Category Archives: Buddhism

Provisionality and the Raft

The New Year is traditionally a time for seeing things afresh, letting go of what burdens us and seeking new directions. But to be able to do that successfully we need a combination of a critical perspective on the old and the ability to imagine the new – in other words, provisionality. Provisionality is one of the key principles of the Middle Way. It is a quality that combines the critical capacity to see the limitations of a current belief with the imaginative capacity to be aware of alternative options. Alternative options, like genetic adaptations or alternative tools in a toolbox, enable us to address new and unexpected conditions with appropriate adaptation. In this article, which is adapted from the book I am working on about the Buddha’s Middle Way, I want to explore the way one of the Buddha’s most famous analogies reflects provisionality.

The simile of the raft is given by the Buddha in a discourse to some of his followers, to “show you how the Dhamma [teachings] is similar to a raft, being for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of grasping.”

“Suppose a man in the course of a journey saw a great expanse of water, whose near shore was dangerous and fearful and whose further shore was safe and free from fear, but there was no ferryboat or bridge going to the far shore…. And then the man collected grass, twigs, branches, and leaves and bound them together into a raft, and supported by the raft and making an effort with his hands and feet, he got safely across to the far shore. Then… he might think thus: ‘This raft has been very helpful to me…. Suppose I were to hoist it on my head or load it on my shoulder, and then go wherever I want.’ …. By doing so, would that man be doing what should be done with that raft?”

“No, venerable sir.”

“By doing what would that man be doing what should be done with that raft? … When that man got across and arrived at the far shore, he might think thus: ‘…. Suppose I were to haul it onto the dry land or set it adrift in the water, and then go wherever I want’. …It is by so doing that that man would be doing what should be done with that raft.”  (Majjhima Nikaya 22:13-14. trans. Ñanamoli and Bodhi)

The traditional Buddhist interpretation of this simile treats ‘Dhamma’ as ‘Buddhist teaching’ and shows the practical justification of that teaching. It is seen as merely for ‘crossing over’ – that is, for reaching Awakening. However, such an interpretation relies on a discontinuous understanding of ‘Awakening’: is it so clear when we have reached ‘the other side’? It also underestimates the wide applicability of this metaphor, which makes a universal point about the need for provisionality in our beliefs. When a belief – any belief – has fulfilled its purpose in the particular conditions it was held, it is time to let go of it before it becomes a burden to us in new conditions. That this applies to the Buddhist teachings amongst other beliefs, however, is an indicator of their non-absolute nature, and that this metaphor is a Middle Way teaching.

The value of any analogy is that it obliges us to compare different situations that we might otherwise assume to be completely different. It is obvious how useful the raft is for getting across the river, and there is only a small degree of doubt that it would be an unnecessary burden after that crossing is completed. We could bring it along just in case there is another river – but for how long? However, it may be less obvious in the case of beliefs that we have become more deeply attached to: for example a religious teaching we have adhered to all our lives, a dying project or relationship, a misjudged investment, or patterns of speech and manners that cause unnecessary offence in a new country. All of these things are entered into because we have explicit or implicit beliefs about their value and benefit, but that value is also subject to uncertainty and change.

We may continue carrying the raft because of a lack of critical awareness of its ill-adaptedness for the new situation, but also perhaps because of a failure to imagine alternatives. When we arrive at the further bank, we need to be able to imagine ourselves managing without the raft. Perhaps, indeed, there are other items of equipment that would be far more valuable as replacements: a machete for the jungle we will then be entering, or a bag of food supplies. But to take these things we have to leave the raft. The anxiety we might feel about leaving it will need to be relaxed and set aside. Similarly, to be able to enter new territory in any other area of our lives we may have to gently set aside things that we have habitually regarded as indispensable up to that point: reputations, relationships, property, allegiances.

The provisionality of the raft metaphor is built on scepticism, for we would not have the critical perspective to recognise the contingency of the raft if we regarded it as necessary or absolute. As we do not know which beliefs we will need to apply this critical perspective to in advance, it is practically important to maintain a general awareness of uncertainty, of the possibility of ‘unknown unknowns’. We need this in relation to all our beliefs, however basic or embedded they seem to be, and whether they are positive or negative. When we arrive at the further bank we simply need the awareness to ask ourselves a question about whether we will need the raft any more (indicating awareness of its contingency) rather than to assume either that we will need it or that we will not. We may need to ask ourselves that question again and again in different circumstances. That same point is emphasised by a related analogy used in the Pali Canon that describes progress on the path as a sequence of relay chariots, each of which is only required to reach the starting point of the next .

In relation to our cognitive processes, provisionality requires an open feedback loop rather than a closed one. In a closed feedback loop (also known as confirmation bias), we continue to interpret our experience as confirming a belief that then provides a basis for interpreting our experience. If our belief is about the value of the raft for us, that belief continues to be reinforced for us by our experience all the time we are crossing the river. On reaching the other side, however, we may be so habituated to that closed loop that we continue to interpret our environment in terms of the value of the raft. We may then compensate for the unconscious cognitive dissonance this creates by rationalising: “Well, you never know, there could be another river soon, even though it’s not marked on the map”, or “I need to take this raft because it might be abused by criminals”. We might focus on slight possibilities and amplify them, all the time reflecting our own anxiety rather than a sufficiently aware response to the conditions. In an open feedback loop, however, we allow new information from our senses to influence and modify our thinking to adapt to the new situation. Our experience continues to determine our beliefs, but our beliefs do not entirely determine our experience.

This ability to adapt to conditions may sound familiar to anyone who has studied evolution. Of course, evolutionary adaptations take place over a longer period of time and are genetic rather than cognitive or behavioural in nature. Nevertheless, an organism that continues in its old habits and is not sufficiently open to developing new ones is the one that is likely to die out, just as the man who carries the raft may exhaust himself in the jungle and expire before he finishes his journey. The relationship to evolution also does not imply that our provisionality is only made valuable by survival or reproduction. Having provisional options could help to fulfil any of a range of goals, which may involve the fulfilment of our needs at a variety of levels. For example, we may need to cross the river for social fulfilment, for intellectual fulfilment, or through a desire for integrative development.

So, the raft is not just about Buddhism, nor is letting go an end in itself. The question is always whether we have considered with sufficient awareness why we are hanging onto our various rafts, and whether we have considered the alternatives. I hope that if you need to, you are able to leave your old year’s rafts by the shore.

For more about provisionality, please see the Introductory Video.

Picture: Log raft run ashore on the island Hallands Väderö: by M9axpe0900 CCBYSA 3.0

Second class practitioners? Kegan’s stages, Eternalism, and Secular Buddhism

In recent months I’ve been stimulated into a lot of new thoughts by reading Robert Kegan’s ‘The Evolving Self’. Kegan draws on the tradition of psychology that goes back to Jean Piaget, who first studied the cognitive and moral development of children and was able to isolate distinct stages in that development. But Kegan continues that development model into adulthood, isolating 5 relatively clear (though of course not totally distinct) stages. In each of these stages, it is a new level of awareness that makes the difference from the previous stage, by making what was previously taken for granted a new object of awareness. Using Kegan’s labels, the stages are as follows:

Infancy:  Objects not clearly differentiated

Stage 1: Impulsive Stage: Objects differentiated from each other, but not from self (early childhood)

Stage 2: Imperial Stage: Self recognised as acting in the world, and others as like me. Peer relations are bargains (late childhood, plus 6% of adults).

Stage 3: Interpersonal Stage: Others recognised as having perspectives different from oneself, and view of oneself is dependent on their acknowledgement (usually reached in adolescence). According to Natalie Morad, 58% of the adult population stay at this stage.

Stage 4: Institutional Stage: Truth believed to be formed by the self through reason, and to lie beyond the limitations of relationships, but nevertheless dependent on certain limited sources of knowledge (usually reached in adulthood – by about 36% of the population, often through university education or career demands).

Stage 5: Interindividual Stage: A recognition of differing sources of justification whilst recognising one’s own role in using them. ‘Genuine intimacy’ reached in relationships where independent judgement of each is secure (only reached by about 1% of the population, usually in later adulthood).

What is wonderful about this theoretical model is that it combines psychology, epistemology and ethics in a thoroughly convincing way. It is based on plenty of psychological evidence, and takes into account the complexity and vagueness of our transitions between stages, but nevertheless is able to identify the points of developmental stability that create each of the stages. It’s an immensely rich model, and I expect to be writing a lot more about it in the future. I will put links to some more resources about Kegan’s model at the bottom of this article.

What I’m interested in exploring here, though, is some thoughts about the relationship between the stages in this model, the Middle Way, and Buddhism. The relationship between stage 5 and the Middle Way should be obvious to anyone who explores them both. The Middle Way avoids absolutisations, and absolutisations usually mean taking for granted a particular source of information and its assumptions, whether those assumptions are positive or negative and whether they are found in a religious, political, philosophical, scientific, or whatever other context. At the same time, the Middle Way is not relativistic or nihilistic: it doesn’t assume that all sources of information are equally true. Rather, it’s the responsibility of each of us to make our own judgements about the justification of differing beliefs from different sources. At stage 5, people will start looking beyond the specific set of assumptions that are taken for granted in their starting culture, and look for value in very different approaches. They are thus more likely to be able to break down polarising assumptions (e.g. those of a specific religious tradition or scientific training) and move beyond the limitations of over-specialised experience. Nevertheless, if they’re securely in stage 5, that won’t make them feel hopelessly adrift. Their sense of confidence will be based on bodily experience rather than the absolute authority of particular sources.

Kegan’s stages make it clear why the Middle Way is valuable, and why its use is such an important element of the general human capacity to operate adequately in our changing environments, but also why so relatively few people seem ready to engage with it. If the figure of 1% at stage 5 is correct (which I have taken from Natalie Morad – she does not give a source), then we should not be surprised that most people are simply puzzled by the Middle Way and cannot see the point of it. For those not ready to move on from stage 4, it may seem flakey and over-vague, too reminiscent of the lack of rigour they associate with stage 3. For those still in stage 3, it will probably seem cold and impersonal, just a further puzzling stage 4 phenomenon.

I have recently been thinking about the role these stages play in the Buddhist tradition, where the idea of Middle Way has been preserved and passed down, even if it’s also been mixed with other assumptions. One of the things that’s always puzzled me in the Buddhist presentation of the Middle Way is the lack of even-handedness between the ‘eternalism’ and ‘nihilism’ that Buddhism identifies as the absolutes to be avoided. Eternalism is considered better, because it is closely associated with the role of lay as opposed to monastic Buddhism. The lay Buddhist, traditionally, aims not to practice the Middle Way but rather to conform to the absolutes of the law of karma, working to achieve merit within the just world-view created by belief in karma and rebirth, so as to gain a better rebirth in the future. Lay Buddhists are second-class practitioners, not generally considered capable of working towards nirvana just yet. But do Kegan’s stages provide a practical justification for this? Is it just that lay-people, caught up at levels 3 and 4, are simply not ready for the subtleties and insecurities of the Middle Way?

Only to some limited extent, I think. For one thing, we cannot assume that most monks or nuns are at level 5: many of them will have similar limitations. Nor can we assume that all lay people are not at level 5: there may be many reasons why they cannot ordain. For another, ordination can offer at best a very crude and discontinuous reflection of psychological stages. If one was to devise a social system that was optimally geared to helping people develop best at the stage they are at, it would not be one that separates people into first and second class practitioners for life, but something much more continuous, more flexible and less subject to potential abuses of power.

These thoughts about eternalism and the division between monastic and lay Buddhism have also led me onto another area of puzzlement in recent years – Secular Buddhism. The Middle Way Society originally arose from a group of people who met in a Secular Buddhist context, but Secular Buddhism is only sometimes, and somewhat incidentally, about the Middle Way (even though there are practical overlaps such as the use of meditation).  For a long time I used to engage in rather fruitless online debates with Secular Buddhists (at least those from the US-based Secular Buddhist Association) in continuing disbelief that they weren’t interested in the Middle Way, which seems to me such an obvious way of combining the strengths of both scientific/ secular and traditional Buddhist outlooks. But I’ve gradually been getting the message that most Secular Buddhists just aren’t interested, and usually won’t even get into discussion about what the Middle Way means, despite its prominence in Buddhist scriptures.

Kegan is beginning to give me a bit more of a general psychological explanation as to why this might be the case. With a few exceptions, most Secular Buddhists seem to be very much in a stage 4 way of thinking. In this case, it is stage 4, not based on traditional Buddhist ideology, but on naturalistic thinking that appeals to the results (rather than the methods) of science.  Many of them also seem to be trained in STEM subjects (sciences, maths, computing) where the basis of education often seems to be heavy on rigorous ways of proving presumed facts but light on imagining other possible perspectives. The chief intellectual publicist of the Secular Buddhist Association, Douglas Smith, is an analytic philosopher, with no evident interest in the ways that Buddhism might offer resources for questioning naturalism. The parallels with lay Buddhism are thus clear. Instead of karma and rebirth, Secular Buddhists of this kind rely on scientific results: but these provide a similar level of relatable security, and thus a basis of mass participation, for the latest generation of Westerners who do not want to accept supernatural beliefs but want an acceptable version of Buddhism.

So, if one concentrates instead on the Middle Way, is this hopelessly limiting oneself to a tiny elite? Well, I don’t think so, for several reasons – even though I can also see why people find the Middle Way a difficult concept to engage with. One reason is that the Middle Way provides a universality of perspective that is missing for those concentrating on stage 4. Stage 4 thinking is typically coherent, but polarised. Stage 4 religious thinkers are polarised against stage 4 secular ones, socialist or ‘liberal’ ones against conservative ones, and so on. It’s vital to encourage as many people as possible to move on to stage 5 for that reason, because it creates the conditions for a dialectical process in which people are able to reconsider their assumptions more profoundly. It’s not about being elitist, because it’s not about aggregating or using power, but rather about encouraging wider awareness. That’s where the critical universalism offered by the Middle Way becomes vital.

Another reason that I’m not too discouraged is that, even if Morad’s figures are correct, I can’t accept that the proportion of stage 5 thinkers is fixed, nor that the boundaries are particularly clear. I would imagine (but can’t demonstrate) that the numbers of stage 5 people are probably on an upward trend, due to rising levels of education, cultural diversity, religious experimentation etc. in the world as a whole. There may be many more stage 4 people around who can be coaxed on to stage 5 than 1% of the population.

A third reason why I think the Middle Way is not simply an idea for an elite is that it also forms a necessary part of our transition from any of Kegan’s stages to the next one. In the tricky transition stage, we cannot absolutise either the previous stage or the next one, but have to remain content with a messy in-between state for a while in order to actually make the transition. We have to let go of an old view of ourselves and others without grasping too hastily at the new one. In a wider sense, the Middle Way is simply a description of how people make progress and address conditions better, whether morally, epistemologically, scientifically, politically, artistically or psychologically. I suspect, then, that there are also ways of communicating it helpfully to people who are transitioning between earlier stages, even if they are not ready to engage with it so fully.


Some sources of further information on Robert Kegan’s psychological stages:

Natalie Morad’s article in Medium, part 1 and part 2

A very useful paper by Karen Eriksen giving more detail than Morad

David Chapman’s summary of Kegan’s model (it was from Chapman that I was first alerted to Kegan)

Video of Robert Kegan’s talk to the RSA (highly recommended):


Pictures: (1) Robert Kegan by US Navy (public domain). (2) Newari girls (lay Buddhists) by Krish Dulal CCBYSA3.0

The Buddha’s Breakthrough

What was the Buddha’s breakthrough? He gained enlightenment, right? Well, actually I’ve no idea. Just as I stay agnostic about the existence of God or its denial, likewise with the Buddha’s enlightenment. But recently I’ve been looking again in some detail at the sources on the Buddha’s life in the Pali Canon, and been thus reaffirmed in my view that the Buddha’s breakthrough was not enlightenment (or awakening, or however else you want to translate it) at all. His breakthrough consisted in the recognition of a method.

Let’s consider almost any other case of a historical figure who discovered a new method and then successfully applied it. Do we consider their method to be their most significant achievement, or what they did with it? Let’s take Picasso: was it more significant that he developed cubism, or that he painted Guernica or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon? Or Gandhi: was it more significant that he developed techniques of  non-violent direct action that inspired many others, or that he made such a big contribution to the struggle for Indian independence? The further away we are in time and place, the more we are likely to see the significance of the method as far more important than the achievement. Why should the Buddha be treated any differently from that?

However, I’d say the case is actually much stronger with the Buddha than it is with either Picasso or Gandhi, because the Buddha’s method is of such universal importance. The Middle Way, understood as a principle of non-absolute judgement, can be applied by anyone anywhere to make progress from whatever point they’ve reached. By identifying and avoiding absolutisations, whether negative or positive, we can avoid delusions and thus make tangible progress, right now, being aware that absolutisations are our own projections. But enlightenment? It’s clear from human experience that we can make progress with greed, hatred and delusion, but profoundly unclear whether we could ever hope to eliminate them altogether. The description of the state of enlightenment as given in the Pali Canon also depends on metaphysical beliefs in karma and rebirth, because the Buddha is depicted as becoming enlightened by breaking them. Most importantly, no other human state is completely discontinuous. We can make breakthroughs, but they are never completely discontinuous, nor final, and never result in perfect knowledge of any kind. Belief in the Buddha’s enlightenment as an absolute is in conflict with confidence in the Middle Way.

Looking at the Pali Canon account of the discovery of the Middle Way, though, makes it clear how powerfully symbolic that discovery can be, because it involves such a dramatic puncturing of delusion. The Buddha has gone forth from the Palace where he began, and gone forth again from the cults of two different spiritual teachers, Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta. In each case, the social context involved people insisting that they had the whole story, and the Buddha recognised that they did not. Then he began to practise asceticism, and he describes trying to stop himself breathing and then nearly starving himself. He’s obviously in a closed, rather obsessive loop whereby absolute beliefs are violently in conflict with his body. So what makes the difference? How does he get out of that state and discover the Middle Way instead?

“I considered: ‘I recall that when my father the Sakyan was occupied, while I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, quite secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, I entered upon and abided in the first jhana, which is accompanied by applied and sustained thought, with rapture and pleasure born of seclusion.’” (MN 36:20)

He gets back in touch with a memory from his earlier life in the Palace, showing that the Palace was not all bad. This memory is an experience of jhana – of an absorbed meditative state that, crucially, could only have been developed through deep acceptance and relaxation of his body. He has moved decisively from grasping after absolute, disembodied ideals that only produce conflict, to an embodied point of view. From that will follow that he must develop in ways that are possible and realistic for people with bodies, rather than sharing the delusions of those who forget that they have bodies. Not only is his need for nourishment, and the body-awareness that forms the basis of meditative practice, part of that recognition of this embodiment, but also the Middle Way itself, with its sceptical and agnostic awareness that we cannot have perfect knowledge, but instead need to work incrementally and provisionally to integrate the energies, meanings and beliefs of our interrelated mind-body.

When he gives his first address to others following his enlightenment, the Middle Way is the first teaching he then gives:

Bhikkhus, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata [Buddha] has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. (SN 56.11.421)

The version of the Middle Way that he gives here is one applicable to his audience: that is, the five ascetics, his previous comrades, who need to recognise that asceticism is not a helpful path. But it is already clear from the Buddha’s story that the path he has discovered is one that involves the capacity to question any claimed absolute, whether that consists of a belief about oneself, about ideology, about salvation, or any other matter. To show how much the Buddha uses this wider Middle Way, in his conduct, in much of his teaching, and particularly some of his similes, is a longer discussion, but it will form part of the book I am currently writing about the Buddha’s Middle Way.

It will no doubt be pointed out that whenever the Buddha refers to the Middle Way, he also describes it as the way to Nibbana (enlightenment), as he does in the quotation above. There is a positive way we can interpret this without accepting absolute beliefs about Nibbana, which is to see Nibbana as meaning the notional end-point of the Middle Way, pand thus effectively standing, archetypally and symbolically, for the Middle Way itself and the more integrated states that it can help us to develop. Just as God can be interpreted as a glimpse of our potential integration, so can enlightenment – as long as we separate these archetypal relationships clearly from beliefs about the existence of these entities, or indeed of any absolute (revelatory) information that is supposed to come from them. So, we can easily continue to be inspired by the figure of the Buddha, even if in some ways the term engrains an unhelpful emphasis on absolutes into the Buddhist tradition. The Buddha represents the potential integration of our psyches.

Though the Buddha ‘discovered’ the Middle Way in the sense of being the first person, as far as we know, to talk explicitly about it, he did not of course create it, any more that Newton’s ability to label ‘gravity’ and explain how it works magicked gravity into being. The ways in which it can be (and has been) discovered by others with varying degrees of explicitness needs just as much emphasis as the Buddha’s discovery. Nevertheless, that discovery itself, it seems to me, deserves a lot more celebration. The first thing the Buddha ate after discovering the Middle Way was rice porridge: why not eat that ceremonially in remembrance of the Middle Way (a sort of Buddhist eucharist)? His vital recollection of his experience under a rose-apple tree makes that tree perhaps just as important in our associations as the better-known bodhi tree. Here is an example. Eat a rose apple and think of the Middle Way.


Pictures: (1) Buddha by Odilon Redon, (2) Rose Apple tree (Syzygium jambos) photographed by Forest and Kim Starr, CCSA 3.0


Meditation 15: What if I’m doing it wrong?

Image of a sitting frogHave you ever thought ‘What if I’m doing it wrong?’ We’ve all had that feeling when learning something new. This is no less true when the new activity is meditation. We may have reached a point where externally everything is polished – we’ve ‘found our seat’ and can meditate comfortably for as long as we would like to – but then another level of difficulty opens up because we are more sensitive to what’s happening ‘inside’.

If that new practice is one of the more open styles of meditation, such as ‘just sitting’ or recollective awareness meditation, there are not the usual meditation instructions to fall back on. It is much more likely that a novice will be worrying, ‘What if I’m doing it wrong?’ when there is a fundamental lack of specific guidance on what it means to be doing it right. When I think I’m doing it wrong, then I’ve assumed that there are certain desirable results (meditative attainments) that are supposed to come from doing it right. By doing it wrong, I worry that I will be denied these results. Is it at all helpful for me to be concerned about this? Have I completely missed the point? Or maybe there is no point – in which case, why am I even doing this?

As I understand it, in the traditional schools of Buddhist meditation one’s progress along the path is marked by meditative attainment, which is typically a matter that is kept between you and your teacher, someone more accomplished and better integrated than yourself. However, Jason Siff writes (in Thoughts are Not the Enemy, Shambhala 2014, p179), ‘I believe attainments are unnecessary concepts. They can easily derail a well-functioning spiritual path and turn it into a dysfunctional nightmare. … Some attainments may be real. Now, when that is the case, there is no advantage to making it known. Someone who really has succeeded in diminishing the force of her desires and ill will, and has substantially reduced her self-importance and pride, would be content being a nobody’.

People, myself included, first come to meditation with the expectation that their hard work will be rewarded. It’s part of our culture in the Western world, where the Protestant work ethic is alive and well despite increasing secularism. New meditators will also expect their time to be productive – even their leisure time: ‘work hard and play hard’. We can’t help but bring our cultural conditioning to new activities, meditation too, and probably without even consciously thinking about it we believe that doing it right will ensure a more efficient path to being productive. But productive of what?

The recent presence of mindfulness in the media, coming mainly from the growth of mindfulness based stress reduction programmes, means that it would be easy for those running meditation groups to sell meditation to newcomers as simply a method for solving problems – to cure whatever ails you. Stephen Batchelor (in After Buddhism, Yale University Press, 2016) points out that ‘…treating meditation as a technique for solving the problem of human suffering, however, is nothing new. Buddhism itself has frequently lapsed into this way of thinking and, in some schools, uncritically endorses such an approach. … This is no different from a sales pitch for an effective diet: if you follow this regime for X amount of time, it is certain that you will lose X amount of weight.’

The beginning meditator will look to veterans for reassurance that they’re doing it right, and that doing it right does have some positive benefits. We are, like it or not, driven by goals. However, there is the possibility that a well-practiced meditator has completely missed the point. Despite their accomplishments in certain meditative techniques they may have failed to have become a more integrated person, or, more generously, their integration may be radically asymmetrical with their desires well integrated, but their beliefs are poorly integrated as they are still operating under the assumptions of ideological dogma.

What light can recent developments in psychology shed on this topic? Conceptualising meditation in our minds as a task to be done correctly is a very heavily left hemisphere dominated approach: understandable in our current culture, but not a sign of good integration between the narrowly-focussed task-oriented language-producing aspects of our minds and the complementary widely aware integrating nonverbal aspects. Iain McGilchrist’s thesis (in The Master and His Emissary, Yale University Press, 2012) is that our current Western culture is the product of our left hemispheres pretty much going it alone (in his analogy, the Emissary has usurped the Master), and, if there is any hope of saving our sick society, it will involve a reintegration of the left and right hemisphere modes of being in the world, where the task-oriented narrow-focus modes of our left hemispheres are integrated by the wider awareness and more fluid modes of our right hemispheres.

I appreciate this from personal experience as much as anyone. I’ve read enough books, listened to enough podcasts, watched enough videos and conversed with enough people. Which of these authorities am I hoping will be able to reassure me that I’m doing it right? As is often the case, there are about as many different opinions as there are people expressing them, and without some kind of absolute conviction that one of them is The Truth there’s a danger of flipping to the other extreme (of relativism) and assuming that all of these different methods are equally useful to me.

What I’ve found so far in my practice of meditation (which most commonly involves sitting quietly, with the intention to meditate) is that however much I want do it right, in fact I can’t do it wrong. Whatever progress occurs, it is arrived at indirectly, and if I assume I know what my so-called correct technique is aiming to achieve then I’m fundamentally limited by those assumptions. By sitting quietly and treating my thoughts kindly – not cutting them off or drowning them out – the noisy, narrowly focussed left hemisphere has a chance to settle of its own accord, and then the right hemisphere’s openness to new experience can make itself known. It isn’t a battle to subjugate the left hemisphere (that’s the sort of plan-driven technique that the solo left hemisphere would derive) but a space in which the right hemisphere can integrate with the left within its wider awareness.

To conclude, a quote and more questions. In After Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor suggests that ‘…meditation is more usefully compared to the ongoing practice of an art than the development of a technical ability.’ Still, when cultivating an artistic meditative practice, people can also worry about doing it wrong, however cultivating a sensibility is a very different thing to drilling the correct practice of a technique. Is there some way of adapting the reassuring but dangerous phrase ‘you can’t do it wrong’ so that it reflects this view of it being the cultivation of an art rather than the execution of a technique?


Link to a list of previous blogs on meditation

Yielding to Buddhist torturers

The latest film from Martin Scorsese, now in cinemas, is entitled ‘Silence’, and concerns the struggles of Jesuit missionaries in a nascent Christian community in seventeenth century Japan. It’s a harrowing film to watch, because it contains a great many scenes of gruesome torture inflicted by the Buddhist Inquisitor on Japanese Christians and missionaries to get them to apostasize their beliefs, but it’s also a film that I felt raised troubling questions about how we should treat our identities and commitments. Should we be prepared to renounce them to save our lives? For someone of Christian identity, is stepping on an image of Christ just a formal gesture of no great significance, as the wily inquisitor urged? Or is it, simply by yielding to power and surrendering the individual conscience, a deeply undermining act, compared to which martyrdom might even be preferable? silence_2016_film

This film depicts a world that is a long way from any obvious application of the Middle Way – a deeply polarised world of clashing absolute beliefs. After initially tolerating limited European influence, at this stage the Japanese government had entered a phase of isolationism during which they were determined to limit foreign religious influence as well as other kinds of political influence, by any means necessary. Christian villagers are depicted as being crucified, ‘baptised’ with boiling water, summarily decapitated, drowned, or hung upside down in a pit with their neck veins opened, to induce renunciation either from them or from equally unfortunate missionary spectators. Ironically, of course, the Buddhist torture being inflicted on religious minorities in Japan mirrors the equally gruesome and better-known torture inflicted by the Catholic Inquisition on any type of heresy in Europe, at the very same time.

[The remainder of this review contains plot spoilers.]

But many people have lived in such a desperately polarised world, and indeed still do so. The Middle Way should still be practicable in such a world, as it should be in any conditions, but what does it imply? On the whole I found my sympathies with the character of Father Ferreira, an earlier Jesuit missionary who is depicted as having renounced his faith under earlier torture and to be living in Japan and studying Japanese thought. Ferreira urges the younger Jesuit who has come to find him (Rodriguez) to renounce similarly, rather than waiting for Japanese Christians to be tortured to death one by one in front of him. Ferreira recognises that the religious meaning of Christ and of Christian commitment to him is not just a matter of tribal identity, and insists that the loving action in the circumstances is to yield. After a great deal of resistance, Rodriguez finally convinces himself that Christ would understand his action, and apostasizes. In effect, Ferreira recognises the unhelpfulness of absolutizing religious commitment and confusing it with tribal identity. He seems to have made a step in the direction of the Middle Way, by allowing new information from outside to soften his previously rigid beliefs.

However, this also didn’t seem to me to be such an obviously right judgement, because of its political effects. If the state or a religious authority uses absolute power in this way, yielding to it could also be seen as encouraging that type of policy. Defying it, on the other hand, could possibly have the effect of encouraging tolerance. In the circumstances, though, the prospects of changing Japanese policy through defiance would seem to have been pretty remote. Much longer-term social and political change was required to eventually open up Japan. So I continue to see Ferreira as more justified on the whole, though with a full acceptance of the limitations of any judgement I can make from my comfortable armchair in relatively tolerant 21st century Britain.

However, I doubt if this is Scorsese’s own view. In the very final scene, we see Rodriguez’s burial according to Buddhist rites, with any indications of the deceased’s Christian origins strictly forbidden: but Rodriguez is clutching a hidden cross which his wife has presumably planted in his cupped hands. At the beginning of the final credits, there is also a dedication to the martyred Japanese Christians, ‘ad majoram dei gloriam’. Scorsese, as a Catholic, seems to want this in the end to be a triumphalist film about Christian heroism in the face of Buddhist oppression, despite the deep ambiguity of most of the film. I felt this was an artistic betrayal of the more creative ambiguity that the film would have done better to stick with.

Critics have been lambasting the film for being too long – the trademark criticism of an impatient age. I didn’t find it too long, but I did sometimes feel that the torture scenes were overdone. Despite these limitations, it is still a film well worth seeing for anyone interested in confronting the full anguish of our religious past. Although Scorsese’s artistic instincts seem to be in conflict with his dogmatism, most of the time the artistic instincts win out.

I’d especially recommend this film for any Buddhists who are inclined to idealise their religion by considering it intrinsically different from any other in the mix of its historical attitudes to violence and oppression. For example, Sangharakshita wrote:

Not a single page of Buddhist history has ever been lurid with the light of inquisitorial fires, or darkened with the smoke of heretic and heathen cities ablaze, or red with the blood of the guiltless victims of religious hatred. Like the Bodhisattva Manjushri, Buddhism wields only one sword, the Sword of Wisdom, and recognises only one enemy – Ignorance. That is the testimony of history, and is not to be gainsaid[1].

Such completely inaccurate idealisations are unfortunately still found amongst Western Buddhists, together with the assumption that the conceptual content of your metaphysical beliefs somehow makes a difference as to how rigid they are and how much conflict and oppression they create. But it’s not whether you call your ideal ‘God’ or ‘Enlightenment’ that makes the difference here, but whether you absolutise it. Scorsese’s film has the merit of making this point abundantly clear.  


[1] Sangharakshita, Buddhism in the Modern World

Picture: film poster copyright to the film-maker/distributor but copied from Wikipedia under fair use criterion. Please see this link for fair use justification.