Tag Archives: Buddhism

The Theist-to-Mystic Sidestep

Let’s start by defining terms. As you know, I don’t believe in fixed definitions, so obviously these are my definitions, made to help us communicate on this post:

A Theist: a person who believes is a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, intervening in the world and who responds to prayer.

A Mystic: a person who believes the possibility of union or communion with some god, or absolute or higher level of truth or some such thing. Mystic who believe in a god, don’t necessarily believe in the Theist’s god. (see my post “Monkey God vs. Cat God“)


When I left Christianity, I tried Reformed Judaism for a year — a stripped down Christianity. Then I started reading Christian mystics: Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross and especially Thomas Merton. But I could tell that all these mystics were trying desperately to hang on to their Jesus. So I started reading Buddhism and Taoism — as filtered through the Western forms of these. (see my post on “The Making of Buddhist Modernism“)

Both of these (my Christianity and my mysticism) were largely fed by my weird experiences in life. (see my posts on “My Supernatural/Mystical Experiences“)

But slowly I began to realize that I was trying to add an extra layer of wonder, an extra layer of meaning, an extra layer of hope to both my ordinary and my extra-ordinary experiences. I was valorizing my experience — I was creating a fantasy of deep meaning and hope. Finally, I came to rest with not taking this extra step. And with such a move, my habits of mind became more clear and both the ordinary and not-so-ordinary became more brilliant.

Theism is hard to escape and mysticism offers a much more benign ground to live in. But mysticism comes with its pitfalls of idealism and romanticism all built to support our fears. But heck, all positions come with pitfalls, don’t they.

Mystic Pitfalls:

  • feel that real meaning, real knowledge comes from union with the absolute (be that a god, the universe, Buddha-mind, The One or any such thing).
  • homogenizing, idealizing, romanticizing the world of a myriad of things
  • negating or minimizing the body, normal mind, or normal experiences
  • judging others as not having your amazing connections, perspective and insight
  • valorizing your experiences and your temperament


Please feel free to criticize or try to correct or add to my thoughts above.



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Sid: Seeking vs. Finding

FerrymanBelow is a quote from the last chapter of Hesse’s 1922 novel “Siddhartha” (translated by Hilda Rosner in 1951). The quote reminds me of my post “Seachers vs Explorers“. Hesse labels the two different styles as Suchen (seeking) and Finden (finding) — or One who Seeks [one thing] versus One who Finds [many things] — see my post on “Homogenizing Reality” for a similar contrast.

It seems, Hesse (1877-1962) and I (1954 – ?) had similar intuitions. Tell me what you think.

Setting: Siddhartha is now an old man who works as a ferryman at a river. The Buddha is dying and many of his monks and devotees are journeying to see him before his passing. Siddartha ferries many across his river. One passenger, “Govinda”, is a former close friend of Siddhartha but he does not recognize Siddartha. Note that thought Hesse calls his main character “Siddartha”, it is not the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) — they just happen to share the same first names.

He arrived at the river and asked the old man to take him across. When they climbed out of the boat on the other side, he said to the old man: “You show much kindness to the monks and pilgrims; you have taken many of us across. Are you not also a seeker of the right path?”

There was a smile in Siddhartha’s old eyes as he said: “Do you call yourself a seeker, O venerable one, you are already advanced in years and wear the robe of Gotama’s monks?”

“I am indeed old,” said Govinda, “but I have never ceased seeking. I will never cease seeking. That seems to be my destiny. It seems to me that you also have sought. Will you talk to me a little about it, my friend?”

Siddhartha said: “What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.”

“How is that?” asked Govinda.

“When someone is seeking,” said Siddhartha, “it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”




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Ramadan Constipation

Allah_LaxMore than 450 students from Saudi Arabia attend a University near my clinic and in the last few days I have seen several of these young men complaining of constipation. “Odd, I thought,” but then I remembered, “Ah, it is Ramadan!”  The change in their diet during Ramadan is binding them up. Don’t believe me? Read Islam 101 here.


Realizing that Ramadan Constipation is a worldwide problem I’ve thought of this product as both a financial opportunity and a service to the spiritual and physical needs of Allah’s devote followers at this time of year.  Above I have created the brand name and packaging.  Dear readers, can you think of other halal ingredients besides senna that could help our Muslim brothers?

And so that readers don’t think I am picking on just Muslims, please click on this picture to the right to see how I also offer Buddhists relief from their spiritipation also.


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Meditation: The Good & The Hype

Having traveled in and out of meditation circles over the years, I’ve seen much hype, placebo effect and outright self-deception. I’ve also experienced some benefits, but not nearly as much as my naive, idealist mind had hoped for — as it likewise hoped for in Christianity, Acupuncture, Marxism, Homeopathy and my many other adventures. (see my other follies here)

In January 2014, researchers at Johns Hopkins University Evidence-based Practice Center in Baltimore, MD (where I did my MPH), have done a large meta-analysis of studies on the effectiveness of meditation.  They reviewed 17,801 citations and included 41 trials with 2,993 participants.

Article here:  Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-beingA Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. January 2014.   See this Jama article for an updated version.

Results were:

Mindfulness meditation programs had moderate SOE for improvement in anxiety (effect size [ES], 0.40; CI, 0.08 to 0.71 at 8 weeks; ES, 0.22; CI, 0.02 to 0.43 at 3–6 months), depression (ES, 0.32; CI, −0.01 to 0.66 at 8 weeks; ES, 0.23; CI, 0.05 to 0.42 at 3–6 months); and pain (ES, 0.33; CI, 0.03 to 0.62); and low SOE for improvement in stress/distress and mental health–related quality of life. We found either low SOE of no effect or insufficient SOE of an effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating, sleep, and weight. In our comparative effectiveness analyses, we did not find any evidence to suggest that these meditation programs were superior to any specific therapies they were compared with. Only 10 trials had a low risk of bias. Limitations included clinical heterogeneity, variability in the types of controls, and heterogeneity of the interventions (e.g., dosing, frequency, duration, technique).



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Packaging Buddhism

Buddhism-SuperstitiousAround the world, Buddhism-on-the-ground is vastly composed of superstitions, rituals and customs aimed at improving fortune for this life – especially for the “believer” themself and for their loved ones or their clan. Only a very tiny of Buddhists in this world meditate.

Robert Wright begins his first lecture in his free Buddhismm course telling us that he is focusing on a very narrow part of Buddhism — not only is he only interested in rational, non-superstitious, meditative Buddhism, but also he only wants to explore those aspects that are testable. He defines the Buddhism he wants to explore.  This is an important step toward clarity — I wish more did this.  But we must realize, this is not a Buddhism that most Buddhist believers would recognize.

Like Buddhism, “Religion” must be defined to have a meaningful conversation about it.  Wright does this to — he likes Williams James’ definition of religion:

“a belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”
— William James

Remember, this is just one of many definitions of religion– and like all definers, Wright has a purpose for choosing this one. Wright wants a Naturalistic Buddhism (non-superstititious) that sees “the truth about the structure of reality” and thus allows us to “align ourselves to Moral Truth”.

“Structure of Reality” & “Moral Truth” are two ambitious goals for Wright. And I feel they are mistaken. Will some types of meditation benefit some people. Sure, but how much? And are the benefits hyped with idealism that have drawbacks? I suspect so.


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Free Buddhism Course: Robert Wright

robert_wrightRobert Wright is the famous author of the following booksThe Moral Animal (1994), Nonzero (2001) and The Evolution of God (2009). I’ve read all these books and been affected by his thoughts whether by agreeing, changing my mind or disagreeing. Wright always offers us good stuff to chew on.

Well, today I discovered that Wright is offering a free course on Coursera called: “Buddhism and Modern Psychology“.  Some of you may be interested in this free course for various reasons:

  • To learn about Buddhism
  • To critically evaluate Wright’s thoughts
  • To learn about psychology
  • To interact with my critical posts concerning this course

Below I will link to the posts I write relating to the course.  Let me know if you are thinking of watching some of his lectures too.


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The Present Moment: a Buddhist fetish

NOWHaving jumped in and out of Buddhist circles many times over the last decades, Glenn Wallis’ critique of a common pet sound bite used in Western Buddhism rings totally accurate to me: “be in the present moment”. I never liked the phrase, felt it mistaken and certainly knew it was an excuse not to think or justify some unrelated point.

Here are some of the values Glenn claims the phrase is used to signal:

  • an attitude of quiescence
  • passivity in relation to social formations
  • privileging pristine understanding over messy active analysis
  • a sense of superiority
  • belief in utopia

Consensus Buddhism” is the term David Chapman uses to label the sanitized, idealized, and romanticized forms of Buddhism permeating the West. In Glenn Wallis’ article he uses the term “X-Buddhism” to describe something similar, though these two authors approach their critiques of Buddhism differently. But in case you read Glenn’s article, I thought you’d like to know the jargon.

Is there value to recognizing and taming the infatuations people can have with their future or their pasts that can be crippling? Yes, but X-Buddhism goes way beyond this simple insight and uses “the present moment” phrase as a rhetorical trope. I recently ran into the Christian phrase “tough love” being used as a rhetorical trope also. The use of this Buddhist phrase struck me as having similar signaling function to the Christian rhetoric in that the both exceed any factual claim and are instead used primarily as manipulative signals.


Pic credit: explosion borrowed from here to make the illustration.


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Worldly Prosperity: The Crux of Christianity & Buddhism

Buddhism VajrayanaThe similarities of religions is consistent with the obvious insight that behind all religions are people — not gods, Bodhisattvas, Mind or Oneness. For example, unsurprisingly, efforts to acquire worldly prosperity are a common theme among the majority of Christians and Buddhists.  This theme struck me as I read about Vajrayana Buddhism today.

Vajrayana is one form of Buddhism but not a sect of Buddhism — it can be found within several types of Buddhism.  Click on the diagram to see a larger map.  David Chapman has an excellent post which clarifies exactly what Vajrayana Buddhism is, but unless one practices Buddhism or daydreams of practicing Buddhism, this may just more unnecessary religious details to clutter your mind. So for those of you wise enough not to clutter your minds further, I wanted to share one phrase from David’s post–  “Worldly Yanas” — and discuss it in relationship to Christian religiosity.

Yanas are paths or practice/goal types within the huge variety of mind tools labeled as “Buddhism”.  VajraYANA is just one, and you are probably familiar with the MahaYANA and the HinaYANA paths.  David untangles the Yana knot here in another post.

For this post I simply want to say that most of non-Western Buddhism practices “Worldly Yana” much like most Christianity around the world practices some form of the “Prosperity Gospel”.   Even broader, I think most religion is very worldly.  First, let’s look what David has to tell us about Buddhism’s “Worldly Yana”.

 The vast majority of Tibetans, including nearly all monks, practiced the “worldly yanas,” whose aim is better material conditions in this life or future lives. (See Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies.)

In his previous post he explains

Before the Protestant Reformation of Buddhism in the 1800s, it was extremely rare for laypeople to practice Sutrayana. Instead, they practiced the “worldly yana.” That is also called the “yana of gods and men” because its goal is a better rebirth—as a god or man—within the world, rather than to exit the world into nirvana. Its path “accumulates merit” through virtuous action, and does not include meditation. Traditional texts waffle on whether this yana counts as “Buddhism” or not. They say it’s better than nothing, but not really different from being a virtuous non-Buddhist.

On my morning walk I reflected how the Christianity of most my friends, family and acquaintances consists only going to church a few times of month — no Bible study, no significant communion prayer life, no mission work, no evangelizing, no witnessing, and certainly no working of miracles.  Their religion is “doing the right thing”, going to church and sending their kids to church, praying for help from God and feeling a bit more sure about the afterlife.  All this is a sort of me-me-me prosperity mentality but sanctified to give social signals of being a good person.

Theology_KnotI’ve written elsewhere that maybe viewing these sort of believers as Casual vs Doctrinal Christians may be helpful.  But “Prosperity Gospel” thinking is a “yana” in Christianity where every Christian has it within his or her religiosity to some degree and I think it is the predominate yana of the planet.  Though a person may confess otherwise, worldliness is actually a huge part of most religious mentality even if it may be cloaked in sanctimonious language and buried under theological knots.



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The Hare’s Sacrifice: a stupid Buddhist story

Rabbit_on_MoonSiddartha Gautama, the Buddha, didn’t become a Buddha overnight.  It took him many lifetimes, or so the story goes. In each of those stories, the Buddha is often considered a Bodhisattva — almost a Buddha. The Jataka Tales are collection of stories of the Buddha’s previous lives as a virtuous animal. The other day I was reading a Jataka tale to my daughter from Rafe Martin’s retelling called “The Hungry Tigress”.

Our story that night was “The Hare’s Sacrifice” which tells the tale of the Buddha’s incarnation as a hare. In this story, the Boddhisattva hare decided to offer himself up as food to a hungry stranger even though other food was available for the stranger but the hare wanted to do something noble.  The hare shook off the fleas in his fur to spare their lives and then jump into a fire as an offering. But the fire was cold as ice and the rabbit was spared because the stranger was really the King of the Gods, Shakra, who was testing the noble Bodhisattva.  As a reward, Shakra drew a picture of the hare on the moon — which is the source of Japanese seeing a rabbit on the moon, instead of a man like Westerners do.

At this point my 11 year-old daughter said, “That is stupid!”.  She called this great Buddhist literature “stupid”.  She went on, “The rabbit didn’t have to die, he was just going out of his way to kill himself when he didn’t have to.  He could have lived longer and helped a lot more people, but he chose to die.”

She was right.  Out of the mouth of babes.

Questions for readers (chose one or more):

  • Do you consider this great literature? Is my daughter narrow-minded to see this as “stupid”.
  • Would you consider this part of the Buddhist Canon or part of Buddhist Scripture?  Read my post on Jewish Scripture before you answer.
  • What do you think of this theme of the gods testing us?  Read my post on Harischandra and the Book of Job before answering.
  • Which do you see more easily — the man or the rabbit on the moon? 🙂



  • You can actually read the four-page story yourself on Google Books here, just search for “The Hare’s Sacrifice.  Or you can read another version here searching for “The Hare’s Self-Sacrifice” – in this story the fire turns into a cluster of lotuses.  This wiki article on the Moon Rabbit summarizing the story and tell similar ones from other cultures.
  • Readers of this post will see similarity of this story with the story of Job and of Harischandra.  Testing by the gods are in all ancient literature it seems.


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Eternalism: Meaningless Without Eternity

MeaningMany Christians feel that without the guarantee of living forever their lives would be meaningless. Some go so far as to say the lives of non-believers is already meaningless. Indeed some Muslims justify slaughtering non-Muslims because they feel non-believers are no better than ‘meaningless’ animals because of their damned state (see here).

This week I yet again shocked to hear another otherwise intelligent Evangelical question the meaning of life without the promise of heaven.  He even questioned the value of saving anyone from temporary suffering if in the end, we all end up a puff of smoke:

“…assuming that I will one day not exist does to a very large degree negate everything i do now. What difference does it make if I alleviate one moment of suffering for something that is in any event destined to puff off into nothingness after the briefest of appearances on this planet.”
(Clapham 11:55 12/8/13)

Maybe it is me. Maybe lots of people think this way. But for me, such thinking is bizarre. In this post, my son was feeling a bit like an eternalist too. But I put off his fears as being due to being young and having an immature ego-centric lack of insight. So is “Without Eternity, I give up” thinking just the result of a moral mind getting stuck in adolescence? Or perhaps it is a temperament thing. I am not sure.

Here was my response to Clapham:

“Tell me, what difference does it make to give your kid a great birthday party if 5 years from now he may totally forget it? Do you so undervalue the moment? I think it is actually very bizarre to need a promise of living eternally to have any moment mean anything. Hard to even entertain your comment. You certainly don’t live the way you are hypothesizing.”
— Sabio

In Buddhism, needing some sort of afterlife to guarantee meaning is called “eternalism” and is considered a distorted view (see a great post by David Chapman here). Most theists are eternalists. And for eternalists, nihilism (“everything is meaningless”) is the only reasonable and dreadful alternative.  I guess in this sense, I am very Buddhist which posits a middle position.  But my middle-way ideas came to me without the help of Buddhism or any other religion – actually they came to me inspite of religion.  I just grew up (or so it seems). Indeed, my concepts of meaning seem very much like adult common-sense.

For related posts concerning my view of meaning without the eternity security blanket, see:

Question to readers: Is it our temperament, our moral maturity or our blind minds that make us view things so differently from each other.  So how do you view meaning — as an eternalist, a nihilist or a middle-way type person?

HT picIllustration © istockphoto.com/dashk



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