The MWS Podcast: Episode 16, Vishvapani Blomfield

In this episode the broadcaster, writer and mindfulness trainer Vishvapani Blomfield talks to us about mindfulness and the Middle Way both in terms of how he sees them being approached from a more secular or a more religious perspective. He also talks about enlightenment, Jung and integration, the relationship of the Middle Way with the arts, incrementality and his agnostic position on karma and rebirth.


MWS Podcast 16: Vishvapani Blomfield as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_16_Vishvapani_Blomfield

Previous podcasts:

Episode 15: Lesley Jeffries and Jim O’Driscoll, the founders of Language in Conflict
Episode 14: The writer and journalist Mark Vernon on agnosticism.
Episode 13: Robert M. Ellis on his life and why he formed the Middle Way Society.
Episode 12: Paul Gilbert on Compassion Focused Therapy
Episode 11: Monica Garvey on Family Mediation
Episode 10: Emilie Åberg on horticultural therapy, agnosticism, the Quakers and awe.
Episode 9: T’ai Chi instructor John Bolwell gives an overview of this popular martial art.
Episode 8: Peter Goble on his career as a nurse and his work as a Buddhist Chaplain.
Episode 7: The author Stephen Batchelor on his work with photography and collage.
Episode 6: Iain McGilchrist, author of the Master and his Emissary.
Episode 5: Julian Adkins on introducing MWP to his meditation group in Edinburgh
Episode 4: Daren Dewitt on Nonviolent communiction.
Episode 3: Vidyamala Burch on her new book “Mindfulness for Health”.
Episode 2: Norma Smith on why she joined the society, art, agnosticism and metaphor.
Episode 1: Robert M. Ellis on critical thinking.

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

6 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast: Episode 16, Vishvapani Blomfield

  1. I was thoroughly engrossed by what Vishvapani Blomfield had to say about the mind and mindfulness and his work to promote secular meditation classes while remaining firmly grounded in Buddhist teachings, also how he became a Buddhist coming from a Jewish background. The metaphor of the seed also appears in the Christian gospels, the use of metaphors with similar meanings in various religious texts I find fascinating.
    This week I am going to begin an online course called Buddhism and Modern Psychology, which I hope will be interesting, I will listen to the lectures but not commit myself to written work.

    Thank you Barry.

  2. It’s great to be reminded of what a thoughtful and articulate chap Vishvapani is. As he mentioned, we’re old friends (in fact he was the first Buddhist I ever met), but I’ve seen too little of him in recent years. He keeps saying he’s “not a philosopher”, though – a self-perception that doesn’t fit the fact that he spends a good deal of his time talking about decidedly philosophical issues!

    Vishvapani gives a good statement of what you might call a liberal Buddhist take on the Middle Way. There are two basic points where I disagree with him. I have tried discussing these with him before on the internet and (I think) been misunderstood, but I’m going to give it another go, and hope that if he reads this thread, Vishvapani will take it all in a spirit of critical friendship.

    The first is his perspective that given that we’re dealing with our own minds and trying to engage with their limitations, we need to have faith in a higher perspective, such as that of the enlightened Buddha, to avoid self-delusion (that’s a paraphrase of what I take him to be saying). I agree with him that ‘faith’ is required in the sense that all our beliefs have an emotional dimension, but not that we should have faith (and thus also belief) in the enlightenment of the Buddha, which is way beyond our experience, and thus effectively just as much of a metaphysical belief as God’s existence. As with other metaphysical beliefs, we end up claiming an absolute authority for something that we have ourselves constructed, aided by plenty of confirmation bias, whilst interpreting Buddhist scriptures so as to relate to our experience. ‘Having faith in the Buddha’ to me seems to involve just as much buck-passing as belief in divine revelation, and just as much conflict with the Middle Way, given that the Middle Way requires us to take responsibility for our interpretations.

    The other point where I disagree with him is where he says something like ‘A metaphor can’t work if it’s recognised as only a metaphor’ (this is why he thinks that an archetypal Buddha is not enough, you also need faith in a historical one). I think this involves a basic misunderstanding of metaphor. Metaphor is not an extension of a base ‘literal’ cognitive model, as seems to be assumed here – rather *all* our cognitive models are metaphorical. Lakoff and Johnson’s embodied meaning thesis has established this, but the implications are taking a long time to filter through to society. It is only our basic embodied experience that is ‘literal’ in any sense. If you believe the Buddha was enlightened as a historical event, you’re still using metaphorical constructions to understand that idea. Beliefs of all kinds, justified or not, are built up from metaphorical elements, and what justifies a belief is not its ‘literal’ status but the degree of integration with which it has been understood in experience. The way out of relativism doesn’t lie in failing to recognise the ways all our concepts are metaphorical, but rather in facing up to this.

    So I think the message of the Buddha is potentially far more radical than Vishvapani seems to recognise here. The Buddha wasn’t speaking in an era where ‘literal’ science had been separated from ‘metaphorical’ art as it has now. Rather, people then, as now, understood all ideas in terms that are based in our bodies and then extended into metaphor, and perhaps understood their experience in a way that took this into account rather more closely. The avoidance of metaphysics for the Buddha may have meant the avoidance of this very division, in which ‘literal’ left-brain representations take on independent life and status regardless of experience. It could be seen as the final protest against the left-brain driven dogmas that subsequently took over with Plato, Manu and Moses. The idea of ‘having faith in’ the Buddha seems to me completely foreign to those insights, and the basis of a huge contradiction in Buddhism today – even in its pleasantly liberal forms. The Buddha, if he was trying to practice the Middle Way, could not possibly have had faith in the Buddha.

    1. Hi Robert. I listened to this podcast a few days ago, and some of the things that came up (which you’ve summarised well in the post above) prompted me to have another look a t After Buddhism by Stephen Batchelor.

      With regards to having “faith in a higher perspective” Batchelor translates it instead as having “lucid confidence” in the Buddha. To give a slightly longer quote: “Maha ̄na ̄ma has seen for himself the possibility of a radically different way of being in this world, a way that is no longer driven by his selfish appetites and fears but springs from conscious choices to think, speak, and act in accordance with the values of the dharma.” This is more provisional, which brings me on to the second thing…

      Regarding all models being metaphor, to deny this seems to require a belief in an Ultimate Truth (to ground our metaphors)… which is something that traditional Buddhism has in the doctrine of the Two Truths (conditioned/conventional truth and ultimate truth). Batchelor takes this doctrine to pieces in the chapter called “Letting go of truth”. A quote again: “the Buddha to whom I am drawn in the early discourses is not an ontologist. He has no interest in providing an accurate and final description of the nature of “truth” or “reality.” He warns repeatedly of the dangers of getting sidetracked by metaphysical speculation of any kind, of being caught in what he calls “thickets of opinion”. So there is a possibility of a Buddhism with no appeal to the authority of an Enlightened figure (one who knows Ultimate Truth, unlike the rest of us) as there is no Ultimate Truth or Enlightenment (with a capital E) to be had.

      I gues this isn’t going to sway a modern liberal Western Buddhists opinion, but it does show a route away from absolutes in Buddhism towards a Middle Way. Sorry if you’ve been over this ground before, but it’s meaningful to me as I’m currently at that stage. Basically hats off to Stepehen Batchelor – he’s someone who wants to be identified as a Buddhist, but wh wants to look beyond Buddhism to something more Middle Wayish and which draws from sources and traditions other than Buddhism.

      Next on my list for listening is the Don Cupitt interview.

    1. Yes – your review was spot on and was one of the factors that contributed to me joining the MWS. I’m currently re-reading After Buddhism alongside some study notes written by Winton Higgins. The only other book I’ve found quite like it is ‘Basic teachings of the Buddha’ by Glenn Wallis.

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