Why I am a Buddhist

On Facebook, Seth Segall commented in response to my posts on Evan Thompson:

I agree with all the arguments you have made, but I think there is one maining major issue that divides you from Evan that transcends all the other issues. That is, as a “lover of all wisdom,” why would you define yourself as a Buddhist as opposed to someone who is informed by many wisdom traditions but holds a special place in his heart for Buddhism—in another words, how is your stance different from a more cosmopolitan one that is Buddhist-friendly, but not, strictly speaking, Buddhist?

I think I have answered this question before, but there is more to say on it. For a long time – including the first six years of writing this blog – I defined myself in just such a way, as Thompson does. Like Thompson, I went so far as to say I don’t identify as a Buddhist.

This all changed near the end of 2014. The immediate cause was the story I’ve told before: I was in the cancer hospital, I heard my wife asked what her religion was, and I realized that the kind of chaplain I’d want was Buddhist. But specifically, it was important to me that the chaplain be Buddhist because of the sort of relationship one has with a chaplain. One needs to give the chaplain a trust, the sort of trust one must put in a talk therapist for the therapeutic relationship to work: the trust that the chaplain may in important respects understand you, your values and your situation better than you do. The trust is tied to a hugely important humility, a recognition of our own limits. Buddhists traditionally refer to this sort of trust as śraddhā, a term often rendered in English with that much-maligned word faith. (I hope that this point will offer further evidence of why I am not a “Buddhist exceptionalist”.)

I believe that something like faith plays a role in a good human life for a number of reasons, all having to do with our individual limits. For one thing, we simply don’t have time to learn and know everything; there are many ideas on which we simply must take the word of reliable authorities. This is true with respect to science as much as anything else. (Do you believe that matter is made of atoms? Why?) Trustworthy instruction – the pramāṇa of śabda – is an inextricable part of human knowing. But crucial to getting this right is deciding who to trust. In acquiring knowledge about physics, we non-physicists put our faith in physicists, for the good reasons that they have studied past discoveries at length and make new ones in ways that follow reliable systematic methods.

In my case, it turned out that the chaplain question was not the end of the story. The following months were rough. Being the primary caregiver for a gravely ill person takes an emotional toll on oneself and on the relationship. My family and closest friends were far away, and I needed to spend enough time on caregiving that it was difficult to get out and talk to anyone. (This all took place during a winter when the Boston transit system shut down for a prolonged period because of heavy snow.) It was hard to know where to turn.

Where did I turn? Above all I read. Lover of all wisdom that I am, I sought out wisdom from many traditions in the hope that it would be constructively relevant. Zhu Xi and Paul Griffiths both identified the importance of reading with faith, reading in such a way that you make it a part of yourself. And I soon discovered that I didn’t have that faith in many of the traditions whose works I was reading. I couldn’t trust a Christianity that said the world was basically good, nor could I trust Daoism (and that’s a story for another time).

But Buddhism was a different story. When I picked up Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra – a text I’d read countless times before, having done my dissertation on it – suddenly its relevance hit me in a completely new way. Right in the first verses Śāntideva noted that “goodness (śubha) is weak indeed forever, but the strength of badness (pāpa) is mighty and terrible. What other good thing could overpower it, if it weren’t for perfect awakening mind?” This verse spoke to my situation like never before, and I devoured most of the book again in that night. Śāntideva was offering me advice I could trust.

This situation put a lot in perspective for me. One can, and I do, love all wisdom, but one can’t know all of it. Still less can one inhabit all of it. The many traditions of wisdom disagree with each other greatly, and one must choose where to stand – though the language of choice can itself be misleading. One must discover which traditions one finds persuasive enough to have faith in. This can be multiple traditions, and indeed it nearly always is. Alasdair MacIntyre sometimes suggests one must pick a single tradition to inhabit, but even he is happy to accept contemporary biologists’ word that humans evolved from chimps – a faith in considerable tension with his professed Thomism. And indeed, the more traditions we do inhabit, the more likely we are to encounter contradictions.

In my case, the tradition that nourished me personally, the one I was able to put my trust in, was Buddhism – including both Theravāda and Mahāyāna. I recognized that I might hold some beliefs at odds with the traditional Buddhism I was reading – beliefs I’ve discussed in the debate with Thompson – but in that period I bracketed them, put them aside, because I needed to put my faith in a single place. Since then I have worked on defining more clearly what my personal beliefs are (and thus my posts since 2015 have been both more to do with Buddhism, and more constructive, than the early ones that explored a wider range of traditions). Were I to be faced with a similarly trying situation again, I’d be clearer about the limits of my Buddhist faith – but it would still be there.

So in those days I took comfort from praying to Mañjuśrī as a personification of Buddhist wisdom, even though I didn’t and don’t believe Mañjuśrī exists. I came to refine those prayers into a nightly seven-part anuttarapūjā-like prayer, in which I could take stock of the ways I needed improvement. That was helpful enough that I still do it, five years later – which means I take refuge in buddha, dhamma and saṅgha every night. It was after all this that I started meditating regularly – but I still do that too, in a practice (Headspace) that is officially secular but whose Buddhist roots clearly show.

When a research study on young women’s cancer experiences asked me to share mine as a partner, it asked where I had turned to cope, providing a variety of options from friends and family to alcohol and other drugs. The answer that most described my coping mechanism was “religion and spirituality” – an answer that would have completely boggled my 20-year-old self.

I don’t find a pure cosmopolitanism helpful even in theory; one has to recognize some traditions are closer to the truth than others. But where one must really move beyond cosmopolitanism is in practice – in order to have faith. I have good reason to put my faith in the Buddha – to take refuge.

Cross-posted on Love of All Wisdom.

6 Replies to “Why I am a Buddhist”

  1. ‘nor could I trust Daoism (and that’s a story for another time).’

    Hi, can you explain why Daoism was not a consolation in bad times?
    All the best.

    • Great question! Thanks for reminding me that I never got around to writing that post. I’d still like to write that post and say this at more length. The short version, though: Daoism seemed all too ready to say that getting better is easy, it’s effortless, you can just do it – don’t try too hard, the liberation is in the moment. And that goes deeply against all my experience of how hard it is to get better.

  2. Amod, I respectfully and heartily disagree with the statement that “Daoism seemed all too ready to say that getting better is easy, it’s effortless, you can just do it – don’t try too hard, the liberation is in the moment.” I would spell out many of the reasons why this is quite mistaken, but this may not be the blog for that and, furthermore, it is far easier for me to link to my study guide for Daoism and ask one to read the entries to get a sense of the mental discipline and spiritual exercises, as we say, that one needs to cultivate to have a non- or para-rational awareness of Dao, which is evidenced, at least in part, to the extent one exemplifies wu-wei, which is action that appears effortless, non-egoistic or non-volitional, etc., although it is a necessary (albeit not sufficient) condition that one engage in assiduous if not arduous efforts, behavior, breathing exercises, and so forth to exhibit wu-wei in one’s daily life. As a compromise, I will quite a bit from a few entries. Cf., for example, this passage from the entry on Dao (and ‘daos’):

    The Daoist is said to cultivate “quiet” (i.e., ‘non-worldly’) virtues like gentleness, frugality and self-effacement. The last line of chapter 45 states that “Purity and stillness rectify Heaven and Earth” (or, ‘can bring proper order to the world’). This celebratory saying is in reference to that stillness and purity of heart-mind (xin²) attained through breathing exercises that, in turn, are part of a meditation practice that serves as a necessary but not sufficient condition for the mystical (i.e., para-rational) awareness of Dao, for acting in harmony (wu-wei) with the dao of the natural and “heavenly” worlds. The third verse of chapter 15 (only part of which follows) asks: “Who can, through stillness, gradually make muddied water clear?” This is often taken to be a reference to meditation practice. Proper cultivation of “stillness” brings about a “hidden” or “empty” state of heart-mind capable of penetrating “into the most obscure, the marvelous, the mysterious,” thereby attaining a “depth beyond understanding” (i.e., beyond propositional knowledge and rational understanding, a reference to the difference between knowledge and wisdom; for a more detailed treatment of preparatory exercises [often referred to as ascetic practices] within medieval Daoism, see Kohn 2003). As Moeller (2004) says in his discussion of the fishnet allegory in the Zhuangzi, “‘to get the meaning’ (de yi) in a Daoist sense means, paradoxically, to be perfectly content (de yi) by no longer having any mental contents” (57). This can be fruitfully compared with the celebration of the “empty mind” in Buddhism. Lafargue (1992) points out, and Roth (1999) would concur, that those sayings which celebrate the heart-mind qualities of “stillness, femininity, emptiness, and so on” are similar to the “genres and the context in which they occur in the Nei Yeh (Inward Training) [and thus] suggest a concrete background of self-cultivation (including introspective meditation), rather than intellectual speculation” (206).

    I take it for granted that Daoists rely on words, mages, analogies, metaphors (Slingerland 2003), allegories, stories (Moeller 2004), and sayings as “proverb-like aphorisms” (LaFargue 1992) in both the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi (we’re not interested here in their compositional differences) to talk, insofar as one can talk, about the Dao. These textual and literary, or better: rhetorical choices, presumably are not without rhyme or reason, in other words, they are deliberate and, in fact, help account for the popularity of the texts. Moreover, this helps account for the fact that their texts are open, within a certain range, to various interpretations and understandings. In fact, it’s perfectly possible that the particular individual’s level of cognitive, affective, and spiritual development will be decisive in how they arrive at the determination of “meaning” in the text(s).

    The argument is not that poetic language is necessarily mystical, but that the resort to figurative language one finds in poetry is best suited for communicating that sort of wisdom which is more than intellectual knowledge yet is no less a kind of “knowing,” one that profoundly and markedly affects one’s entire being, one’s way of living in the world, one’s relations with others and the natural wold. Insofar as mystical traditions were at one time largely oral, and often took the form of “secret” or “esoteric” knowledge passed down from sage to disciple, from teacher to student, from master to aspirant, the resort to written texts poses problems for communicating ideas and practices for greater publics lacking the tradition’s fund of spiritual exercises and teachings, including the sort of commitments and personal relationships that enabled communication of ideas and practices to be contextualized, particularized, and, most importantly, individualized, that is, adapted or suited to the particular character or temperament of the disciple, student, or aspirant. When the oral traditions become “deposited” in or concretized as texts, the possibilities for misunderstanding, inappropriate interpretations, and misuse of teachings are legion. One way to lessen the dangers inherent in this transition to the written word is to rely on poetic or poetic-like language, symbols, paradoxes, and nuanced or obscure references that challenge the reader. Moreover, there is the very real possibility that the text may be read at several “levels,” these being designed for classes of readers of corresponding levels of moral, psychological, and spiritual development and awareness. The communication of what is essential to the pursuit of wisdom, to the achievement of mystical states of consciousness, is best accomplished with figurative language, with poetic or poetic-like language that is suggestive and evocative, analogical and metaphorical, one best suited to a keen appreciation of the limits of communication and understanding through language while relying on linguistic forms more sensitive to the nature of non-propositional knowledge and awareness.

    Although Daoists declined to systematically elaborate the epistemology of meditative states of consciousness on the order of their Indic and Islamic (Sufi) counterparts, there is nevertheless an esoteric phraseology (discourse) referencing meditation and mystical states of consciousness generally, be it in the Neyie (Inner Cultivation), the Daodejing or the Zhuangzi, hence, for example: “carrying your po,” “concentrating qi” “cleansing and purifying the mysterious mirror,” from the Daodejing. And from the Zhuangzi:

    “The ‘Yingdiwang’ chapter tells us, ‘Just be empty, that is all. The perfect man uses his mind like a mirror, responding but not storing, and thus he can overcome things without being harmed by them.’ The ‘Renjianshi’ chapter also glosses this concept of ‘emptiness’ (xu), saying not to listen with the ear or the mind, but rather with the vital force (qi): ‘The vital force is empty and waits for things. Dao gathers in emptiness. This is called the fasting of the mind.’ (Ziporyn in Cook 2003: 50)

    Harold Roth has written about this phraseology of heart-mind training and mystical experience in both his translation and commentary on the Neyie (Nei-yeh) (1999) and in his discussion of “bimodal mystical experience” in the Zhuangzi (Roth in Scott, ed., 2003: 15-32). The Daoist notion of wu (here: ‘emptiness,’ ‘nothing’) as a mental state and goal of self-cultivation generally and meditation in particular cannot be the direct or immediate product of the ego or will, as the effort to will such a mental state is thought to entangle one in a pragmatic contradiction identical to similar efforts at “willing what cannot be willed” (Elster 1983: 43-108). The attempt to simply will the state of wu “tends to posit and entrench the very object whose absence is desired,” for “If I desire the absence of some specific thought, or of thought in general, the desire by itself suffices to ensure the presence of the object” (46). The state of mind sought by the Daoist is close if not identical to the “emptiness” or state of “no-mind” sought by the Zen Buddhist (cf. too the pinnacle of meditation in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra, namely, asamprajñāta-samādhi, a non-conceptual state of awareness of reality [nirvikalpa]) that permits the absence of “self-consciousness,” allowing one to relate directly to the world, without “without relating also to the relating” (or non-relation to self). We might better see this with examples of “positively defined states that similarly elude the mind that reaches out for them” (p. 50). Elster culls a handful of examples from the late psychologist Leslie Farber to get at what is meant here: I can will knowledge, but not wisdom; going to bed, but not sleeping; scrupulosity but not virtue; bravado but not courage; congratulations but not admiration; religion but not faith. As he explains, the goal of meditation for the Zen Buddhist (and the Daoist) is a state of mind that “is essentially a by-product. The state of an empty or still mind, be it for the Buddhist or the Daoist, is essentially a by-product, because the attempt to will the absence of a mental object is self-defeating, involving one in a pragmatic contradiction not unlike the one intrinsic to the folly of what Elster (after Farber), terms “willing what cannot be willed.” Put differently, our Daoist sage lives in harmony with the Dao such that she relates directly—spontaneously, gracefully, wisely—to the world without, in Elster’s words, “relating also to the relating” in a self-conscious or egoistic fashion. And yet there remains the desire, the goal or aim, the intention (or an ‘intentional project’) on the part of the disciple, student, aspirant, to attain an empty mind, the state of no-mind or, (as some Indic philosophers would say) the absolute transparency or translucence of pure consciousness (what is called the state of asamprajñāta-samādhi in Yoga philosophy and praxis), he or she must desire, will, or seek an “empty mind” in the first instance, embark on this endeavor, engage in certain spiritual exercises, even if, in the end, desire or will in the purely personal or egoistic sense must be abandoned or transcended if one is to attain that empty mind, if one is to “realize” or experientially understand or become absolutely aware of the Dao.

    Daoist teachers (and their Yogic and Buddhist counterparts) rely on mind-training and meditation techniques employing breathing exercises in conjunction with other kinds of ascetic practices (e.g., fasting, celibacy, dietary restrictions, etc.) as part of wider moral psychological and spiritual strategies designed to subvert natural or habitual reliance on the will and routine patterns of thinking and feeling, which we might loosely describe as a predominantly or exclusively egoistic-relating to others and the natural world. These pedagogical strategies are crafted, in the end, to bring about a different way of living and thus a different kind of person, one naturally (as a ‘second’ nature in Kupperman’s sense, for if it were natural simpliciter, there would be no need for mind-training, self-cultivation, or ascetic practices of self-discipline) and spontaneously virtuous and wise, meaning a life lived in harmony with the dao of nature, the dao of tian, and thus Dao itself. The consequences of living a life attuned to Dao are crystallized in the notion of wu-wei (lit., not-doing or non-acting). In wu-wei, one has wholly given oneself over to Dao inasmuch as it is understood to mean the “absence of action motivated by the agent’s desires, will, knowledge, education, language or socialization” (Fraser 2007: 99; see too Slingerland 2003). Be careful: this does not mean that desire, will, knowledge, education and so forth are without a necessary role to play in the (eventual) attainment of wu-wei , for they are, again, necessary yet not sufficient conditions to achieving a certain spiritual state of awareness and being. This state is characterized as spontaneous and effortless, graceful and wise, and thus truly “natural” in the much the same way the world naturally “acts” in harmony with the Dao. Such action is therefore by definition free and spontaneous in contrast to the intentional or conventionally volitional quality of the motivated action that characterizes life in the daily round, the way in which most of us act, most of the time, in our relations with others and the natural world. Moreover, the freedom and spontaneity of such action is evidenced in and exemplified by the manner in which one is able to appropriately respond to the exigencies of any situation or circumstance: in a spontaneous, intuitive, and non-self-conscious manner, in effect, with the Dao. Yet wu-wei is still a kind of acting and can be considered, provided we expand our time frame, no less connected to an intentional project (as the philosopher Chris Fraser reminds us) in the sense that a student of Daoism is committed to attaining the goal of wu-wei, to living in harmony with the Dao, and involves herself in the heart-mind training and other ascetic practices designed to bring that about, as part of the aforementioned necessary but not sufficient conditions. Thus embarking on an intentional project in this more expansive sense, does not guarantee natural and spontaneous action in the Daoist sense, even if it serves as its necessary condition. What is more, it seems our Daoist needs to rely in some measure on indirect pedagogical psychological and spiritual strategies in the short-term if she is to avoid getting entangled in the pragmatic contradiction of “willing what cannot be willed” or the directly intentional effort to attain an empty mind or the state of wu-wei: just ask the novice meditator who seriously entertains the imperative to “empty” her mind to achieve the state of “no-mind,” who struggles to stop the seemingly endless stream of (waking) consciousness.

    Finally, consider in particular the notion of wu-wei: non-action; non-interference; non-intervention. Livia Kohn’s entry on this concept from The Encyclopedia of Taoism, 2 Vols. (in Pregadio, ed. 2008: 1067) provides us with a succinct formulation: “Wuwei or ‘non-action’ means to do things the natural way, by not interfering with the patterns, rhythms and structure of nature, without imposing one’s own intentions upon the world.” The “natural way” is not meant here in the sense of how most of us, most of the time, naturally behave or act, but has a more specific or technical meaning depending on the way in which the natural world is said to be intrinsically in harmony with or expressive of (in an immanent sense) of the Dao. Thus wu-wei is not, literally, non-action but refers instead to a qualitatively distinct and uncommon kind of action, what Huston Smith calls “creative quietude,” meaning one acts with a still or clear (‘unmuddied’) mind in a manner that embodies the Dao. Such action is characterized by a freedom and spontaneity (ziran) that come from a heart-mind experiencing, it seems, an ecstatic or blissful oneness with “all-there-is.” It is the characteristic and conspicuous action of the sage (shengren) and the ideal ruler in both Confucianism and Daoism and is, arguably, a direct product of ascetic praxis and mystical states of consciousness. In short, wu-wei is acting with a meditative heart-mind (like a polished mirror, to use a prominent metaphor) in harmony with the natural world and tian while instantiating the Dao.

    Ascetic self-discipline, training in the arts, and meditative praxis are, as we noted above, necessary yet not sufficient conditions for wu-wei. In other words, while “making every effort,” “striving,” “working hard” or even “willing” are, in one important sense, truly the antithesis of wu-wei, arduous striving, self-discipline and training the mind are no less integral to the eventual accomplishment of wu-wei. The “acting naturally” that is wu-wei, therefore, does not come naturally to us, hence we are instructed, by way of an “intentional project,” to “return to the uncarved block,” dampen the passions and still the mind, all by way of attaining a “second” nature in Kupperman’s sense, as it requires forms of self-discipline and self-knowledge that are arduous, that involve ascetic or ascetic-like training of the body and the heart-mind (i.e., reason and the emotions). Only then might we prove capable of acting in a timely fashion with the consummate skill, grace and spontaneity befitting alike the exigencies of daily situations and unique circumstance, and in a manner indicative of our ability to “be” one with Dao. In sum, acting naturally in the Daoist sense means cultivating what for us does not come naturally, and thus self-cultivation brings about, so to speak, a second nature (see Kupperman 1999), a nature capable of spontaneously and effortlessly realizing the Dao.

    We can better appreciate wu-wei by briefly looking at a species of its converse, what we earlier referred to as “willing what cannot be willed.” For it seems plain enough that certain mental states (e.g., sleep, humility, virtue) are not achieved by direct acts of the will and in general there is a patent pragmatic contradiction inherent in the very attempt to “will the absence of will” in any immediate or direct sense. As Elster also informed us above, the Daoist (or Buddhist) must resort to indirect pedagogical strategies designed to undermine our habitual reliance on ego and will, thereby avoiding the pragmatic contradiction intrinsic to willing what cannot be willed. While that is true enough, Chris Fraser explains how we might nevertheless conceive of the Daoist project as avoiding this pragmatic contradiction, one that links self-consciousness or awareness with intentionality, if we simply re-describe our notion of intentionality, relying on a longer period of time, one in which our intentional project becomes, with the passage of time, sub-conscious, at least no longer at the forefront of our awareness, something that does not, as it were, preoccupy us:

    “[I]n some accounts of intentionality an agent cannot cause herself to perform actions that are wholly unintentional, because intentions (unlike effort) remain in effect over time, even when not consciously held in mind, and their scope covers all the subsidiary actions that contribute to their fulfillment. For example, this morning I set out to work on this review spontaneously, without consciously forming an intention to do so. Nevertheless, my activity was intentional, because it is part of a project I am performing intentionally. At some level of description, any voluntary movement an agent performs is intentional, merely by being an action rather than a reflex.” (Fraser 2007: 101)

    On this account, our action is still intentional in a wider or long-term sense (allowing time for the ego to recede into the background or for action that is no longer self-conscious) but not willful in the short-term or immediate sense. In any case, self-consciously “relating-to-the-relating” (to-the-world) and egoistic acting has to do with the state of mind (xin) in acting and not action as such. Hence intentional action and wu-wei are perfectly compatible, as it is not intentionality as such that is the locus of the problem but rather the obsessive, narcissistic or solipsistic ego or what we call willfulness, an inability to “let go” (exhibiting ‘non-attachment’ to the fruits of action is how the Indic yogi would describe it) while acting in the world that is the reason for our inability to live in harmony with the natural world, tian and Dao. Although he discusses these issues in the context of the Analects (in Chong, et al.,, eds. 2003), Fingarette’s treatment is equally pertinent to our understanding of this topic in Daoism, invoking an intriguing distinction between the “personal will” and the “ground” of willing:

    “[Confucius] tells us that we ought to abjure the quest for personal profit, personal fame, or personal gratification of the senses. It is not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with fame, wealth, honor, even sensual pleasure—if such things arise as incidental effects of a will directed to the Way (dao) for its own sake[cf. Daodejing 7, 9, 22, 24, 67]. But better to have poor food and shabby clothes and be unknown, and to will the dao, than to depart from the dao even for a moment [cf. Daodejing 70.3: ‘And so the Wise Person, dressed in shabby clothes, jade under his shirt.’]. This contrast of motives brings to our attention dimensions of will that may be but that are not inevitably and distinctively personal. It will be recalled that my will, in respect to its generative source, control over its arousal, intensity, and direction and its power in turn over conduct, is inherently personal. For in all these respects my will can only be identified and described by identifying me personally. But the ground for willing a certain act is distinguishable from any of these and it need not be personal. It is true that I and only I can will my will but it may be that what I will is called for by the li, or by ren or zhong, or shu, or yi, or—to put it most generally—by the dao, and that my reason for so willing is precisely that this is what the dao calls for. [….] So, while the will that I direct to the dao is personal regarding its initial locus of energy, and control over the arousal, intensity, direction, and persistence, when it comes to the ground on which I choose and justify the direction for my will, and on which I elect to maintain that will vigorously and wholeheartedly, that ground—the dao—is in no way one that has reference to me personally.” (Fingarette: 288-289)

    None of this is easy or effortless, unless one is a Sage.

    • Patrick, thanks for this very detailed reply. I’ll note that my knowledge of Daoism at the time was relying on a small number of sources – Slingerland, the Zhuangzi, the works of Chris Fraser – and it hasn’t expanded that much since then. So I know there is a lot more to the story than what’s suggested by that one sentence, and surely more than is in my current knowledge too.

      I will say that I think the Zhuangzi often contains rhetoric suggestive of effortlessness; even if that’s only intended to describe a sage, that particular text does not have much detail on the practices that lead one to become a sage. And I do sometimes have a similar frustration with the Chan/Zen notion of sudden enlightenment, which, as I think you indicate, is directly influenced by Daoism. I’m very much on the gradual side of the Chinese sudden/gradual debate: becoming a really good person, let alone a perfected sage, is the end result of a lot of hard, directed and disciplined self-work, not something that arises spontaneously.

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