Sunday, September 29, 2013

Is There a Problem with Buddhism?

Below is my response to Brad Warner who posed the above question in a recent blog post he published on his website, Hardcore Zen:

Thank you for clarifying your position in response to Adam Fisher.   Of course the onus for abuse lies on the teacher and not on the student.  

You say, “I don’t blame the victim” while you claim that “blind obedience” is the culprit.  But who obeys?  It still sounds like you are pointing to the student.  Moreover, in all these cases of abuse, even when itcomes to Sasaki or Shimano, nobody ever issued an “order” to which anybody ever “obeyed”.  

Brad, are you sure that the student’s (pathological) obedience to the teacher is the issue, as opposed to the teacher’s abuse of the student’s (healthy) trust?  Even your well-meaning piece of advice “Be careful out there,” while probably intended to empower students, makes it look like you think that the abuse of authority is due to students’ lacking vigilance as opposed to their not knowing what to look for.

While I appreciate that you are trying to deconstruct the “myth of the fully enlightened master”, I do not think that this will ever prevent abuse.  That is because the potential for abuse lies not in some wingy projection of perfection on the part of the student, but in the very natural power differential that occurs when one person seeks guidance from another who occupies a position of trust and authority.   There is a necessary polarization that occurs in the roles of teacher/student, just as there is a necessary polarization in the roles of doctor/patient.  In itself, this polarization is not abusive.  Still, that is where the potential for abuse lies: power can be misused.

To prevent abuse, students need to be not only aware of the normal power differential between them and their teachers, but helped to recognize the signs of its misuse.  I frequently cite Chris Hamacher’s list of behaviors to watch out for in one’s teacher (from his article Zen has No Morals): 

- becoming angry and/or defensive when confronted with criticism
- having a penchant for formality or extravagance
- blaming the student's own ego to deflect personal criticism
- not practicing what he preaches (is a hypocrite)
- manipulating the group to adopt an us/them attitude
- controlling the flow of information to students, with teachings emphasizing self-published works
- considering himself special or exceptional, the rules do not apply to him 
- adopting a non-democratic method of institutional control (at the level of the board and overall organization of the institution) 

Finally, I think that what is missing from Buddhist organizations is an ongoing review of power structures and relationships within the organizations where everyone, not just teachers and other leaders, is invited to openly discuss their experiences and criticisms before situations get out of hand.

Everyone is discussing Shimano and Sasaki now, mostly due to the efforts of Kobutsu Malone to document their misdeeds, but there are hundreds of situations where people are being harmed in relationships to their teachers.  It always seems like, until gross abuse can be proved, the benefit of doubt is always given to the teacher.  That is another form of blindness enabling the teacher and it does not necessarily come from the abused student.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Attachment, Empathy and Human Agency- a response to Glenn Wallis’ The Empathic Dogma

In two recent essays[1], Glenn Wallis, author of the controversial blog Speculative Non-Buddhism, takes issue with the notion of “empathic resonance”, particularly when the existence of “mirror neurons” is submitted as evidence for the ability to “feel another’s pain”.  Glenn criticizes this notion, especially as it has been co-opted by influential Buddhist figures, because he finds that it perpetuates human bondage in sad contradiction to Buddhism’s own “emancipatory teachings”.

Glenn claims that, to be more consistent with classical Buddhist teaching, the notion of "empathic resonance” needs to be replaced with a notion that is more interactive, one that would account for our responses to each other on the basis of reactions to gesture, facial expression and language, rather than on the basis of an inert “reactivity” that bypasses human agency.

The purpose of this response is not to deal with Glenn’s exploration of empathy as it pertains to what he calls x-Buddhism, but to challenge his presentation of empathy itself.


There is ample evidence to suggest that empathy, far from being the enemy of human agency, enables us to risk leaving our personal comfort zone for the sake of individual or social emancipation.

Consider the research by attachment theorists who have observed the effect of maternal empathy on human development.  Here we find very compelling evidence to suggest, not only that the cultivation of inter-connectedness is the foundation of future separation and individuation, but that its absence is correlated with later personality disturbances such as narcissistic and borderline personality disorder, as well as with antisocial behavior, criminality and so-called “reactive attachment disorder”, i.e. disorders that strongly interfere with our ability to act when this threatens our personal comfort zone.

On this theory, “resonance” between an infant and his mother is not a passive neurological response.  It refers to an interaction that occurs at very subtle levels of awareness and actually looks a lot like Glenn’s “reaction to facial expressions, gestures, etc”.  Mother and child may not be able to identify every discrete action and reaction, but they are attuned to each other and exquisitely responsive nevertheless.  This can be observed when their interaction is slowed down and reviewed frame by frame: eyes alight searchingly upon each other’s faces, smiles and gazing mutually encourage each other, and physical contact excites and arouses or, conversely, calms and tranquilizes, as the situation dictates.  They are like two tuning forks responding to each other, they’re in sync.  They “resonate”.

I do not have the same problem as Glenn with the word “resonance”; to me it aptly conveys the dialogue of attachment as a vibrant though near-imperceptible dance between two sentient beings.


Although we would be hard-pressed to provide evidence that we can actually “feel each other’s pain”, we would be equally hard-pressed to disprove that we are predisposed to form deep attachments to each other or that our survival depends on this connection.

The minute we are severed from the womb we reach for connection with the mother.  Deprive an infant of connection and he will fail to thrive; he will languish and expire.  Give him love and he will flourish so he can separate, individuate and ultimately differentiate from whatever social group he belongs to—and die.

We are “wired” from birth to attach.  That is a fact.  Why should this be a problem?

While scientistic theories falsely attribute this fact to sympathetic neurological responses in a way I find mechanical and dehumanizing, this does not make empathy itself the problem, and I see no reason to be “against” it.  What I am against is when the dance between two sentient beings is reduced to a synaptic jerk-off that can hardly be called “empathic”.

But attachment theory does not do this.  It is descriptive not explanatory.  In fact, as a phenomenology, it explores its subject without systematically transforming its findings into a theory of first causes.

We need not discard the fact of empathy along with our scientistic theories about it.


Glenn claims that “sympathetic connectedness” poses a threat to human agency.  He is in agreement with Jan Slaby who believes that empathic resonance “drowns the potential for critique and resistance… on the level of sentiment, interpersonal style and emotional conduct.”

Glenn and Slaby equate empathic resonance with mind-numbing emotional drunkenness when what is evidenced in mother-child bonding scenarios is just the opposite: attunement, sensitivity and alert responsiveness.  Empathic connection does not make anyone flaccid and spineless.  On the contrary, being deprived of empathic connection is what, over time, makes us limp and despondent.

I am not sure what Glenn and Slaby base their views on.  They seem to be confusing empathy with a weak and anesthetized response.  But that would be an imposter.  Real empathy has heart.  And balls.

An undifferentiated amorphous state of equanimous emotional disconnection poses more of a threat to human agency than emotional connection ever will.

Whither empathy?

Glenn rejects the predominant Buddhist view of empathy and compassion as combining “automatic, low-level ("resonance") and mental, high-level ("cognitive reappraisal") dimensions”, and I agree that this repulsive marriage of neurobiological reflexes and categorical imperatives should be rejected as a mechanical kind of obedience devoid of both affect and reflection.

But what if empathy were not presented as “low level” and polarized with respect to the intellect?  What if, instead, it were seen as the interactive encounter it really is?

I think the real problem lies, not in “empathic resonance” per se, but in positing a “social brain” (or some other invisible connection between separate brains) as an explanation for this kind of intimate encounter; or in extrapolating from a phenomenology of attachment the conclusion that we are capable of “feeling another’s pain”.  The latter indeed suggests, not only a Buddhistically “untenable concept of personhood” (Wallis), but one that is oxymoronic as well, for it claims: “we two are one”.

One can observe the phenomenon of “empathic resonance” without subscribing to a metaphysical theory about its transpersonal origins.

I am all for that.
[1] Against Empathy and The Empathic Dogma

Sunday, June 2, 2013


As the spider moves along the thread, as small sparks come forth from the fire, even so from this Self come forth all breaths, all worlds, all divinities, all beings. ~ Upanishad

By God I mean an absolutely infinite Being, that is, a substance consisting of an infinite number of attributes each of which expresses an eternal and infinite essence.
~ Spinoza; Ethics I Def. 6

Nondualism, one of the foundational tenets of Buddhism, is a philosophy of no-difference, i.e. one that holds there is no substantial difference between conceptually polarized opposites such as the transcendent and the immanent, the absolute and the relative, essences and appearances, subject and object, etc.   Individuals are conceptual abstractions, only as separate from Unity as waves are from the ocean rearing up from its unique and indivisible whole.

There is no transcendent or absolute Being or Truth in a genuinely nondualistic ontology; hence the godlessness of Buddhism that sets it apart from other religions, and even from science when it forgets that its postulates are mere conceptual abstractions. 

Nondualism does not take the content of any thought as “real”, as existing “out there” (or even “in here”!  It is not a form of solipsism).  It knows that, by compulsively mistaking immanence for transcendence, we populate the cosmos with figments of our own split-off imagination- with a God or Gods, atoms or quarks, and even with Emptiness.

In psychological terms, the tendency to run with part of the whole is called, simply, “splitting”.  It is the compartmentalization of experience into discrete and polarized objects of understanding, classified according to a reductive and random schema.  Splitting dissolves the complexity and ambiguity of human experience in favour of black and white solutions, an expeditious treatment that ill tolerates the quest and questions that normally arise in the course of a human life.

NO is the antidote to splitting, the sword that ultimately cuts two into one.  It negates the process of negation that is first expressed at birth as separation from the mother, then in the oppositional two-year old’s tantrum and later in adolescent sturm und drang.  Negation is the indispensable first step.  But it ultimately has to negate itself, to think beyond the threshold of any negation and simply think the gap.  

I am not a fan of Hegel but I found this quote (inspired by Spinoza) that says it well:

When man begins to philosophize, the soul must commence by bathing in this ether of the One Substance, in which all that man has held as true has disappeared; this negation of all that is particular, to which every philosopher must have come, is the liberation of the mind and its absolute foundation.
~ Hegel;  Lectures on the History of Philosophy

Sunday, February 17, 2013

i'm sorry

In some families, please is described as the magic word.  In our house, however, it was sorry.

 ~Margaret Laurence

Etymologically, to be “sorry” is to be filled with sorrow or pain, from the Old Frisian word for pain, sar. 

“I am sorry” is said to express sorrow about any state of affairs that causes grief or upset- from a tragic situation that deeply distresses myself or others to one that merely causes a passing discomfort.  I can be sorry that so many people died in the earthquake as well as sorry that it’s raining outside.  Because it is only as deep or superficial as the feeling it triggers, the degree to which we feel sorrow can vary considerably from person to person and situation to situation. 

An expression of sorrow is also used to convey sympathy or compassion.  In times of suffering, saying “I’m sorry” is sometimes the only thing we can offer by way of an empathic response to another person’s distress.  We say “I’m sorry for your pain” even when we have not caused it.  

Sometimes regret or remorse also causes one to say “I’m sorry” and is offered to the offended party as an apology for one’s actions.  Unfortunately, because of its use in this context, saying “I’m sorry” is often confused with an admission of guilt, and sometimes also exacted from the offending party as a kind of price to pay to even the score.

Then there is the ever popular “I’m sorry you feel that way” which is a convenient semantic trick when you want to express compassion without really taking on another person’s suffering.  This is particularly useful when we want to sidestep responsibility for something for which we feel wrongfully blamed.   We really do not really feel empathic sorrow at all.

The rise of pop psychology and of popular aphorisms like “own your own shit” or “don’t pick up what isn’t yours”, although helpful to discerning the lack of a direct causal link between a situation and my reaction to it and while it can defuse violent communication, can also facilitate more subtle forms of violence such as ignoring someone in distress.

Sorry, really, is not about you.
~ Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Look Ma! No self!

The "subject" is not something given, 
it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is.
~ Nietzsche; 
The Will to Power

I am beginning to think that anatta (no self) is an invention of the narcissistic mind; and that sesshins, retreats, caves and monasteries are all unnecessary prisons in which to figure out, in a breathtaking breakthrough moment (arguably deserving of the title “kensho”, awakening or enlightenment) that it’s not about me.  

The saying goes “great doubt great awakening”.  But maybe that's only if you've got a great ego to begin with.  There is a story about a peasant woman making a long trek to see Huineng (I think) so she can ask him one very simple question.  When he answers her, she is awakened, says thank you, and walks away.  Small ego, small awakening.  Nothing to write home about.  

Those who are the most blown away by what they discover at the heart of themselves (Look Ma!  No self!) are the very ones who covet the mantle of "teacher" and then go on to preach ad nauseum to others about what they have found, paradoxically reinforcing with every word the very “self” they invite others to transcend when it's really a no-brainer.

Take "creo", the Spanish word for “I believe” or "I think".  It illustrates how a verb needs a subject appended to it in order for an experience to be hung somewhere, otherwise it would just sort of hang in the air like the smile of a Cheshire cat and that would be rather odd.   So we create an “I” to hang it on, like a painting, or like the moon in the sky, as a referent for something that is intangible.  Believing springs from nowhere, that same nowhere from which we came and to which we all return.  That is the nature of experience.  Of thinking.  Of being.  Anatta.  It’s really as simple as that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

lost and found

Any object you have in your mind, however good, will be a barrier between you and the inmost Truth
~Meister Eckhart
My faith had been unwavering for over three years.  It was a faith without object, purpose or design that had erupted laughing at its own undisclosed secret, a word that finally sprang to my lips with nothing whatsoever to say.  

Still it oriented to the mystery of my own existence, a gentle “yes”, clear and present down to the depths of unknowing, from which it presumably came.

At first I celebrated it like a newborn baby, marveling at this wonder of wonders that had alit with such grace into my world.  But over time I learned that it did not depend on me for survival, and would just casually touch into it from time to time with a furtive glance from my heart’s eye.  

Then, one day, I lost it.  I panicked like a mother waking up in the middle of the night searching madly for her baby under the covers.  But it was gone.  I entered that space between two breaths where you momentarily cease knowing how to breathe.  And there I was, holding my faith as limp as a corpse in my arms.  I felt dizzy and confused.
Suddenly I saw myself.  And I looked every bit as silly as someone who'd been searching all over the room for the proverbial nose on her face and asking herself, perplexed, “Now where was it that I put it?” when it had never been apart from her in the first place.   

I started to laugh.   

I hadn’t lost my faith at all.  I’d lost my certainty in a brief disconnect with the object I’d mistaken it for.