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I’ve been involved with a Zen sangha for seven years now, and so I’ve pretty much seen the “lay of the land” of Buddhism, at least the modern American version of Buddhism. Buddhism says a lot of good and interesting things about life, the universe and everything. But there are some good things that it does not say. One of those things is the value of humility. For whatever reason, I have not read or hear much about the virtue of humility from the various Zen and Buddhist teachers I’ve run across. Humility doesn’t seem to get mentioned in the Buddha’s various “lists”, e.g. the three refuges, the four noble truths, the five faculties / strengths, the eight-fold path, the ten essential precepts, etc.

Even among the thirty seven “Practices of Bodhisattvas”, only one, #31, might relate to humility — “the practice of all the bodhisattvas is to scrutinize oneself continually and to rid oneself of faults whenever they appear”. Even this isn’t exactly very humble — it assumes that we can rid ourselves of our faults with a bit of Buddhist-style self-reflection. Yes, if you do some Googling, you can find articles on the role of humility within Buddhism. You can even find a blog post with the same title that I’m using here, sans the question mark — where the writer claims that Zen is a humble tradition because one of its “koan” stories admits that Zen is not really needed (in the sense that “we seek what we already have”). Given that there are allegedly about 1,700 koans, one line about “selling water by the river” does not a trend make.

There are also the various Buddhist rituals that seem to reflect personal humility, such as the frequent bowing that we Zen-folk do when trying to imitate our Japanese predecessors. But there is also some Japanese hubris that has filtered its way into modern Zen centers (including my own), such as the perceived need by teachers to be condescending and sometimes even rude with their students. Some groups even maintain the old Japanese tradition of having a priest walk with a stick amidst those sitting in meditation, occasionally hitting the errant monk who appears to be slouching or nodding off!

By contrast, in both the western religious tradition and philosophic tradition, humility is more prominently discussed, as it relates to inherent human limitations. Those limits include mortality (we’re all going to die), knowledge (we see through a glass darkly), temperament (we all have our bouts of animal-like anger, greed, envy and distrust), and wisdom and understanding. We see and understand some portion of the picture of reality, but we are not God. We don’t see and understand the whole map of time and the universe, and we never will. Not in this life.

I recently finished a book by a young Buddhist author named Brad Warner. Mr. Warner has published a number of interesting books, but I was most intrigued by his 2013 work “There Is No God And He Is Always With You“. In this book, Mr. Warner tries to prove that the Buddha and his followers have already outlined a concept of “God” that amounts to a better and more sensible version of the general Jewish / Christian / Islamic concept of God, i.e. a God for modern times. Personally, I don’t feel that Mr. Warner succeeds here, but I will save that for another time. Right now, I’d like to reflect on some of the quotes from the ancient and modern Zen masters that Warner uses to build his new-age version of God. Warner’s favorite master to quote from is Dogen, the 13th century Japanese Zen master. Dogen tries to describe reality in complex and contradictory terms, e.g.

“all moments of existence-time are the whole of time, and all existent things and all existent phenomenon are time . . . the reality of the here and now blocks off past, present and future”

“delusion, remember, is something that does not exist. Realization, remember, is something that does not exist”.

“when one reaches the state of suchness, it is one blade of grass, one form; it is understanding forms, not understanding forms, it is understanding grasses, not understanding grasses. Because it is only right at such a time, therefore being time is the whole time. Being grass and being form are both time. In the time of time’s time there is the whole of being, the whole world.”

Hmmm . . . these passages would make a whole lot of sense with enough intoxicants or hallucinatory drugs! But really . . . in his incomprehensibility, is Dogen claiming to convey some great philosophical truths here that can be learned and used, or is there ultimately only one truth in Dogen’s many words – i.e., that the truest and deepest levels of consciously experienced reality lie beyond what our language, concepts and critical mental faculties can grasp? Are Dogen’s writings really just one big koan on intellectual humility?

The problem with Buddhism arises when its modern teachers use these quotes to impress upon their students the existence of some sort of ultra-transcendent understanding of reality, an understanding that the Buddha and the most advanced masters have obtained (and perhaps you too can obtain, if you listen to the teacher and work hard enough). I would guess that this is what they call satori or enlightenment, basically what mades Buddha Gautama a Buddha.

In my humble opinion though, this is all wrong. The main point of all this “Buddhist word salad” is that we humans aren’t equipped to completely understand the universe and time. The confusing words of the Eastern masters sound ridiculous for a reason! It’s not a matter of some deep esoteric wisdom that only the most advanced seekers can attain. Instead, the writers of these obscure sutras and koans are trying to say that there are inherent limits built into our minds and brains and bodies and environments, and these limits define what we can and cannot possibly understand. Modern science has shown that we surely can understand a lot! Much more than we would have thought just a few hundred years ago. And we no doubt will continue to push outward the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding.

However, as to the ultimate questions about why it all exists, what it is at bottom, what it means — those are the matters of wisdom that will remain forever beyond our reach. Case in point: the matter of human consciousness. Scientists can explain a whole lot about when we are conscious, what goes on in our brains and bodies when we are or are not conscious, and even what we might be conscious of or how we are feeling based on how our neurons are firing.

But as to explaining just why there is consciousness, what it ultimately breaks down to, where it ultimately obtains the qualities that we “feel” during our waking moments (versus what triggers this or that feeling) . . . I’ve been following the consciousness research field for over 10 years now, and I’m growing increasingly doubtful that it can every really be explained. PS, I’m not alone in that regard – this is called the “mysterian” position by consciousness philosophers. Interestingly, in 2011, neuroscientist/philosopher Sam Harris gave something of an endorsement to the mystery-of-consciousness point of view!

Dogen causes a lot of Buddhist students (like myself, until recently) to scratch their heads. But once you understand Dogen in the context of epistemological humility, everything he says falls into place. Socrates is remembered as saying (roughly) that the beginning of wisdom is to know that you ultimately don’t know. Dogen is similarly doing his best to illuminate the boundaries of knowledge, and thus kindle our humility and set the true foundation for wisdom.

I.e., Dogen’s impossible word games prove (to me, anyway) that Buddha also appreciated the Socratic edict about the paradoxical relationship between appreciating what you can’t know and gaining a truer form of knowledge. (Although, of course, Buddha Gautama and Dogen had never heard of Socrates). Unfortunately, I don’t recall any teachers interpreting Dogen’s words as a treatise on humility. Like Warner, they believe that they can use Dogen’s words to forward their own seemingly wise notions and establish their authority regarding the world and its reality. Warner goes as far as to believe that Dogen can be used to explain God — and hey, once you explain God, what’s left to explain?

So I feel that Brad Warner, and a whole lot of other Buddhist teachers, would benefit by a lecture on the value and correctness of good old fashioned humility – both from a daily-life perspective and from a cosmic / epistemological perspective. The Abrahamic religions, especially Christianity, say a lot about the virtue of humility. Not that this is without hypocrisy. Christianity talks a lot of good talk about humility, but so many of its own religious leaders (especially the priests and bishops) act in a very different fashion. Christian leaders even use humility as a justification for un-checked ecclesiastical authority and power – i.e., you, the unwashed masses, must be humble and admit that you don’t understand, but we leaders have been given a revelation directly from God, so you must follow what we say.

Yes, there is a lot of talking the talk and not walking the walk within Christianity. The notion of Papal infallibility is widely misunderstood, but nonetheless, it still reflects an ecclesiastical hubris that rivals the popular Buddhist notions of “enlightment” and enlightened teachers. Thank goodness that the current keeper of the Chair of Saint Peter, i.e. Pope Francis, is doing his best to put some well-needed humility back into the Vatican. Buddhism still awaits its Francis.

On the more academic level, many of the Christian churches, especially the Catholic faith, have put a lot of effort into official theology, into set written doctrines and teachings regarding the nature of God and the universe. Obviously, this presumes that humans can somehow possess an accurate understanding of such weighty matters. And even if these understandings are said to stem from “divine revelations”, how can we think that we humans can be made to fully understand the subjects that these revelations allegedly address? One of the key Catholic theologians in history, Thomas Aquinas of the 13th Century, said that ultimately, all of his writings regarding the existence and nature of God “seem like straw“. Well, give Aquinas credit for a little bit of humble reflection, after a life of chasing the ineffable.

So, both Buddhists and Christians too often claim or assume that humans can understand a whole lot more about reality than we really can. The Christians are especially guilty because they themselves acknowledge the value and truth of humility; but the Buddhists are also complicit in not realizing that the crazy word-salads left behind by their most profound teachers like Dogen are fundamentally about epistemological humility. These word games illuminate the fact that there are questions that humans just can’t get final answers to, simply because we are human and have our limits.

Unfortunately, most Buddhists hardly make use of the word “humility”; they seem to maintain the delusion that the Buddha was a man who transcended the boundaries of the unknowable and gained complete understanding and universal wisdom. Of course, in maintaining that Jesus as a man was also God, Christianity also seems to violate the limits of humility, although Christian theology does maintain that it was not Jesus as a man who “achieved” the transcendence of God-hood; the God-thing came from God him- (or her-) self.

So in the end, there are plenty of humility problems to go around for both Buddhism and Christianity. And also with me, for my saying what I am saying here, in such an un-humble fashion. Recall that humility is the virtue that dare not say its name, but I am saying it all over the place! I am a science and philosophy junky, and so I will continue to think and write about all sorts of abstract stuff in search of the truth, or at least something closer to whatever “the truth” really is. But I will at least try to remember that ultimately, this is “just straw” as Aquinas says.

And in that vein, I will admit that Buddhism and especially Zen Buddhism has one very good idea, an idea that most Christians don’t seem to share. And that is the notion that ultimately, the best and highest wisdom is attainable not by word, but in silence through meditation. Buddhism doesn’t say much about God, but perhaps that makes sense if the only way we truly learn anything about God is in a wordless fashion, through our meditative and transcendent moments.

Silence is generally needed for such moments (although yes, there are other transcendent experiences that are noisy). Since these ultimate experiences are personal and cannot be shared directly with others (as facts and ideas can be shared through words and pictures), the Buddha and his friends appear to have decided that it was best not to say much to the masses about God, but instead get them to put their butts on a comfy spot and sit silently until they too could experience God’s presence. (Warner basically says this, to his credit.)

Most Christians by contrast believe that talking about whatever they decide has been “revealed” from on high is the best way help the masses to know and follow God. Which is a shame, because if you look hard enough, you can find some hints in the Bible that silence is one of the best means by which we can come to know God. E.g.,

But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. (Habakkuk 2:20)

Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Luke 5:16)

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray . . . while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. (Acts 10:9-11)

Personally, I think it’s a shame that the major spiritual institutions of the world never established a “best of both worlds” approach. IMHO, Jews and Christians should be doing more meditation sitting, and Buddhists should be talking more about what God may or may not be. (And imagine what wonders a bit of meditation could do for Islam!) But for the most part, Christians and Jews are happy avoiding the rigors and discipline needed to sit still for more than 30 seconds, and Buddhists (especially atheistic modern western Buddhists) are happy avoiding the complexities and dangers of God-talk (even were it to be divorced of dogmatic certainty and assertion). Give Brad Warner extra credit for at least bringing up the topic of God amidst his Buddhist friends.

So, for now, I will continue to sit with my own Zen friends every week, but pester them every now and then with some unwelcomed and possibly un-humble God-talk. Perhaps there are some communities out there from either an eastern or western religious tradition (or even a modern secular perspective) that combine silence and meditation with the search for God (without any dogmatic certainty and assertion). I wish any such community well, and perhaps some day I will find my way to such a group. Until then – all I can do it to try to be humble and in silence keep the faith!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:16 pm      

  1. “The main point of all this “Buddhist word salad” is that we humans aren’t equipped to completely understand the universe and time. The confusing words of the Eastern masters sound ridiculous for a reason! It’s not a matter of some deep esoteric wisdom that only the most advanced seekers can attain. Instead, the writers of these obscure sutras and koans are trying to say that there are inherent limits built into our minds and brains and bodies and environments, and these limits define what we can and cannot possibly understand. Modern science has shown that we surely can understand a lot! Much more than we would have thought just a few hundred years ago. And we no doubt will continue to push outward the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding.

    However, as to the ultimate questions about why it all exists, what it is at bottom, what it means — those are the matters of wisdom that will remain forever beyond our reach.”

    Another brilliant piece of clarity! Thank you, Jim! xo

    Comment by bunnhopscotch — May 25, 2017 @ 11:30 pm

  2. Jim, Well, it seems to me that there are few, if any, religions or philosophies or other types of groups who purport to guide people thru life that “specialize” in HUMILITY­­and their representatives (priests, scholars, leaders) are the first, it seems, to outright care to have little to do with humility in their actions; seldom do any of them exhibit humility or even TALK humility. Pope Francis, as an individual not as “pope”, may be one of the few among Christians who exhibits what may be a more humble attitude in his “I don’t know everything” stance, in his acceptance of much less extravagant living quarters, etc., and a “whole bunch of empathy with the members of his Church”; but I’m not sure that empathy passes for humility as such. When he still refuses to ordain women as priests, there’s something missing in “humility” as a general rule in the RCs, I think.

    The very titles the heads of churches have are lacking in humility: “Your eminence”, “your excellency”, even “reverend” are all lacking in humility, some more so than others. (Even the word “reverend” brings with it some careful sense of being “special”, so it seems to me.)

    Furthermore, it may be that I am simply not that well acquainted with other religious groups (than the RCs) or philosophies, etc., to have much knowledge of their leaders. However, about 25 years ago I became interested in Buddhism and tho’t to join a group but was stopped “just in time” when I happened to read that a new male monk is “worth more” [presumably spiritually] than a nun of 40 years). No thanks to Buddhism, said I. Yet another patriarchal group!

    I can NOT think of even ONE religious group that as a group encourages humility as a virtue to be steadfastly followed, not even the modern day very large churches, such as Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church whose sermons take place in a large arena in Texas. Not much humility there either. Everybody is promised to get rich and have few troubles, or so it seems to me.

    It seems it’s always the INDIVIDUALS who become famous in religions or philosophic groups who tend to practice humility when/if they become well known. But that may be simply the “obvious” ones who practice humility as the everyday, ordinary person carefully and with reverence, practicing his/her tenets of religion/philosophy generally is not known but likely has quite a bit of humility.

    I find myself wanting to hear of the day when some unknown but empathetic and loving (in a general sense) laypeople are made saints in the RC Church! It’s always the “well know ones” who get the honor. (But to his credit Pope Francis DID just make saints the 3 children of Fatima; and while they were well known in some sense; they really were obscure in most other ways; so maybe they would qualify.)

    And perhaps this should have come first: I wonder just who agrees on what exactly constitutes humility in a person or what practice of humility looks like in an individual. Big problem here, as I see it.

    I once read, some 50 years ago that humility was purely and simply “the truth” about oneself and oneself in relation to other people and the world in general. The definition I read then had little to do with anything that resembled “lowering” oneself in the world. The simple acknowledgement of the truth: What is good about me? What is “not good” about me?­­the completely honest answer to those questions constituted humility. I liked that very much; it seems to “put one in his/her place”, so to say: acknowledging one’s good points and one’s not-so-good/bad points.

    And I must confess that I have actually seen myself the “honesty” in the statement of Thomas Acquinas who said that “all is straw”. I tho’t: It’s really TRUE! And one can easily and simply be “put in one’s place” with that “truth”. When one comes close to death, everything DOES seem “like straw”.

    I would further think that humility has little to do with considering how others see and practice humility. The very idea of deciding whether someone else is practicing humility seems very “unhumble”.

    In addition I’m not sure I can agree that Christians do not believe in silence and/or meditation. Anybody who practices that religion with any real seriousness soon comes upon the fact that meditation (albeit a different FORM of meditation than Buddhism and/or Zen Buddhism practices) is certainly encouraged and recommended. In fact, every form of prayer should be a kind of meditation, one might say, according to Christian religious practice. (I’d say the real problem here is the lack of education and/or interest in a serious practice of Roman Catholic religion should it be one’s choice of religion.)

    Lastly, I think that like anything human every religion will have its faults; every philosophy will not contain every truth; there is no way to know everything in life one must know to live a full/good life. I tend to think that the best practitioners of a religion or philosophy are those who “bend the rules” somewhat, which leads to empathetically including the human problems of life and dealing with them in empathetic ways. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 27, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

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