Monday, March 31, 2014

Guided meditation

Interesting addition to our course soundtrack as we started the 2nd half of "Buddhism and Modern Thought" today: Joni Mitchell. The start of her haunting 1976 song "Refuge of the Roads" recounts an encounter with Chögyam Trungpa:

I met a friend of spirit
He drank and womanized
And I sat before his sanity
I was holding back from crying
He saw my complications
And he mirrored me back simplified
And we laughed how our perfection
Would always be denied
"Heart and humor and humility"
He said "Will lighten up your heavy load"
I left him for the refuge of the roads...                                   (source)

This made sense for the class, as one of the assignments over the Spring Break had been to watch that hagiopic about Trungpa. It also fit because here our weight shifts from considering in what ways "western modernity" has reshaped or distorted "Buddhism" to exploring how "Buddhism" might challenge or complicate "western modernity."

Our reading was the chapter on meditation in McMahan. It's pretty tame stuff compared to the intoxication, play and wrathful practice of Trungpa. But the juxtaposition helped me push the importance of teachers in Buddhist practice. One of the myths the "scientific Buddha" has left us is that meditation is an objective, self-correcting technology for approaching reality. Anyone can do it, and, doing it, will discover the truth. Do try this at home.

Trungpa's tantric tradition raises one kind of question about this: some of the fruits of Buddhist practice are very powerful, and can destroy as well as enlighten. You need a teacher to direct and correct your experiments with truth. From the perspective of the religious studies critics of Buddhist modernism a different question poses itself. As Robert Sharf pointed out in a famous exposé of the Vipassanā movement, there is no consensus among Buddhist traditions as to what the stages and fruits of different kinds of meditation are. People achieve what their traditions lead them to expect to achieve. The history of Zen-Catholic dialogue should make that clear - and also that this might not, for practitioners, be the end of the world.

We didn't talk about Sharf but about Descartes, author of his own set of Meditations, whom McMahan brings in in a fascinating way. His method of radical doubt would be congenial to a Buddhist, McMahan avers, if only he didn't recoil from the impermanence he discerns in desperate hope of something permanent - a self, which turns out to need supernatural backup as it tries to live. You don't need to be a Buddhist to see the flaw in the argument. Kant saw it! Ambrose Beirce's had a pithier way of making the leap of faith in the cogito clear: I think I think, therefore I think I am. The existence of doubting establishes only that doubting is, not that a doubter is. To McMahan, Buddhist meditation is thorough and thoroughgoing in a way Descartes' isn't:
(202) But can one adjudicate between the claims of an Augustinian like Descartes who sees through the shards of a skepticism-shattered self and world a God "closer to me than I am to myself" and a meditator guided by Sangha and Dharma to see the impermanence of dharmas?

Interesting discussions await, now on my best effort at Buddhist terms. Not that I'll be able to mirror back the complications simplified!

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