Tuesday, March 05, 2013


We had a master in our classroom today. For the fourth meeting of our advising tutorial on "Buddhism and liberal arts" I invited P, an acquaintance who's devoted almost thirty years to the translation and analysis of Sanskrit and Tibetan epistemological and grammatical texts and happens also to be one of the most free and original people I know. What I didn't know - not that I'm surprised - is that he's also amazingly skilful.

Here are two examples, expertly targeted at common misconceptions about Buddhist meditation - that it's primarily about clearing the mind, and that it makes you more compassionate as well as happier.

One of the readings I'd distributed was a slick little essay by Robert Wright called "Should Buddhist meditation make you happy?" which tells of his attending a meditation retreat in Barre, MA (where I had mine a few years ago). He finds that, while mindfulness lets him detach from positive as well as negative feelings, when he heads home he's enjoying the beauty of nature more and feeling more empathy with people: he's happier and nicer! P said Wright's story reminded him of a friend of his who had recently found an adorable little house in North Berkeley. She attended a retreat like the one Wright did and blissed out as he did. But when she came home she found that there was garbage on the street corner, and that the paint was peeling on her really very small place. Buddhism doesn't teach you to filter out all but the positive, it opens you to what is, whatever it is. It might not be beautiful.

Later, a student asked what P thought of studies that allegedly show that meditation changes your brain to make you more compassionate. P had a two-part response. First, he told of a Tibetan lama who lived a long time with a heart disease. When he died, an autopsy was conducted, and it was discovered that he had developed two fat extra arteries around his heart, that had compensated for his weakened heart. P's cupped hands modeling the amplified heart quivered. The class was excited by this but also disturbed. This was not an all but imperceptible tweak to your parietal lobe we were talking about. Do we want Buddhism messing with our heart as well as our mind?

Then P told of a study of the effects of meditation conducted in the US. Research subjects from all walks of life were shown pictures meant to determine how compassionate their responses were, and most people scored 30-50 on some scale. The experimenters had wanted some Buddhist meditators, though, and asked the Dalai Lama to help them. He furnished them with an old monk. The old monk maxed out the experiment, scoring something like 200. When he was asked how many years he had been meditating he said he had no time to meditate. He was the abbot of a monastery and spent most of his time doing accounting. All he could manage was a brief prayer for the well-being of the monks each morning. Meditate on that!

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