Sunday, November 25, 2007

Buddhism vs Wilberian Integral?

I've been working full time at my new job and seem to have almost no time left over for blogging or anything else. I truly wonder how anyone who works a full-time job can find the time to read or blog. And I am in total awe of anyone who can work full time, have a decent family life, read, and blog regularly. The only way I can see them accomplishing this miracle is by sleeping four or five hours a night at most. But how can most people do this for a long time and stay physically and mentally healthy? I don't think I can do it, and I'm not keen on trying to prove otherwise.

Anyhow, I did manage to read the following e-mail update from the Integral Spiritual Center. I found it an intriguing summary of some essential Buddhist teaching within a Wilberian Integral framework.

The goal of Buddhadharma, says Patrick Sweeney, is to transform ourselves into what we really are. Far from pumping ourselves up to obtain some egoic goal, the Buddhist path leads us in precisely the opposite direction–to dismantle the ways we defend against what we always already are.

This path by which this goal is accomplished is the unfolding of prajna. But what is the starting point? The basic Buddhist view is contained in the teaching of the “four seals of the view.” As Traleg Rinpoche teaches, it is difficult to overstate the importance of right view. With right view, one has a cognitive frame that tends toward realization, toward evolution of consciousness, and toward the deepening of state-stage experience. Without right view, the process of overcoming ignorance becomes very difficult, and more or less hit and miss.

The four seals of existence are impermanence, selflessness, suffering, and nirvana. Basically:

  1. all compounded things are impermanent
  2. all phenomena lack self-nature
  3. all dualistic emotions and experiences are intrinsically painful
  4. nirvana alone is peace, and is beyond concept.

These four seals of the view define all of Buddhist practice. They describe the truth of the actual situation that we find ourselves in, what happens when we contract against it, and what happens when we relax into it.

In truth, Buddhism maintains, the outer world is impermanent. The tradition provides extensive explanations of the manner in which different aspects of the world are changing. There is gross impermanence: the physical cosmos, the solar system, and the earth are constantly changing. There is subtle impermanence: we come together as a result of our parents’ union; we experience an outer world—and inner selves—that are continuously changing. Most of us have gone through several complete revolutions within our own lives. Within and without, we are constantly seeing this truth.

The Buddha taught that not only is the body changing; not only is the outer world changing; but, in truth, there is no permanent witness to these events. When we look at experience closely, we don’t find a permanent ego; we don’t find something independent from experience. There is nothing that stays the same through our experience, nothing unitary or of one nature, nothing special that is the center of the universe.

And yet, we behave precisely as if that were the case! As if “me” existed independently from the world. As if “me” was permanent. As if “me” was one thing….

Our experience now is different than, for instance, when we were twelve. Are we the same? Or are we different? The right answer, of course, is both. Reality is constantly showing us that our emotional reaction to reality is based on an imputation that simply isn’t true. Emotionally, we tend to behave as if we are the center of the universe, as if we are special, as if our needs, desires, goals, dreams and visions are more important than those of any other. When in fact, they are pretty much identical to everyone else’s….

I had some questions as I was reading this. Perhaps someone out there can help me answer them.

First, why do we defend against who or what we "always already are," and who or what does the defending? I can understand how we might be constituted to experience the world as a collection of separate things and events and ourselves as a permanent being separate from this collection, but Sweeney and the wisdom tradition he represents appear to assert that our ignorance of the true nature of the world and ourselves is actively and purposely maintained for some reason. But if so, who or what maintains it, and why? It's often said that the ego does this. But, in the same breath, the ego is said to be illusory. Well then, how can an illusion do anything, much less keep us ignorant of who we really are and what the world really is?

Second, Sweeney says, "When we look at experience closely, we don’t find a permanent ego; don’t find something independent from experience." Yet, if I understand Ken Wilber correctly, there is something--a spiritual Self or Atman--at the center of our consciousness that is separate from the objects of its experience, although, at the highest level of consciousness, this duality of object and subject somehow disappears. How is Wilber's view reconciled with the Buddhist view, or is it? Speaking for myself, I have a difficult time believing in some permanent spiritual essence or Self that experiences worldly impermanence. It seems much more evident to me that there is no Atman or spiritual Self, just an ever-changing constellation of interdependent physical and mental states through which objects are experienced.

I guess in this regard I'm more Buddhist as I understand the tradition than I am Wilberian, or do I not understand Buddhism or Wilber correctly?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Last Moments

Body lying flat on a last bed,
Voices whispering a few last words,
Mind watching a final memory glide past;
When will that drama come for you?
--7th Dalai Lama

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Making of a Teacher

I am still an educator. But formerly it was education for degrees; now it is education for living.
--Eknath Easwaran

I'm reading a wonderful biography. The book is entitled The Making of a Teacher: Conversations With Eknath Easwaran. It was written by two of Easwaran's students, Tim and Carol Flinders, who lived with him at his ashram, The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation. Easwaran was a marvelous writer despite the fact that English wasn't even his native language. He grew up in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala and spoke Malayalam as his mother tongue, learning English as a second language in school and mastering it along with Sanskrit through his own diligence. In fact, he excelled so well in English that he became the leader of his high school debate team, fell in love with English literature, and became a very successful university professor of English in India.

However, he felt a higher calling over time to take up a spiritual path grounded in meditation and was transformed through his discipline and experience into a spiritual sage who came to the USA in 1959 on a Fulbright scholarship and ended up teaching, at U.C. Berkeley, what may well have been the first accredited meditation course in a major university anywhere in the country if not the world. He also founded the Blue Mountain spiritual center and retreat and the Nilgiri Press.

In the late 1980's, Tim and Carol Flinders, who lived at the Blue Mountain Center with Easwaran in a community of his devoted students from all walks of life, spent several months interviewing him for a biography they planned to write about him. The Making of a Teacher was the remarkable result, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested either in Easwaran in particular or in simply reading about the life experience of an enlightened and much beloved spiritual teacher.

Below is a passage from the book that deeply moved me. I read it in the wake of a recent oil spill in San Francisco Bay that has befouled water and beaches and killed and imperiled birds and other wildlife all along the area. In reading it, I also thought of my beloved Smokey and wished I had stayed with him until the very end. The passage illustrates beautifully how Easwaran looked at life and death and taught about them in his mindfully loving way.

Halfway up the beach, six teenagers stood in a huddle, scuffing the sand with their bare feet. They were looking down at something, and as we approached we saw that it was an immature harbor seal that lay just above the water line. It was panting heavily, its eyes wide open. Easwaran stopped and looked down at it. The trembling pup turned its eyes toward him, too weak to retreat. Carefully, Easwaran knelt on the sand and began to stroke the unresisting, doglike head, running his gloved hand back and forth over its damp fur. The seal did not turn away.

The teenagers watched with cautious interest. One of them was tall and slender, with quick, serious eyes and a headful of blond hair that moved with the breeze. He stepped forward from the group, then dropped to his knees beside the seal. He looked into its eyes, then looked long and steadily at the man who was stroking it.

Easwaran didn't look up but continued to stroke the seal's small, pointed head. For some time, the pup lay still, its wide, dark eyes fixed on Easwaran. Finally, the eyes dimmed and turned lusterless.

Easwaran turned to the boy.

The boy asked, "Is it dead?"
"His body is dead," said Easwaran, standing up and brushing the sand from his knees.

"You mean. . .?" The boy glanced at the group of friends standing nearby, then back at Easwaran, who smiled warmly at him. Encouraged, he stood up slowly and asked, "Did you see how that seal looked at you?"

"Perhaps he knew I was his friend," Easwaran answered.

The boy pushed the long hair out of his eyes and paused again. He appeared to be struggling to frame another question.

Easwaran waited, unhurried. His seriousness matched the boy's own--softened, though, by the transparent affection that young people always elicit in him. He returned the gaze of the young man who was asking him, wordlessly, what the death of the seal pup
meant. "It means that this same thing will happen to all of us," Easwaran said quietly, anticipating him. "To me, to you, to your friends here." He looked at the faces of the others, who stood watching with patient incomprehension. Then he turned back to the young man beside him. "But it will not be the end. Not for any of us."

Not a muscle moved in the young man's face, but the look of struggle was gone. His gaze was eager now, and searching.

Easwaran clapped him on the shoulder, gave him another smile, and said good-bye. Then, waving to the others, he took Christine's hand and started up the beach. Had the boy been a few years older, I guessed, Easwaran would have let himself be drawn out a little more. Later he confirmed my guess, recalling his favorite Upanishad, the Katha, in which a teenage boy boldly demands answers about the meaning of death from a sage who is as fierce as he is wise. "Teenagers can show tremendous spiritual potential," Easwaran said. "They have the passion, the desire, the idealism, the reckless daring to stake everything they have on an almost impossible goal. But these young people need time, you know. My way is terribly demanding. Before they take on meditation and these other disciplines, they need every opportunity to explore all the innocent pleasures of life--and they need to begin to see through them too!" Still, he added, if the young man on the beach were to turn up at one of his Tuesday night talks, he wouldn't be surprised. "I would be more than happy to see him."

More than happy
. Spiritual teachers in the Indian tradition keep ceaseless watch for that special light in the eye of the most gifted students--the glint of gold. When the teenage hero of the Katha has passed the tests placed before him by the teacher and proved himself worthy of spiritual instruction, the crusty sage breaks into an uncharacteristic smile: "Blessed are you, Nachiketa!" he exults. "May we find more spiritual seekers like you!" (133-135)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

An Unforgettable Movie Scene

I've watched more movies than I can count, and I've forgotten virtually all of most of them. But I just saw a scene in a movie tonight that I will never forget. In fact, it may be the most memorable scene of any movie I've ever watched.

Two thugs had just killed a guy and discovered that there was a canister strapped to his body. So, they took the canister and opened it and powder poured out onto a table. What did these murderous nitwits do? They rolled paper money into tubes and snorted reams of the powder, thinking it was cocaine. It wasn't. It was weapons grade plutonium. I shudder thinking about it and what it would feel like to be those two guys for real. I probably will for a long time.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Biden Has Style and Substance and No Chance

I watched the Democratic debate last night. At least, I more or less watched it. I haven't yet disciplined myself to pay full attention to things that don't reach out and grab my interest by the neck. And political debates have a very limited reach and weak grasp in that respect. So does almost everything else connected with politics. There just seems to be so much posturing involved. Mostly style. Little substance.

Now don't get me wrong. I love good style. But I want it to walk hand-in-hand with plenty of substance. Political debates don't seem to do that very well. It's probably more the fault of the formats than of the debaters. The formats force the debaters to give thirty minute answers in one minute soundbites, or less. The result is not real debate. I'm not sure what to call it so long as it isn't debate. An "exhibition" perhaps. An exhibition of oratorical skill and personality under pressure. And this is how they're judged by the media "pundits" after the fact.

Immediately after last night's debate, all the analysts talked about were how Edwards and Obama came out swinging, how Hillary gave it back and then some to them, how the crowd seemed behind her when they clapped and cheered for her and booed Obama and Edwards, and how Hillary seemed to "want it" more than Obama did. It was an analysis of style and crowd reaction to style, not of the substance or actual content of what anyone said. I turned it off. I had better things to do. It would have been different if there had been some strong, concise analysis of what the exhibitors (or exhibitionists?) proposed in their rushed soundbites.

Now maybe that's too much to ask of a medium obsessed with ratings involving an audience of people who, in general, would apparently rather hear mostly about style and little or nothing about substance. Or is this only appearance and not reality? And maybe we can't legitimately expect even "the best political team on television" to know enough about the subjects exhibited to analyze the soundness of what the exhibitors presented. Yet, I somehow think that some of them are capable of this. But they, like the exhibitors/debaters themselves, aren't allowed the opportunity to strut their stuff.

However, I believe that the person who came closest to strutting his stuff last night was Joe Biden. He might well be my pick for president if I were voting today. Why? Because he seems to me to have the best combination of what we desperately need in a president at this extremely urgent time including an unrivaled grasp of both foreign and domestic policy, obvious high intelligence, a potent blend of perspicacious realism and passionate idealism, unforced eloquence, and an intriguing mix of gravitas and not taking himself too seriously.

Yes, I know he has supported the war in Iraq, although he's also offered what may be the most realistic plan for getting us out of it:

1. Giving Iraq's major groups a measure of autonomy in their own regions. A central government would be left in charge of interests such as defending the borders and distributing oil revenues.
2. Guaranteeing Sunnis — who have no oil rights — a proportionate share of oil revenue and reintegrating those who have not fought against Coalition forces.
3. Increase, not end, reconstruction assistance but insist that Arab Gulf states fund it and tie it to the creation of a jobs program and to the protection of minority rights.
4. Initiate a diplomatic offensive to enlist the support of the major powers and neighboring countries for a political settlement in Iraq and create an Oversight Contact Group to enforce regional commitments.
5. Begin the phased redeployment of U.S. forces in 2007 and withdraw most of them by 2008, leaving a small follow-on force for security and policing actions. The plan named as The Biden-Brownback Resolution passed on the Senate floor 75-23 on September 25th, 2007, including 26 Republican votes. (from Wikipedia)

Yes, I know he can come off as almost egomaniacally self-promoting at times. So, he's not perfect. But he may be the least imperfect presidential candidate from either side of the political aisle. He seems to me to be the most complete package. If he were president, I would feel assured that we were in the best hands we could probably find. Perhaps we need Dennis Haysbert doing a political commercial for him reassuringly boasting, "You're in good hands with Biden."

Of course, Biden doesn't have a chance of getting the nomination. He's way down in the polls, although I don't know why, and that alone keeps him from receiving the media attention that might elevate his position. But one can only hope that a Democrat is elected president and that she or he appoints Biden Secretary of State.

So much for my post-debate commentary. I realize that it, like the "exhibits" and analyses I criticized earlier, is very short on substance. But then what do you expect? I'm not even a member of the best political team on television.

Playing Kooee With God

People see his pleasure-ground; him no one sees at all.
– Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

When I was a boy in my ancestral home in South India, the children used to play a game called kooee. One little boy or girl would run and hide in a room of the labyrinthine building. Then he would call out “kooee,” and we would hear “kooee” echoing from all corners. “Kooee” would be coming from upstairs and downstairs; from the ceiling “kooee” would reverberate. We would race through the halls, tear through each room in search of the one who was crying “kooee.” Then at last we would catch her, and the game would be over.

This is the game we are all playing. Some people hear the call coming from the bank. Others hear the call from the haunts of pleasure. Many hear it coming loud and clear from status and prestige. Still others, tragically, seek power that calls to them with a loud voice.

We need to open our ears, so that when we hear the elusive call we will say, “Oh, that is Krishna playing on his flute. That is Jesus beckoning to us to follow him. That is the Divine Mother calling us home. That is the Buddha trying to wake us up.” Finally, we learn how to trace the sound to its source and say, “Caught you at last!”

--Eknath Easwaran

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Earthrise, Earthset

Here is some remarkable video of the Earth rising and setting as seen from the Japanese vessel Kaguya now orbiting 100 kilometers above the moon.

"What a wonderful world" indeed!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Changing the World Within and Without

You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars; and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.
– Thomas Traherne

In our relationship with the environment, the real power does not lie in the hands of technologists or politicians or directors of multinational corporations. It is individuals like you and me who make the final decisions about what is bought and sold in the stores, how much carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere, and what is dumped into the sea. Each of us can begin to heal the environment right away by changing our daily habits.

And beyond that, there is another area which deserves our immediate attention: the world within. For each of us has an entire world within, an internal environment as real as the one we see around us. This internal environment has a powerful effect on the external environment: the way we think affects the way we treat the earth. When we purify this inner environment, we are not only making ourselves more secure and fulfilled, but we are also making an important contribution to the health of Mother Earth.

--Eknath Easwaran

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Reflections on Love and Marriage

I've continued to watch HBO's amazing dramatic series Tell Me You Love Me and to be struck by just how true-to-life it appears to be about intimate relationships. It seems to me that many couples, like those depicted in the series, are compelled more by their lustful attraction than by genuine love to rush into marriage, and before they know it, they're pregnant or have screaming kids running around, the thrill is gone, and little else remains to keep them together.

Each may finally see the other not through a hormonal haze but with enough objective clarity to realize that not only do they not really love each other, but they also don't really even like each other. Or perhaps one (or both) of the spouses changes so much over the years, for better or worse, that s/he no longer has the qualities that drew the other to her/him in the first place. And so some of these disenchanted couples simply get a divorce while others go to marriage counselors and try to patch things up and often end up divorcing anyway after all of the "therapeutic" revelations that dissolve what was left of any pretense of physical attraction or romantic love between them.

I'm grateful that I married as late in life as I did, without being heated to feverish folly by the flames of youthful passion that burned and scarred me in my more naive past, and that I didn't enter into my marriage with a rose-colored perception of my wife and with quixotic expectations that our marriage would ensconce us in a Utopian paradise that forever and completely fulfilled all of our personal needs and desires and deliver unflagging security and bliss while the world around us raged on. As silly as this sounds, I think many people do enter into marriage with these conscious or subconscious expectations and place so many demands on their spouses and their marriages that resistance to failure is futile.

I, on the other hand, believe that, rather than initially placing my wife on a pedestal from which she can't help but fall over time, the better I come to know her, the higher she rises in my esteem, the more I appreciate and love her, the more grateful I am to have her in my life, and the more I want to provide for her and please her in every way. It's not always easy, and I suspect that it's harder for her than it is for me, but I don't expect it to be easy, and, paradoxical though it may seem, that probably makes it a lot easier than it would be otherwise.

It may well be true, as has often been observed, that it takes hard work to keep a good marriage going, but it has to be some of the best kind of work there is.

Empathy Through Unity

You see, when you are continuously aware that all life is one, your awareness reaches out into the world like an open nerve. It registers both the pain and the joy of its creatures. It is the price to be paid for becoming aware of the underlying unity of life.

--Eknath Easwaran

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Any Advice On Our Dilemma?

My wife and I are faced with a serious dilemma, and we would dearly appreciate any advice you might have to offer.

My wife's cousin has a young son we're convinced falls somewhere along the autistic spectrum. I believed very early on that he exhibited signs of this, and my wife and her sister agree with me. He recently turned three, but he doesn't speak more than a word or two at a time and usually doesn't speak at all. Even more noticeable is his lack of responsiveness to people. When you speak to him, he doesn't look at you, or he does so only fleetingly. He directs his attention to the objects he's playing with rather than to the people around him, even if those people are trying to interact with him in his play. He's a very cute little boy and seems as though he may be quite intelligent in some respects. But his glaring unresponsiveness to people, lack of verbal communicativeness, repetitive play patterns, strong startle reactions to unexpected noises and other stimuli, and numerous other traits and behaviors definitely raise alarming red flags.

And this became all the more apparent to us in the wake of a recent recommendation, widely discussed in the media, from the American Academy of Pediatrics that all toddlers be screened for autism twice by the time they're two years old, and our viewing of some website videos contrasting autistic with normal childhood behavior at different ages. Seeing these videos completely erased any lingering doubts we may have had about our concerns. The boy in question exhibits in spades virtually all the telltale signs revealed by the videos.

Our problem is, where do we go from here? The boy's mother and grandparents have also expressed their suspicions at times that something isn't right with the boy and that this something could be autism, but they won't do anything about it, and they seem determined to deny that there's a problem severe enough that he won't "grow out of it" in time. They seize upon any little sign of intellectual or verbal development as proof that the boy is not autistic, that's he already growing out of any problems he may have, and that he's going to be just fine without any kind of intervention.

For instance, when they and the boy visited us yesterday, they proudly told us how he could now recite the alphabet from A to Z and read out the address numbers of houses including ours. To complicate things even further, his pediatrician allegedly hasn't said anything, and one of my wife's aunts and her pediatrician daughter came here from Thailand a few months ago and stayed with them for a week, and the pediatrician daughter reputedly told them that the boy was not autistic.

I don't believe her, and I don't think they, in their heart-of-hearts, believe her either. But they desperately want to, and so they won't take the boy to a specialist and have him expertly evaluated and get him the help he needs as soon as possible to afford him the best chance of living a relatively normal life.

My wife and I don't know what to do. I, for one, feel very concerned for this boy. My mother has told me that when I was very young, she feared that I was autistic. And this was in the mid- 1950's when autism didn't receive anything like the publicity it does now. And my life has been a mess ever since as I've struggled abnormally with life's normal tasks. I don't want to see this or worse happen to the boy. But how can my wife and I persuade his parents and grandparents to do anything about it? Whenever my wife has mentioned her concerns, they become defensive and upset, and we don't want to alienate them. Should we keep bringing up the subject anyway? Or should we simply throw up our hands and say, "It's not our place to do anything about it, or, even if it were, there's nothing we can do if they won't listen to us."?

Does anyone out there have any suggestions?