I do not mean to beat it to death (well, maybe a little), but other than Enlightenment itself there is nothing more precious in life than “good friendship in the holy life,” as the Buddha put it.

On of the things she wrote me is this:

“So often folks tell me that Buddhism removes people from emotions and ‘real life’, puts them in a sort of happy trance…”

I just had to smile. My first reaction was that there are all these unhappy, stressed out, neurotic people in the world. OK. Got that. But, as the infomercials say, Wait! There’s more! We want you to be unhappy, stressed out and neurotic, too.

Of course, that would be a very unkind thing to say to someone, but that is how it feels. Misery loves company.

There is a phenomenon in psychology called “learned helplessness.” One of the most famous experiments involved dogs who were put into a box from which they could not escape, and given electric shocks. Because there was no way for the dogs to escape from the box, they learned that the shocks were “inevitable.” Then those dogs were put into a box with a low partition. They could escape the shocks simply by jumping over it. But because they had learned from the first box that there was “no escape,” they did not leave the box. They just stayed there and accepted the pain.

The Buddha, through his extraordinary effort and compassion, found a way out of our dilemma. He found a path whereby we can be happier, more useful people, and then he spent 45 years teaching that path. Admittedly the operating manual is, as I like to say, rather long. But if you do not like to suffer and be stressed out, it is all there.

It seems self-evident that no one would want to suffer, be unhappy and stressed out. Then there is the bonus, and that is that by being happier, wiser and more skillful in life you are more useful. You are at least not adding to the world’s misery, and on a good day you can make it a little better.

I suppose one thing to say is, “Do you like being stressed out?”

Then again, there are those dogs who just won’t leave the box.

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I recently heard someone use the word “ego” at a meditation group. I had not heard that in a while and it got me to thinking.

It is unfortunate that the word has come into common use in Western Buddhism. My guess is that when Zen and Tibetan Buddhism came to the West, the Buddhist teachers found something in common with Western psychology. So they adapted the use of the word “ego” as a way of expressing the Buddha’s teachings on self and non-self to a Western audience. At the time it probably felt quite skillful. Here was a way in which they could relate the Buddha’s teachings to a new culture.

What makes that unfortunate, however, is that an ego, by definition, is a thing. If we think in terms of an ego, we turn what the Buddha described as a process – a chain of causes and effects – into an object. We are doing exactly what the Buddha told us not to do, and that is to take that chain of causes and effects and turn it into something substantial, a kind of self.

By objectifying this process, we give it life. And by turning it into the bad guy we set up an adversarial relationship with a concept. The concept of an ego is just that, a concept. And as Ajahn Lee says, concepts are just shadows that cross the mind. They are illusions, and further they are illusions that we create. We fabricate this notion of an ego, and create yet another way to suffer.

The Buddha clearly stated that there are no things, just processes:

“Good, bhikkhus. So you say thus, and I also say thus: ‘When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises.’” – [MN 38.19]

This is the Buddha’s simplest expression of dependent co-arising. It applies, in fact, to the whole of existence. Everything that comes to be is the result of causes and conditions. And it is our attachment to the transient processes of body and mind that causes a great deal of suffering. This is the teaching on non-self. And when we relate it to the whole of existence, it is emptiness.

It is actually easier to deal with this attachment if we do not empower it by calling it an “ego.” It is simply an impersonal process of causes and effects. If anger arises and there is a decision to act on it, then the result is likely to be unwholesome. There is no “I” or “me”. There is simply this cause and effect. And if the unskillful cause is seen and there is a choice not to react to it, then the result is wholesome. This is how the mind is trained. And there does not have to be shame or guilt or self-loathing because there is no one to feel the shame, guilt or self-loathing. There is just this.

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The More Things Change… and Dogen

I have spent the better part of the last 20 years of my Buddhist life immersed in the Pali Canon. We are so blessed to have good translations of the Pali Canon in English. I always encourage people to at least read the Majjhima Nikaya. Yes, it is tough going. It took me a year to work my way through it the first time. But little by little you will see for yourself what the Buddha taught. His world will open up to you.

But now that I have a feel for the Buddha’s discourses I have become interested in what came later. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu is enamored of Dogen, the great Japanese Zen Master, so I started reading a little about him and his life. And even in a short period of time I discovered that the more things change the more they stay the same.

There are two parts of Dogen’s life that I find particularly compelling. The first is his initial training and how he became disillusioned with it.

Dogen entered a monastery when he was young. It was a monastery of the Tendai School of Buddhism, which was the mainstream school in Japan. But eventually he came to feel that a) no one there could teach him how to Awaken and b) there was a lot of social infighting in order to gain status, especially with the Abbot.

So let’s just stop there for a moment and look at those two phenomena.

A friend of mine is in a long-term program at a noted Buddhist center (resort?). And after the first retreat in that program she noted that a number of the people there seemed mainly interesting in becoming visible so they could gain favor with the famous teacher at the center. And I got the feeling that they did not mind climbing over a few fellow Dharma practitioners in order to do that. I am sure it is this way at a lot of centers. And that is what Dogen found at Mount Hiei.

As to the other of Dogen’s complaints, I can start with a comment that I have made before. It took me a long time to realize that there are not many people who aspire to Awakening, especially in the Vipassana world. That does not mean that their agendas are completely flawed. If you use meditation to become a happier, more useful person that is a noble aspiration. It is certainly better than not doing it. But at a certain point a community that avoids the issue of Awakening becomes a hindrance to anyone who wants to Awaken. They actually drag you down. And I am pretty sure that is what Dogen ran into at Mount Hiei, and why eventually he left.

Now we fast forward in time to the end of Dogen’s life. He was sick and dying so he turned his monastery, the legendary Eihei-ji, over to his best student, Koun Ejō, and Koun’s responsibilities to his disciples Senne and Gien. However, Koun had competition from students of another teacher,  Darumashū. Daramashū’s students did not recognize Koun’s authority. And according to Ṭhānissaro, Daramashū had more or less gotten his Dharma transmission by mail from another teacher, and his Dharma understanding was not very deep.

Koun also had trouble with another of Dogen’s students, Tettsū Gikai. Tettsū wanted to reintroduce parts of the practice that Dogen specifically rejected. Further, even Dogen noted Tettsū’s lack of compassion for his other students.

So the short version of the story is that Zen from there onward was just not what it had been under Dogen. This happened in Buddhism as a whole, which as why I encourage people to read the Majjhima Nikaya. This gets you back to the original teachings. And those teachings are often in conflict with what Dharma teachers are telling you. This corruption also happened in Zen, which is why you have to go back to Dogen to understand Soto Zen.

Now we flip to the present. I know of several instances where quite knowledgable, serious practitioners were forced out of meditation groups by people who have aggressive personalities. People often gravitate towards people who are like that. We see it in the Republican Party at the moment. Even when the person running the show is toxic, there is this allure of strength. So it is not so different from what Koun, Senne and Gien faced. And they did not live very long after Dogen died, so that was pretty much that.

The path to Awakening is a long and winding road. It is full of pitfalls. And I think this is one reason why the Buddha emphasized conviction in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Three Jewels are sometimes the only things you can safely rely on:

At Sāvatthī. “Bhikkhus, there are these four streams of merit, streams of the wholesome, nutriments of happiness. What four?

“Here, bhikkhus, a noble disciple possesses confirmed confidence in the Buddha thus: ‘The Blessed One is … teacher of devas and humans, the Enlightened One, the Blessed One.’ This is the first stream of merit, stream of the wholesome, nutriment of happiness.

“Again, bhikkhus, a noble disciple possesses confirmed confidence in the Dhamma thus: ‘The Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One … to be personally experienced by the wise.’ This is the second stream of merit.…

“Again, bhikkhus, a noble disciple possesses confirmed confidence in the Saṅgha thus: ‘The Saṅgha of the Blessed One’s disciples is practising the good way … the unsurpassed field of merit for the world.’ This is the third stream of merit.…

“Again, householder, the instructed noble disciple possesses the virtues dear to the noble ones, unbroken … leading to concentration. This is the fourth stream of merit.…

“These are the four streams of merit, streams of the wholesome, nutriments of happiness.”

–  [SN 55.31] Streams of Merit

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The Buddha’s Teachings on Rebirth

I have noted a number of times that I have been working on a book on rebirth. The eBook versions of that are now available on the Books tab. It is “The Little Book of Buddhist Rebirth.”

Every one of these books has a life of its own. This one is unique in that it moves beyond basic and advanced meditation practice and into the realm of the transcendent. Most people will never practice in this way, at least those who do “mindfulness practice” and “Vipassana practice.” That is fine, but for those who want to fully exploit the Buddhist path, this book lays the groundwork. It is the foundation for the next book which will be on Awakening, becoming free from suffering, and going to the realm that is beyond time and space.

Also, let me add a logistical note. These books end up in all the usual places eventually. That includes Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Apple Store, and so forth. It takes a while for the publishers – who are Smashwords for the ePub version, Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for the Kindle version, and Createspace for the print version – to get everything into distribution. Plus, because the eBook versions are free it takes me a week or two to get Amazon to price match the Kindle version to be free. (You have to publish to KDP at a price that is not free then show them it is free on Barnes & Noble to get them to make it free.) So that is the process.

The previous books are all out in regular distribution channels. I put them on the Books tab for your convenience. And some of you have noticed that I always point you to Smashwords for the ePub version. That is because Smashwords is a great site, they provide a wonderful author friendly service, and they do not make any money from my books. So I try to give them a little free publicity by pointing you there.

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I am not sure that Buddhism will ever again see the kind of glory that it saw in the heyday of the Silk Road. And unfortunately some of the most spectacular and humbling sites from that era have been destroyed. The most recent of these is the Buddhas of Bamiyan that were destroyed by the Taliban in March of 2001.

Yet throughout Asia there are astonishing places that show a reverence and devotion to the Buddha that make one take pause and reflect on the enormity of the Buddha’s accomplishment and the subsequent reverence for that accomplishment. There are many of these remote and remarkable sites. There are the Ajanta Caves in India. There are the Caves of Dunhuang in China. And there are the Mysterious Caves of Mustang (pronounced “moo-STAHNG”) in Nepal. In all of these places remote mountain caves are the repositories of beautiful Buddhist art that bows to the great accomplishment of the Buddha, his reverence for life, and his compassion for all beings.

In the West we live in a secular society. We do not like to bow to the accomplishments of greater beings. We do not like to bow at all.

But what the Buddha did was enormous. It is beyond our greatest comprehension. Our opinions and ideology in the face of that accomplishment are trivial, like mice nipping at the heels of great elephants.

I have been to so many retreats where people of arrogance and haughtiness question the teachings of the Buddha. They think that their opinions are greater than what the Buddha experienced directly.

I think this is where we can all use a lesson in humility. Do we really think that we know more than the Buddha? Of course, it is very un-Buddhist to accept doctrine simply because someone tells us. We have to see it for ourselves. But the Buddha taught a path that does just that. He taught a way of living that lets us see. And if we are diligent enough and sincere enough then we can see what he saw. That is the transcendent, universal nature of existence.

The path of laziness is to bow to our opinions, to bow to our arrogance, and to bow to our self-absorption. The path of wisdom is to bow to our ignorance, to selflessly and diligently follow the path that the Buddha taught, and to realize it for ourselves. This is the path of compassion, love, and wisdom.

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Rebirth and the Thicket of Views

I am writing a book on rebirth and the Buddhist cosmology. Rebirth is quite a hot topic in Western Buddhism. I think that it is safe to say that most Western Buddhists do not accept the doctrine of rebirth. That is fine. It does not have to be a hindrance to practice at a certain point. To be honest, I did not think about rebirth much for about the first 15 years of my practice.

But beyond that certain point it does become important. And this is where we have to confront our opinions, our cultural conditioning, and what the Buddha called “attachment to views.”

In the Buddha’s teaching, attachment to views is one of the great hindrances to Awakening. We often hear that clinging is one of the causes of suffering, but the Buddha was specific about what types of clinging lead to suffering:

Bhikkhus, when a Tathāgata, accomplished and fully enlightened, claims to propound the full understanding of all kinds of clinging, he completely describes the full understanding of all kinds of clinging: he describes the full understanding of clinging to sensual pleasures, clinging to views, clinging to rules and observances, and clinging to a doctrine of self. – [MN 11.14]

The types of clinging to which the Buddha referred are:

  1. Sense pleasures
  3. Rules (“Rites”) and observances (“rituals”)
  4. A doctrine of self

In modern parlance we might refer to the attachment to views as opinions. Opinions are what we have when we don’t know something.

I was very blessed to have a career as a software engineer because when I was young I had a lot of opinions. But computers, as I like to say, are coldly indifferent to your opinions. Something either works or it doesn’t. So despite my stubbornness, I was forced to (mostly) adopt a fact-based view of life. This is very helpful in Dharma practice.

Sadly, in our modern society we have elevated opinions to deified status. I read earlier this year that an ESPN executive said that they specifically hire people for their opinions, not for their ability to be objective or report facts. Wow.

I even know someone – and this is an intelligent, educated person – who says that everyone has an opinion about everything. He thinks this is a good thing.

But sadly it gets worse, and this is a phenomenon that all inward looking people should know. Psychologists at the University of Michigan have studied and identified what they call “backfire.” This is when someone is presented with facts that refute their opinion. Instead of having the wished for effect of loosening their opinion, they actually become more adamant and deeply entrenched:

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.” – [“How ideas backfire”, Boston Globe, July 11, 2010]

So how does this relate to us as Buddhist practitioners?

As Westerners we come to the Dharma with a lot of cultural conditioning. Most of us believe that God created the heavens and the earth, that when we die we go to heaven or hell for eternity. Or, if we are philosophical materialists, we believe that when we die, we die, and that is all there is.

The Buddha famously rejected both of these views. As for philosophical materialism, he said this:

Here, Sandaka, some teacher holds such a doctrine and view as this: ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed; no fruit or result of good and bad actions; no this world, no other world; no mother, no father; no beings who are reborn spontaneously; no good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have themselves realised by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other world. A person consists of the four great elements. When he dies, earth returns and goes back to the body of earth, water returns and goes back to the body of water, fire returns and goes back to the body of fire, air returns and goes back to the body of air; the faculties pass over to space. [Four] men with the bier as fifth carry away the corpse. The funeral orations last as far as the charnel ground; the bones whiten; burnt offerings end with ashes. Giving is a doctrine of fools. When anyone asserts the doctrine that there is [giving and the like], it is empty, false prattle. Fools and the wise are alike cut off and annihilated with the dissolution of the body; after death they do not exist.’ – [MN 76.7]

This is a nihilistic view, and includes a belief that our actions do not have consequences. However, increasingly science, which is often at the root of philosophical materialism, is at odds with itself on this issue:

In his latest book, Return to Life, due out this month, Tucker details some of the more compelling American cases [of rebirth] he’s researched and outlines his argument that discoveries within quantum mechanics, the mind-bending science of how nature’s smallest particles behave, provide clues to reincarnation’s existence.

“Quantum physics indicates that our physical world may grow out of our consciousness,” Tucker says. “That’s a view held not just by me, but by a number of physicists as well.” – [“The Science of Reincarnation”, Virginia Magazine, Sean Lyons, Winter 2013]

The opposite view is probably more common, and that is the view that when we die we live forever. This is what the Buddha called “eternalism”:

When he attends unwisely in this way, [this] view arises in him…

‘It is this self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions; but this self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.’ – [MN 2.8]

The Buddha went on to say famously:

This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views. Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say. – [MN 2.8]

So where does this leave us?

It would be very un-Buddhist to ask anyone to accept a doctrine just because the Buddha said it. In fact, I cannot think of anything more un-Buddhist. Buddhist practice is all about experiencing truth for ourselves. That is the whole point of the training. The Buddha himself said as much:

If any recluses and brahmins, without knowing the past and without seeing the future, yet claim: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being,’ they can be reasonably confuted. – [MN 80.16]

He then went on to say this:

Rather, let the past be, Kaccāna, and let the future be. Let a wise man come, one who is honest and sincere, a man of rectitude. I instruct him, I teach him the Dhamma in such a way that by practising as instructed he will soon know and see for himself: ‘Thus, indeed, there rightly comes to be liberation from the bond, that is, from the bond of ignorance.’

The Buddha often emphasized the importance of honesty. I first heard this many years ago, and since that time I have come to understand what the Buddha meant by honesty in a different way. Honesty has, I think, at least the inference of being open to the truth. Inwardly this means being open to the truth about yourself. And I think that in general meditators do this very well, at least after some practice. It is very hard to sit on the cushion hour after hour and lie to yourself about yourself.

But it also means being open to the ultimate truth of how things are. This requires humility. And that is a quality that is in very short supply in our culture. We love our opinions, and we hate to be wrong.

But “being wrong” is also a way of learning and growing. If we think of it in this way we can embrace it.

When the Wright Brothers were discouraged by their experiments at Kitty Hawk in 1901, they went back to the drawing board. They did 100-200 experiments on wing designs in a wind tunnel of their own design. They painstakingly created lift tables that are so accurate that it was not until the 1960’s that they could be bested, and then only by some trailing decimal points. And by the way, it was their sister Katherine who stubbornly would not let them give up. Sometimes being stubborn is a good thing.

This is how to make “being wrong” a good thing. The Buddha taught many things that are counter-intuitive. But in my personal experience it is worth considering them as possibilities, and then diligently practicing so we can see them for ourselves. But if you refuse to even consider them, even in some subtle way such as feigned agnosticism, you can never realize them for yourself.

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