Traditional Dhamma, Secular Dhamma – Stephen Batchelor and Bhante Sujato

| March 11, 2012 | 37 Comments

This video shows a dialogue between Stephen Batchelor and Bhante Sujato about the practice of Buddhism and its relevance at the dawn of the new millennium. Moderated by Tina Ng. Of course much of the discussion is over the topic of Rebirth . . .

 

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Dana Nourie

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Dana is Technical Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. She learned Buddhism through a DVD course on Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, followed by a two-year course in person. She then studied Theravada Buddhism through the Insight Meditation South Bay with teacher Shaila Catherine. She has been a practitioner now for over a decade. Dana has been working in the internet industry since 1992, has held the positions of web developer, technical writer, and online community manager. She is a geek girl with a passion for science and computing.

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  1. Linda Linda says:

    Fascinating discussion. I was astounded to hear that Bhante Sujato took up his belief in rebirth in response to a strong feeling, which he described as “an intuition”. I wonder that he can reconcile basing his belief on one incident and, of course, lots of study of texts. It seems quite clear to me that “feelings” and “intuition” are the things the Buddha told us to be suspicious of.

    I was also interested in the inconclusive discussion toward the end of why people get so excited when debating about rebirth. Lots of good and valid suggestions were made as to why (and undoubtedly there are combinations of these and others in play for each individual). But once again the strong emotion should be telling us that there’s something going on to do with self. Each of us needs to examine what is arising following on that emotion, and try to look back and see what the causes are.

  2. stoky says:

    “It seems quite clear to me that “feelings” and “intuition” are the things the Buddha told us to be suspicious of.”

    Btw, the Kalama Sutta adds logical thinking and reason to that list. Not saying that this is my opinion, just for the record ;)

    And yes, strong emotions are often a sign that you’re afraid of being proven wrong. On the other hand, people who have no doubts at all are often calm and relaxed (more like a stone, less like a river). Presumably, because it’s not possible for them to be proven wrong, because the think they “own” the truth.

    • Linda Linda says:

      The Kalama Sutta seems to be attempting to cross out just about everything but direct experience, and even that is going to be balanced by listening to the wise (which it also suggests doing) — making for a good counterbalance to the sorts of experiences we can overlay with too much imagination and build into something really cool and mystical (and imaginary!) when left to our own devices.

      But I am going to disagree with you about people who are confident in their understanding feeling they “own” the truth. Being one of those people myself, my confidence doesn’t come from owning anything at all, but from seeing what I am looking at (that we are calling, here, “truth”) from so many different angles and perspectives, having so much evidence to support it — both experiential and through study — all coming at me so that I know I’ve got something right. That doesn’t make the “truth” mine in any way. It only makes my confidence “mine” and my understanding “mine”. Even with the understanding, I am trying to make that “not mine” and push it out into the world where others can see and test it for themselves, and use it if it helps, but that’s not easy to do. Of course no one will ever have my exact understanding, but that’s a good thing — each of us has a different approach and a different way of expressing what we see.

  3. I also tend to be wary of basing profound life choices or beliefs on intuition, but it seems to be extremely common among Buddhist writers/thinkers/scholars/etc. Again and again I’m told that there is something out there (the luminous mind, buddha nature, etc) that can only be experienced, and can’t be put into words. To my way of thinking, if you can’t put it into words, then why bother talking a bout it? But I have to say that this discussion seemed a lot more friendly and open than some of the reaction I’ve seen to Stephen Batchelor’s point of view regarding rebirth.

  4. Linda Linda says:

    I like your conclusion, Bruce, that if you can’t put it into words we’re wasting our breath talking about it. All that “you’ll see it when you are advanced enough” stuff is a distraction as well as an excuse for not having actual answers.

  5. David S says:

    It seems to me Sujato’s declarations of having been for a time an atheist, his being transformed by a sense of having been here a lot longer than this life, and then his dismay and humor towards lay people questioning the premise of rebirth doesn’t show any compassionate regard to their concerns, which with his experiences he should have had the ability to do. I take Sujato’s reaction as simply a self serving egoic reinforcement to prop up his current view and a sense of superior understanding, with a knowing smile.

    Contrarily, for me it is very easy to understand people’s questioning rebirth doctrine. It comes from being told that knowledge comes from understanding cause and effect, dependent origination, Kamma, etc. yet any inconsistencies and hypocrisies are resolved only by ignoring them. Rebirth directly conflicts with the no-self doctrines of Buddhism, and also that of basing one’s knowledge on one’s experiences. The underlying Buddhistic expectation is that rebirth is a belief based solely on faith is really just a close cousin of delusion. Even Sujato’s initial sense of having lived longer than this life implicitly supports a soul-like self. Why did he identify this passing feeling/thought as himself who continues through time? And explanations such as he and Stephen discussed for a working of reincarnation and no-self do not preclude identifying that any such “energies” or chain of reactions could also then be called the self.

    Overall, I found Batchelor’s responses too accommodating towards Buddhistic doctrines. He still wants to believe and this is consistent with his previous desires, having been a monk/seeker. It actually took the host to bring up the topic of no-self contradicting rebirth! When this is where the discussion should have begun.

    I also think that these two individuals are both heavily restrained in their thinking by some false notions of authenticity towards Buddhist teachings. They threw back and forth references to this scripture (sutta) and that. As if the scriptures were true documents of true knowledge rather than fabrications pieced together over time. It would have been much more substantial to have them talk solely from experience, and to explain how their interpretations of experiences brought them to any understandings.

    I’m so tired of discussions with out references to one’s own experiences instead deferring to the suttas. I’ve read what the Buddha is to have said and found deep ignorance over and over. Continuing to accommodate discussions towards him as the sole arbitrator of knowledge is unfounded. Did you know he thought bringing in women as monk’s would shorten the life of Buddhism in half. He described women as a blight on a harvest. He also thought that an atheistic individual would be immoral and lead a miserable life. I was raised an atheist and have found morals to be inherent within humanity given that we are social and need to survive with each other. His thinking is simply the same old ignorant statements I hear from religious people continually. Buddhists by the way, fear death as much as any deity worshiping person, the Buddha sought the deathless to sooth his troubled mind as an ultimate solution for suffering. A classic desire for mankind resulting in the birth of religious thinking.

  6. Linda Linda says:

    I agree with a lot of what you say, David. I especially agree that we need far more discussions that reference the speaker’s experiences. When I first began studying Buddhism in the 80s, every book I read was so obscure that it was maddening. I could tell there was sense in what I was reading, but seeing how to apply it (other than to “just sit in meditation”) was impossible for me because nothing was said to relate the teachings to daily life. Speaking from experience has double value, in that it shows that the person sharing their understanding isn’t working just from theory, and it tends to make what’s being said clearer, by providing examples.

    Some years ago I set out to write a book which would explain in the plainest language I could muster what the Buddha taught and why and how it would apply. First, though, I had to actually come to *understand* what he taught. I was tired of taking my lessons at second-hand, so I went to the source via the oldest texts we have that represent what was taught. Being something of a nerd — I love history and languages — I soon got caught up in the pleasures of piecing together sense from the apparent jumble of contradictions I found in the old suttas. I started out thinking they were an incomprehensible mess, but the more I read, the more I could see patterns emerging that actually made sense, and fit together.

    What became clear to me is that the problem with these old texts has more to do with trusting our modern translators and the traditions they come from to fully understand them, and translate them without bias, than it has to do with the original texts. I’m not saying the texts are easy to sort out — they are not, especially since there are many layers — but it’s getting clearer to me that they aren’t as horrible a knot as they first appear. If we look for the pieces that fit together well, the whole thing actually makes sense.

    But as for the parts that don’t fit with the parts that hang together: As well as texts denigrating women, we also have texts where the Buddha praises them. More to the point, we have stories of nuns preaching to kings in his time (examples that show women were given fairly equal roles to men); we have the different style of speaking and great wisdom of one of his foremost disciples, Dhammadina — a woman as clear in her teachings as her equal amongst the men, Sariputta.

    We know that the texts have been through many hands; we know they went through ages when women were denigrated. Do we assume, with texts that praise and others that hate women, that the Buddha was that inconsistent? Or do we assume the person who taught about how to see through our own delusions and was quite clear on the emptiness of our definitions would have picked one stance, and that would be the one consistent with his teaching about “there is no inherent nature to anything” — which would surely include women’s inherent inferiority or evil? Since it’s clear the texts are sometimes corrupted, and in the centuries after the Buddha women’s place went from not bad (but not great) to quite bad — to me it seems historically consistent to assume the women-repressing texts are later intrusions. (Scholars wiser than I am have been putting forth theories and evidence that the bit about “dhamma will be dead in 1,000 years anyway but let women in it will be gone in half the time” was added later.)

    There is, I find, a lot of wisdom in the pieces that fit together — I don’t think the texts deserve the drubbing you give them above. I suspect the translations you’re reading are not very good — I’d love it if you can give me the references to find a sutta in which the Buddha says, “an atheistic individual would be immoral and lead a miserable life” — I’ve never seen that in any text, and would like to have a look at the context.

    But just because I find wisdom in the suttas doesn’t mean that I see the Buddha as “the ultimate authority” — each of us, in our practice, is the ultimate authority. We don’t want to go off on our own to too great a degree — we humans are so good at deluding ourselves that second opinions from our peers and science have a good balancing effect on our conclusions — but the man tells us to check our understanding of what he’s saying against our own lives. If what you think he’s saying doesn’t match what you see in life, give him the benefit of the doubt for a change: rather than concluding he was wrong and stupid, allow the possibility that the translation you’ve got isn’t giving you the information you need to understand what he was saying. Because, trust me, the “deathless” he sought wasn’t anything to do with the birth of religious thinking — quite the contrary.

    • David S says:

      Hey Linda. I was interested in finding Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book: In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Teachings of the Buddha) in which I had read about the Buddha’s views on annihilationism. [I am writing this after my post below.] I went and found a copy of the book to find the part I was referring to above. Something very interesting came of it. It turns out all the grossly ignorant statements came not from a sutta but from the analysis by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Here’s a couple of quotes…

      p198
      “Annihilationism is often accompanied by a disgust with existence…”
      p315
      “…the danger of ethical anarchy to which annihilationism eventually leads.”

      So in reading the text Held By Two Kinds of Views I didn’t see any negative statements regarding outcomes of holding a belief in annihilationism (atheism) only rather that holding any view is counter productive towards Buddhism’s goals. So it was Bhikkhu Bodhi’s view that I was reacting to as being ignorant.

      • Linda Linda says:

        Blessings on you for that, David! I had this *really long* answer I was working on and I was growing disgusted with myself for never being concise — now you’ve given me a happy ending (I can just toss the draft out). But perhaps I will recycle some of it for my answer to the portions of your posts dealing with the story of the Buddha having been raised in ignorance of sickness, aging, and death. A comment that will also likely end up being too long.

  7. David S says:

    Linda. Thanks for your response. Fun to have this discussion.

    Yes, in reading texts one can find all kinds of things that are not from one source. But we will never know the truth about the sources. So it comes back to being honest with what the texts include and to not bend them towards idealization and closed edits.

    The book in which I saw the bit about the Buddha’s beliefs about atheists came from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book: In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon (Teachings of the Buddha). My copy with my notes is in another state so I can’t refer you to the page, but this comment I’ve seen elsewhere. It is one of those “middle way” statements regarding those who believe in annihilation etc…. in other words atheists, VS those who believe in eternalism, and the Buddha’s middle way. Utter ignorance as far as it goes. I wish I could quote it.

    I don’t believe that the Buddha was infallible. Like any person he had his point of view shaped by his desires and fears. I especially think the notion of “enlightenment” is laden with fantasy right from the start. So my understanding of Buddhism begins from the premise of where did the ideas come from?

    I find meditation to be the place where Buddhist concepts came from and were developed. I’ve found that meditative experiences which one can achieve can led a person to believe Buddhist notions, but don’t really contain those notions, only their interpretations do, and these are not necessarily unbiased and objective. You see the Buddha began his quest in ignorance of death, sickness, and old age. He then set out to escape the suffering he found in his mind from these experiences. He didn’t just accept these qualities as what comes with living. He sought an escape, a way that was lasting, a state of no change and stability. He found the “deathless” which pretty much sums it up. He didn’t accept death as the end, hence rebirth and Nibbana.

    I do find meaning in many Buddhist concepts which fit in with my experiences of life, except those ideas which place the phenomenology of one’s experience as being such that one can experience death before it occurs and thus know the TRUTH of it. All these notions occur to those who are living and not dead. They occur in meditative absorptions etc… while very much alive.

    When I experienced a couple of very interesting absorptions I could see from these states what the teachings were talking of yet my interpretation was very different. I was fascinated that the mind could shift to such altered states from a meditative one. The qualities were amazing. But I found the Buddhist interpretations of such experiences to be laden with assessments much grander and distorted what they were.

    My interpretation about why the Buddha never explained his views on rebirth with as much conviction as he did his other teaching was that in order to shift the mind in meditation it requires a letting the mind slip as it will. Having too many notions only keeps the mind grasping onto concepts and doesn’t let it settle down and slip into other states. I think this slipping is connected to lucid dreaming states, but from a waking state. So he played with people’s expectations to move them away from thinking about their particular view.

    Oh, I digress.

    I also find many of the human relation teachings to be helpful, but not necessarily Buddhist in origin, humanist. A helpful framework if one takes it without any serious regard to the oppression of future lives to be paid out. We just need to do our best and remain intent on trying. And this too helps quiet the mind from thoughts brought about from difficulty in life.

    Most people seem to be drawn to Buddhism for these interpersonal and intrapersonal reflections that come about with the teachings. I find they support my values and give a form for discussing them with others. Then again, in discussing the big picture issues at the base of Buddhism I continue to seek out what others are saying but find too many discussions based on assumptions of a perfect Buddha who was the guy who had no faults. I lose any ability to relate to these sorts of myth making obscuring the probable.

    • David S says:

      I need to restate the part of meditative absorptions being related to lucid dreaming. There weren’t visual impressions as in dreaming. I meant to refer only to how my mind went from a sense of me being in charge of its direction to a sensation of sliding into following along and being absorbed into the sensation. Then I found differing experiences with no bodily impressions, and no self impressions. A very limited set of impressions showing a remarkable lack of complexity, but grand sense. I read a book about how the brain switches from waking states to those of sleeping and dreaming which to me seems connected to these meditative possibilities and the words of letting go and relinquishment.

    • Linda Linda says:

      Re: the meditative states. I am not such a good meditator, myself. My concentration is lousy for getting into such states, but I sure do get a lot of bang for my buck out of the garbage that distracts me!

      But what I wanted to comment on was what I see in the suttas when I study what’s being said about these states. I think you are quite right about what’s going on there. And what I see him saying — for example in his rejection of these states as “being the way” (they are not, in and of themselves, the way to liberation) — is that *others* interpreted what was going on in these states as ways of punching through the separation between this existence and the world(s) they would go to after death. There were gurus who thought jhana #1 was “the highest liberation” and then there was the next guy who thought #2 was the furthest one could go, and so on, right up to “the formless attainments” — they thought they were attaining “another world”. So when he rejects these, he’s rejecting that view altogether. “This isn’t liberation” he says, “there must be something more…” and leaves the meditation teachers behind and continues his quest.

      But just because they are not, in and of themselves, liberation, doesn’t mean they are not useful in moving us *towards* liberation. Clearly, the greater our skill in doing these things, the better our ability to concentrate on being able to look accurately at the garbage in our lives.

      And as for “letting go” — yes! In part it is learning to let go of these states — the Buddha talks a great deal about how there is always “an escape beyond” from each of these states — right up until there isn’t, anymore. When one gets to a certain point — having let go of each one in turn as, ultimately, “constructed” — then one can get to the point where we can see that, really, every one of our perceptions is constructed. (This sort of procedure was actually one of the two ways the Buddha’s foremost disciple, Sariputta, reached awakening.)

  8. Linda Linda says:

    Glad we can both continue to enjoy this conversation, David.

    “It turns out all the grossly ignorant statements came not from a sutta but from the analysis by Bhikkhu Bodhi. ”

    Thanks for that — it made me laugh.

    You quoted Bodhi: “Annihilationism is often accompanied by a disgust with existence…”

    Just as an aside, this is one of the places where (I suspect) Theravadan understanding is confused — the whole set of descriptors in the Pali texts for annihilationism is a bit of a tangle, and I am becoming convinced from reading about the various schools of thought around that time that what “annihilationism” was is not exactly what Theravada understands it to be (it’s far more complex than they think) — but I am only beginning to accumulate evidence to show this.

    I agree with you that the Buddha was not infallible. We have stories that show he made mistakes, and that he attempted things that he did not succeed at (negotiating a truce between fighting clans, for example) — he was not an all-powerful, omniscient being, for all that the texts sometimes portray him as such.

    But this is my problem: when I set out to find out what the Buddha said and why he said it, I didn’t find what I expected to find. First I expected to find what all the traditional books I’d read said the Buddha taught, and while I could see how they came to the conclusions they came to — and how for the most part their explanations pieced together the suttas in a way that gave them a system that was internally coherent and consistent — I could also see that what they came up with was only consistent “for the most part” but (as you pointed out in your first post) really, a whole lot of things had to be ignored to make it work or (worse yet to my way of thinking) structures had to be built to support the traditional understanding that were built on very shaky ground. Ground like, “Oh there is no inconsistency between rebirth and anatta — you don’t see how that could be? Well that’s because you haven’t gone far enough in your practice yet!” (I call this “wizard-speak” — “You have to be a wizard to understand what’s being said”; this is just a way of getting out of showing that the wizard can’t explain something in any logical or comprehensible way, whether from lack of understanding themselves, or lack of consistency in their claims in the first place.)

    I didn’t actually care what it was that the Buddha taught, I just wanted to understand — from primary sources instead of second-hand — what he taught. Whether I would then *agree* with what he taught was not significant to my search when I set out on my quest. But once I saw the above, I started poking into the Pali and began to find discrepancies between translations and the Pali itself. Why would that be? I wondered. I have finally come to the conclusion that the traditional interpretations are just a little bit off. They get a big portion of what’s being said right, but they misinterpret something so significant that it affects even the bits they get right. I don’t get the sense that the misinterpretation of texts is intentional; I think it is just an artefact of translating the suttas to be consistent with the translator’s understanding of what’s being said. (But of course, translators should ideally not be imposing their understanding on the text, but let the text shape their understanding.)

    Here’s an example: The traditions take literally the story you mention of the Buddha beginning to seek an answer “in ignorance of death, sickness, and old age”. Because the traditions have always taken it literally, *we* take it literally. But what did they do with the boy-Buddha? Stick him in a box and feed him through a hole? How would a person be raised in complete ignorance of sickness, aging, and death? How would his father be preparing him to (hopefully) take on the role of the leader of their clan, meanwhile keeping him in such a box? Do we ask ourselves these questions? Rarely! I haven’t seen much questioning of these sorts of stories.

    The story is in the suttas — the Buddha himself tells the story. It could be a later addition (I’ve heard this suggested a few times). But it might also be a story the Buddha himself told *for a reason*. And this is what I am beginning to see: he does have a reason for putting it the way he does. The obvious reason is that it makes a great story, one that will get passed on. But the deeper reason comes from matching it up to the rest of what he is saying. He talks about sickness, aging, and death in dependent arising — the core lesson he teaches — and in that lesson he is talking about how, as a result of building up a mistaken sense that we have a lasting self, we misidentify our relationship with sickness, aging, and death, and the suffering it causes. So what he is saying in this story is that he grew up ignorant of that — of the problems of sickness, aging, and death as seen through his lesson in dependent arising — as defined in that lesson. We *all* grow up ignorant in that way. We seekers all go out looking for the answer to the question of why we suffer when we encounter sickness, aging, and death (i.e. impermanence) and we are ignorant of the real reason. So it’s not that he was *literally* ignorant of sickness, aging, and death, it is that he was raised in a way (we all are) that kept him ignorant of what part they have in our experience of dukkha — this is the deeper meaning to the tale.

    We shouldn’t be taking everything in the suttas as literal. Literal isn’t the way rishis and gurus and wise men of all stripes spoke in those days. They spoke in riddles and it was the disciple’s job to work on the riddle and come to understand the deeper meaning. When it suits the purposes of Theravada, they understand this and solve the riddle if it fits their understanding of what the Buddha was saying. But if it doesn’t suit — if it works better for them to take something literally — then they ignore the way the Buddha tends to say things that seem quite obvious while meaning something else.

    But for some reason we blindly trust the Theravada to have a perfect understanding of what’s expressed in the Pali suttas, and we believe that they are right when they say “this should be taken literally” (the boy was raised in complete ignorance of aging and death) and this should not be taken literally (there is nothing to be reborn, but there is rebirth). We need to start afresh — listen to the traditional take and understand why they say what they say, but *really* understand it by noticing when they choose to slant a translation to support their view. And then, by looking at the texts in the context of their day, of the way people spoke, of the phrases that were used and what they meant, we need to try to discover how accurate the Theravadan interpretations are.

    For example, we need to take a fresh look at the language: “the deathless” that you mentioned in the first post was a common word for liberative states far outside of Buddhism — he’s using a common word to point to *his version* of liberation. Also, calling it “the deathless” is another reference to dependent arising’s last step (where it just means “the end of dukkha” not “the end of death”) so he’s getting dual purpose out of it: it would be understood in his time as meaning “liberation” and simultaneously pointing to the step that references death in his core lesson.

    • David S says:

      Great reading.

      “We need to start afresh…”

      Yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. For me to gain any personal meaning from reading these texts I have to read them first as a literal form, then move into a symbolic one, then from the symbolic back into a literal/personal context. Not that difficult to do. However, it seems to me that as with all religions, these stories are claiming an authoritative stance on explaining the phenomenal world literally. The claim of rebirth was a literal claim not a symbolic abstraction. The desire to end the cycle of rebirth was and is literal. I don’t believe in rebirth so I take it symbolically to mean from moment to moment one thing affects the next. But if this is actually all that it was intended to mean then I doubt it would have been abstracted into the larger analogy of rebirth.

      One thing about Buddhism’s stories is that they rely upon the phenomenology of meditative experience mixed with notions of spiritual realms and ultimately a desire to escape death. These themes pervade their stories. I have to stress the point that these do not seem to be merely symbolic abstractions. I saw Ajahn Sumedho give a talk in Seattle a few years back and he was practically pronouncing the great news that there is more than this life! As well as making claims that Buddhism is not a religion! But tellingly, he wouldn’t answer my simple question whether this came to him in a meditative state, and what did he experience that brought him to this conclusion. (But this only shows what you said, “…for some reason we blindly trust the Theravada to have a perfect understanding of what’s expressed in the Pali suttas….”!!! Well said.)

      Why would he think this?

      Because he believed it first, or wanted to believe it, then applied it to his meditations and living. I’ve found that Buddhist claims are not any more provable than any religion is. It ends back with the same requirement of needing to believe and have faith in something that can never be known. Teachers recruit new students with promises that it is all within one’s experience to see if it is true for oneself, as if it is even possible to know of what happens after death while still alive!

      This is religion. Buddhism is a religion.

      Using meditative qualities to base the dynamics upon and language within gives it the appearance of being verifiable. It creates a parallel reference to place its beliefs upon. Tricky thing about the study of consciousness through meditation is that it can only reveal the effects. Reducing knowledge to studying the phenomenology of meditation and consciousness is limited by what consciousness can know and how it knows. There are no nerves within the brain. So no information will be present as to its workings, hence thoughts popping into existence. In understanding this fact no supernatural explanation is necessary. Feelings of great peace and dropping of a self can also be seen to be a different functioning of the brain with some functions shutting off as happens with sleep. But for Buddhists such meditative states the effects become “proof” of attaining other realms of existence rather than the effects of meditation. But because the language grew from these states and were woven into their beliefs of reality it creates a powerful experience for the believer.

      For me, the texts create a guide for meditative possibilities that I find fascinating. So this is my hook. I want to see for myself and so far I have found that a layer of interpretation has been added to these states. Another hook for me is how meditation breaks the cycle of proliferation and eases the mind. Another is learning to be equanimous towards what I experience. I’ve found these to be immensely helpful for my mental health and well being. So all is not a meaningless symbolic story being told. It is a mix.

      Linda, I think your reading of the texts is succinct in defining and eluding meaning which relates to living this life, and there isn’t much more that is better than doing so.

      As you say “…we need to take a fresh look at the language…” Yes we do. Thanks for the discussion.

    • Linda Linda says:

      “For me to gain any personal meaning from reading these texts I have to read them first as a literal form, then move into a symbolic one, then from the symbolic back into a literal/personal context.”

      Glad you’re able to do that — some folks don’t get past that literal reading though, and this is a great shame because the texts do have a lot to offer if we can just loosen our grip on them a little by not taking them literally.

      “However, it seems to me that as with all religions, these stories are claiming an authoritative stance on explaining the phenomenal world literally. The claim of rebirth was a literal claim not a symbolic abstraction.”

      Here I am pretty sure you are making the mistake of reading these texts the way we’ve been told to, and missing what’s actually there because it has become very, very easy to miss and is quite difficult to see. But if you have a chance and take a look at my paper (which you can find with this link to a google search: http://tinyurl.com/dabyjocbs ) I think you’ll see why I’m going to say that we are mistaken when we read the Pali texts as an attempt to “explain the phenomenal world literally” and that the discussion of rebirth is literal. This is what has come to be believed — it must have happened very early on in the process, too, given the commentaries and so on — and that belief has been perpetuated as a truth ever since (as religions do; you are definitely right about Buddhism — as we have it now at any rate — being a religion). The Theravada lost the keys to the underlying structure of dependent arising for so long that they are completely unaware that it is there. It took doing a lot of research outside of the Pali canon — and the great insights of a Sanskrit/Vedic scholar (Joanna Jurewicz), as well as the fresh insights into what the suttas *actually* say by the greatest Western thinker on Buddhism of the last century (Nanavira Thera) — for me to recognize the structure. But, damn! once you’ve seen it, it makes so much sense (and it is such an elegant expression of the Buddha’s points, fitting so neatly within his time) that it makes parts of the suttas that were just obscure come back into focus. I hope you get a chance to read it, because I think it will help your reading of the suttas immensely (and perhaps in so doing, help you get even more out of practice), and you’ll also see why I’m pretty certain that — though modern Buddhism is generally interpreting the teachings to be about the phenomenal world — that the Buddha never intended this.

      “The desire to end the cycle of rebirth was and is literal.”

      Was then in the wider culture of the Buddha’s time; is now amongst traditional Buddhists, yes. But that desire is something the Buddha is speaking out *against* in DA (shocking as that statement is, I believe you’ll see it by reading the paper). His point throughout is that as much as anything we do with self, it is our beliefs about life-after-death or the lack thereof that are at the heart of our problems, and it looks to me like he was being quite explicit about it with DA.

      “But if this is actually all that it was intended to mean then I doubt it would have been abstracted into the larger analogy of rebirth.”

      I can understand this impression — it is certainly what puzzled me for just years. Now that I’ve seen the way the Buddha is using the structure of beliefs about rebirth to say something else entirely, I can understand how we got where we are: the concept of rebirth so pervaded the culture, and is such a *comforting* belief system (despite all the talk about the desire to escape from the cycle, the idea that we go on after death is comforting — we get more chances to do better!) that because he used the language of rebirth to express something that is rather discomforting, the meme of rebirth took over — it is clearly a virulent idea. I am torn between thinking he made a mistake in using rebirth as his model (making the language too easily subvert the message, so that the message got lost) or concluding he was a genius who picked such a powerful carrier that it actually got his message all the way to the present time (mostly distorted, but still visible once we have available the ability to discover the context for his message by studying the cultures of his time — something not readily available to the monastic scholars over the intervening centuries).

      “One thing about Buddhism’s stories is that they rely upon the phenomenology of meditative experience mixed with notions of spiritual realms and ultimately a desire to escape death. These themes pervade their stories. I have to stress the point that these do not seem to be merely symbolic abstractions.”

      So you’re saying that this is happening *now*. And I can see from my reading that this was happening in the Buddha’s day too — common in the sects whose beliefs he was arguing against. They took what was happening in meditation as (an odd sort of) literal. They were really traveling to another world, the world they would go to after death — they were really flying through the air, diving into the earth, divining others’ thoughts and so on. Meditation seemed to give them these great powers, and they believed it to be true rather than altered states. The Buddha pokes fun at these in some suttas, and then we take his playful “My monks can fly through the air too” jokes as him saying these are literal powers. (*sigh* we are so gullible, as gullible as folks were then — human nature hasn’t changed).

      It’s funny, isn’t it, that it’s actually, as you point out, the desire to escape death — which is another way of saying “the desire for continued existence of the self” — that motivates us to believe in these altered states. I see this as the same force that causes some sects of Buddhism to be certain that while *this individual self will not continue* each and every one of us has a part of us hooked into the Greater Mind and that never goes away. All this talk about “realizing the transcendent nature of our being” and most conceptions about “Buddha nature” are still, at their base, the desire to have something special in us that continues on. Buddhism has turned into a vehicle for perpetuating the very beliefs about things-not-in-evidence that the Buddha was trying to get us to drop! And we are just blind to the contradiction!

      “Why would he think this? Because he believed it first, or wanted to believe it, then applied it to his meditations and living…”

      Also, there is the aspect of being told by everyone around him that this is so. It is hard to resist the pressure of one’s local group — when they are telling you that through your effort you *can* achieve something and you *will* achieve something, and one puts in the effort, the mind is only too willing to relieve the pressure on it by giving one what’s apparently needed, and expected. I believe the Buddha actually addresses this aspect, too — the social pressure — by using the term “sankhara” in DA.

      All good comments about the difficulties of examining meditation. I’m really interested in your experiences in finding “that a layer of interpretation has been added to these states.” Aside from the added interpretations, are you finding a fair match between your experiences and the levels as described in the suttas? Do you question whether you see what you see because you’ve been told you should see it? that is, if you do find a fair match? So hard to sort out these subjective experiences!

      I can testify that even without achieving the jhanas and formless states, that I’m also getting the benefits you mention in terms of calming the mind, stilling the tendency to tell ourselves stories and box everything in with definitions (my interpretation of “mental proliferation”), and resulting equanimity. My practice of Buddhism tends to rest only in part on meditation, more on mindfulness, and a lot on study — and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the end you, with your ability at meditation, and I (who lack it!) still end up in more or less the same place. I think that we are given several approaches — and we all need at least a little of each part of the practice — but this allows people with different strengths to all get far enough along to enjoy the benefits.

      • David S says:

        Linda, your interpretation that the common culture of Buddhism is mistaken in the reading of texts is a very important point. I agree completely. I’m glad to hear you have taken on the texts, and I will be reading what you have written and suggested to read. And for you to point out that Theravadan views have a bias helps in reevaluating their interpretation of the texts. The western Theravadan monks whom I’ve met at first appeared to me to be very discerning intelligent people, and yet somewhere unspoken, yet implied, they quickly cross over into magical thinking which I have little patience for. (As well as, their excommunicating Ajahn Brahm over participating in ordaining women really disgusts me.)

        Reevaluating the texts is important to gaining any understanding of how they can be applied to life, or not. In the broadest context it seems this is necessary, yet we still live within the culture that has its view. The texts can also be looked at from this dominant cultural view and be analyzed according to its own internal logic.

        With the common tale, I see the arc of a deluded person reacting against death, dying, sickness, and old age and seeking an escape in a final Nibbana. To back up this story I have heard teachers claim that all one has to do is follow the breath all the way to “liberation” (and along the way special powers and visions may be experienced). In meditation one is to “know” the six sense bases as only “what is being known,” as not-self, as dukkha, and their temporary quality. So if this is what the Buddha practiced, then why when he had visions of his past lives, etc… did he believe in them as something TRUE when everything else was abandoned? Wasn’t he supposed to have simply noted it as something without essence being known by the sense base of the mind and let it go? Given this arc of logic, my interpretation of this tale would be that he believed it because it fed his desire to escape death. It’s a fall from grace sort of deluded ending. That is what I make of this version of the tale from its own logic.

        However, I believe your comment about the Buddha speaking out against beliefs in rebirth is more probable given the texts. And your analysis of him using the common beliefs to speak against them seems to be in the texts as well, all very astute observations. I’m glad you’re taking it seriously to find a thread of believability. Your description of how the rebirth meme reasserted itself is great. (What about those jokes of flying monks? Are there texts that they are in?)

        But then again, what of the possibility that he did believe in rebirth? He was after all a member of a society based upon rebirth and the caste system. (Telling/interesting that these beliefs came into formal religious existence during the same period.) He may have held some amount of these beliefs as being true.

        On the other hand, it is highly probable that those who held the tale of the Buddha believed in rebirth and inserted it into their retelling of the tale. As we do today! And as I also insert my own interpretations.

        Which brings it all back to us. What is it we can know from our experience? What do we know?

        To answer you about my experiences with absorption I had either one or both of my experiences before reading anything about them. They both occurred after days on retreat practicing concentration. When they occurred I didn’t even speak of them to any teacher because I was hearing them stress that everything that one experienced was to be discarded by viewing all experience with the 3 marks of existence. So although they had a strong impact I just returned to mindfulness concentration practice.

        After some time I found a book, The Experience of Samadhi, which laid out many views on concentration states. The descriptions use various terms, the importance of each, and their groupings. It was interesting to see how the descriptions applied to my experiences. I found them to be a general net for description, and yet they avoided any description of the context of the experiences. So I wonder what others have experienced. Too bad about the closed culture surrounding discussing them. I suspect that the specifics of the impressions may differ quite a bit.

        The first time entering an absorption was very emotional with an endless peace and sense of equanimity, a fullness of immense depth. I could think and knew I was meditating. There wasn’t anything visual. The main impression was of a swirling sensation, because the sensation I was taken up into was a moving sensation in my forehead, like a finger placed inside my head and moving in a small circle. So the sensations of swirling, coming forward and receding were predominant. Also the sound of my breathing became like a loud jet. This didn’t last but for a few minutes. Afterward I felt a religious sort of reverence about it with its deeply moving emotional tones. Maybe this is one of its affects.

        The next time of absorption, I went into the sensation of the touch of the breath at the nostrils. Again the sound of breathing became pronounced, there were no visuals, just the sensation of rising and falling, an abstract impression without reference to any body or any visual notions. Like before, I had no sense of my body. Unlike before this time the feeling was neutral and I had no impression of being an observer nor existing separate from the basic sensation of rising and falling and the sound of the nostrils without a concept of nostrils, just aware of the sound. There were no thoughts nor reflection upon the experience, all I sensed were these two qualities. At some point, although there had been no visual sensations came a slight lightening of a neutral non-existent visual impression, different than seeing, but it faded quickly. I came out of this state with a dinner bell sounding and then came to realize I had been in this state for an hour (of a 2 hour sit). Strange.

        In readings about the jhanas it seems to me that this is what I experienced. I could be wrong but the descriptions fit in with the ordering of basic qualities I experienced, the second experience being farther along the list of perceptual qualities.

        If they were jhanas, then all the tales of what they signify become too mythic for what it meant for me. Like the notions of being farther along some path. What it means for rebirth, etc…. I see them as states which can be highly pleasurable (even the lack of pleasure is a sort of relief) and utterly fascinating. But I don’t see it as a greater state than normal waking. I see them as being less complex with less information about the world. As if parts of perception were turned off and the mind operates with what it has as if it were everything. Although their impressions could be described as being perceived as limitless etc… I sensed them as more of a void, or lack, which fits in with how the Buddha used negative terms to describe Nibbana as “not being” this and that. Yes, I can see why. If this state has less of what we know then it becomes “not this nor that.” It was a relief to be away from normal concerns, concepts and perceptions. It had a peace in this way. I never would have guessed that the mind could do this, but it doesn’t mean it was a supernatural realm.

        From what I gather these and other various experiences from other approaches all represent what are called “enlightenment” experiences. Differing views regard this or that experience to be THE ONE, the more important one, but there are as expected a variety of opinions regarding their importance.

        What does it mean?

        Well we exist in life as perceptual beings and these “special” states do not last, so the daily practice is where we benefit the most. And as you said in the end we both end up in the same place, living in this life.

        • Linda Linda says:

          Thanks for the details on your meditation. Even though you had the meditative experiences first and read about similar experiences afterward, you probably still need to be cautious that your mind isn’t bending the memory to match what you read (have you read Carol Tavris’ book “Mistakes Were Made – but not by me?” on cognitive dissonance and how little we realize how much it happens?). I’m not saying “You’re wrong, it didn’t happen that way!” I’m just saying, “Hmmmm… might want to consider the possibility that even here, we may be bending memories of our experiences to match what we later learn about similar experiences others have had.” Rather like my OBE experiences that I write about below: I am astounded at the degree to which our brains try to give us what we ask for. Anyway. I expect if meditators wrote journals of what their experiences were like when they were still fresh, we would find many common experiences even if we could control for “feeding expectation into the meditation” (and it’s hard not to teach someone how to meditate without setting up some expectation).

          This all gets so circular I get dizzy thinking about it.

          You wrote: “So if this is what the Buddha practiced, then why when he had visions of his past lives, etc… did he believe in them as something TRUE when everything else was abandoned? Wasn’t he supposed to have simply noted it as something without essence being known by the sense base of the mind and let it go? Given this arc of logic, my interpretation of this tale would be that he believed it because it fed his desire to escape death. It’s a fall from grace sort of deluded ending. That is what I make of this version of the tale from its own logic.”

          Did he? believe in them as something true? I don’t think he did. Having seen that underlying structure to DA, and what that makes the whole thing mean, I am (once again!) back to point out that when he talks about anything to do with rebirth he is using guru-speak, as it was practiced in his day. If we just want to take his message at face value we certainly can, but it is expected that his students will look for the deeper meaning in whatever he says, and DA *is* the deeper meaning — it is the one he refers to again and again and again. So when he talks about “his past lives” he’s talking about DA. He saw his past lives *as described in DA*. The suttas actually make this explicit. The “he saw his past lives” story comes out of his enlightenment experience. -”On the first watch, I saw my past lives. On the second lives, I saw other beings rising and passing away according to their past actions. On the third watch I saw the taints and that getting free of them leads to liberation.”- But the stories of the three watches also appears as -”I saw DA backward. I saw DA foreward. I saw DA forward and backward.” His past lives and the lives of others he saw rising and passing away *he saw in terms of what he’s telling us about in DA* — and that is not to do with literal rebirth.

          • David S says:

            Linda, yes our minds can create many things including how we perceive the world every day. In reporting on these two absorption experiences all I can do is describe them as accurately as I can. The experiences were dramatically different from an average meditation period and because of this were very memorable. All I can do at this point is to describe them.

            To your question of influence, after the second experience I didn’t see any connection between them, their qualities were so different, except in how I “went into” them. In both there was an unexpected turn of mind where what I was concentrating on shifted to “me” being “taken along” by the sensations without effort. A sort of “sliding sideways” away from being in control. Not a subtle thing at all. It felt kind of accidental.

            In reading about Samadhi I found that the pattern which was being described could relate the two experiences together. This is where I became influenced by other’s words and descriptions. They certainly seem to me to be absorptions because of “entering” the feeling I was focused on. Reading the lists of general descriptions I found the qualities present, although I wouldn’t have thought these were something common to other’s experiences and that there would be some order to them. So does ordering these two experiences make sense to me? Only with more experiences fitting into this form will it gain a more substantial understanding of some sort. However, these general terms leave open what the experiences perceived are and what they may mean in the broadest sense. It’s interesting to think about how different the experiences could be, while still containing these general descriptions, and I wondered if this is another part of why talking of them isn’t encouraged, we may miss their connecting traits and be “confused” (I wouldn’t think this way) with their meanings being multiple. So I was influenced by these lists to see the two experiences as being along a continuum, which may or may not be. But regarding those many others who have supported these sorts of understandings I’ll let it stand for now as being part of a sequence and see if there comes more supporting experiences or not.

            I know opinions of absorptions range from being part of “the path” to being irrelevant. It seems there are experiences from the mindfulness meditations that have very different qualities of things “breaking apart”, or one’s understanding doing so, which reflect the three marks of existence and have different resulting feelings. This to me reflects that there is a relation of how the mind shifts according to the techniques employed, not that one is preferred over another. Without hearing of other’s experiences of absorption I am standing on thin air and words regarding their implication, but I retain these experiences regardless.

            For me the strongest piece of understanding came from them having such an undeniable visceral quality, how the second one had no perception of a separate self, how such a reduction of perceptions while conscious can in turn become a much larger experience of them, and the release from normal functioning having strong implications towards their affective feelings such as equinimity. The words of Buddhist writings seemed to have come from such experiences and others. The meaning of these experiences doesn’t necessarily contain more than what was experienced though, and here is where I differ from Buddhism. I don’t see these being proof of other realms etc….

          • David S says:

            More thoughts…
            In reading of jhanas and pondering whether my experiences reflected these qualities was interesting. The writings gather everything into linear orders, lists, definitions, and stress the meditator’s skill in navigating these states.

            These writings reflect a level of clearly defined goals and intentions that they say are required, but this doesn’t fit with my experience. If these were jhanas I experienced, then some of what are portrayed as skillful acts didn’t occur as such, but as more implied qualities that took their own direction effortlessly upon absorption.

            Also the terms are such that I can see that they could be defined and made explicit as such, but not that I would have described them in the same manner. Like for instance, “one-pointedness” is a vague concept. In what way is it one-pointed? I correlate this to the experience of having the mind turn from an average experience of sensing this and that in a skittish way, to it becoming very cohesive and stable in its perceptions during the “sliding into the sensation.”

            The term “counterpart sign” is another vague description, for what would a counterpart sign of the breath be? Well, I can give it meaning by the experience of the strong and clear abstract impression of rising and falling without a visualization which occurred. Is this correct? The trouble with words is we have to apply them back to experience. So for now this is what I see this term indicating.

            These terms seem a bit useless to use until one has an experience to refer to. It is a difficult thing to know otherwise, and even afterward it is difficult to be sure whether this is what the words were intended to represent.
            Then there are all the layers of realms and future rebirth doctrines to weigh it all down. Ha!

          • Linda Linda says:

            “…here is where I differ from Buddhism. I don’t see these being proof of other realms etc….”

            I don’t think the Buddha did, either. “Buddhists” may see it this way, because it is part of the structure of certainty that the Buddha literally experienced past lives, literally saw beings rise and pass away, literally visited other gods in their realms; it’s part of the supporting structure around beliefs that literal rebirth is what the Buddha taught.

            “These writings reflect a level of clearly defined goals and intentions that they say are required…”

            I am wondering who is saying “they are required”? Are the old texts that clear? Is it the commentators that say this? Current teachers say this?

            “Also the terms are such that I can see that they could be defined and made explicit as such, but not that I would have described them in the same manner.”

            The terms were likely to have explicit meaning to the meditators of the time. The people he was talking to knew what he meant. The novices to meditation had experienced teachers around to guide them further, just as we do now. Meditation is not something one can give really solid generic instructions on, because each of us have such varied experiences and sticking points. Certainly one can be guided toward certain achievements, and in how to interpret those experiences.

            AND AS AN ASIDE (since what’s below belongs to another post) I am seeing a post of yours in our Admin panel that is labeled “Approved” but is stubbornly refusing to show up in the comments for my DA post on Ignorance. It begins:

            I think the basis of Buddhist no-self comes out of deep meditative experiences…

            It looks like a good post! I can post it to the thread and note that it is yours, but WP isn’t displaying it… unless perhaps you hit the Delete button and didn’t want it to show up?

          • David S says:

            Linda. Oh yes, I forgot about that posting. Please do post it, where ever you can. Not sure what happened there. At the time I thought maybe there was a time limit to posting on articles. Maybe it got stuck because I was in a coffee shop with a poor connection. Thanks!

            “I am wondering who is saying “they are required”? Are the old texts that clear? Is it the commentators that say this? Current teachers say this? ”

            Oh yes! Another great point for me to look into. Glad to have your feedback on this. It reflects how I read various sources and let them bleed into one another as parts of the same story. Time to tweeze them apart!

          • David S says:

            “He permeates and pervades, suffuses and fills this very body with the rapture and pleasure born of composure.”

            “And furthermore, with the abandoning of pleasure and stress…”

            These quotes from a web site’s translation of some similes (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sacca/sacca4/samma-samadhi/jhana.html) which give an image of someone intentionally “doing” these things. When instead they happened to occur in my experience.

            I think that a lot of Buddhist writings are trying to reverse engineer experiences to enable others to attain and “master” similar states. But in the effort to explain and make it doable the intentional part becomes exaggerated. It’s as if one has to do all these things to perfection to achieve similar experiences. For me it simply seems like most of what is being pointed to is how to quiet and still the mind. It doesn’t have to be ideal. And it isn’t under one’s control when a jhana will arise.

            I think my use of the word “required” was an over-statement with this in mind.

          • Linda Linda says:

            David S, you said, “which give an image of someone intentionally “doing” these things. When instead they happened to occur in my experience.”

            Maybe I have a mistaken impression, but if I recall the history you’ve described correctly, you haven’t got a whole lot of experience going in and out of jhanas — two or a few experiences? Might it be that “intentionally doing” these things comes with more experience and practice?

            At the point in my life where I practiced much more regularly and diligently than I am now, I know there was a particular state I could get into most days, at will. I knew more or less what steps to take to settle my mind, and when ready (she will say this euphemistically describing something indescribable) locating the spot in my head where the door to the very still space was and pulling the cord to get myself up into it. It was a wonderful, non-discursive spacious place, and I could stay there till I got bored with it.

            Then I stopped meditating for a bit, and when I came back to the habit, could no longer find the darned spot. (typical, eh?)

            But my point is that I first encountered this “place” inadvertently, and inconsistently, but then got good at finding it. Maybe it is possible with the right circumstances and diligent effort to reach the states you experienced regularly, through intention.

          • David S says:

            Hey Linda. Yes, maybe I could be able to do such things intentionally, as you did. Good thought. I always assumed that my mind would take a few days to get into the right place as it did then. Have you formed any understanding about the “place” you were experiencing? Does it relate to anything you know of Buddhism? Jhana?

          • Linda Linda says:

            I can’t actually say. The experience came prior to my digging into the suttas — long before. I have only indirect memories now, of the place (I can still recall the order of things I did to get there, and a sort of sense that there was a physical location in my head to gain access — at about “the third eye”) and the spaciousness, but beyond that I have no details anymore. This was about 10 years ago — a lot of life lived between then and now! So back then I was not trying to match the experience to any expectation, and now that I’ve read lots on the jhanas, I no longer have good recollection of the experience.

  9. Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

    David, I discovered some time ago that I could be aware and dream simultaneously. In fact, I was having some out of body experiences that I discovered where semi lucid dreams. Once I realized that, it never happened again. I only realized that with the OBE because I went from semi lucid to fully lucid and woke up!

    I agree with you that while people share similar experiences in deeper states of meditation, it could be that the accepted translation of those experiences is not correct. That’s why I’m hoping more people who are also skeptical will learn to enter the jhanas. It’s only because I was skeptical and mindful, and willing to be wrong, that I finally saw through my OBEs.

    Linda, thank you for your take on the suttas regarding the jhanas and Buddhas views. I’ve heard some teachers say that you can not ever rid your self of greed, desire, etc unless you regularly practice the jhanas, particularly the last four, but I don’t recall that. Then again, I have not read all the suttas!

    • David S says:

      Dana, how would you describe the semi-lucid state? I’ve only had a couple of lucid dreams and very quickly the lucidity lapsed as the dreaming continued, and drew my awareness back into the context of what was going on. What is the difference between semi and fully lucid? If you’re interested in a book on this subject there’s a good one called, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience, by Kevin Nelson, M.D.. He is not using the word spiritual from a religious view.

      • Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

        Hi David,

        In a fully lucid dream, you are not only aware of yourself and can think and act as you do when you’re awake, but you know you are dreaming, you are aware that nothing around you is real and that you are in a dream. In a semi-lucid dream, you are aware of yourself, thinking, and acting as though awake, but you don’t realize the world around you is a dream.

        So, in my OBE I left my body, was aware of myself, made the decision to walk down the hall and outside, but I was puzzled that my house was not as it was before, and that it was the wrong time of time. Then suddenly I went fully lucid, meaning I realized I was dreaming! Then still aware of myself, and that I was dreaming I tried to fly, but woke up. Then was my ah, hah moment. I had dreamed I left my body, but because I was aware of myself, thinking and acting, and it wasn’t until I went fully lucid that I realized it was all a dream.

        On previous OBEs, one happened while I was meditating. It was one of those rare meditations for me where my thoughts actually calmed, I felt at peace, and I stayed focused on the breath. I felt like my awareness was really at it’s peak. I had lost all body sensation, then I felt myself floating outward. A part of me was still on the breath, while another part of me was looking back at myself. Then suddenly I was back within myself.

        I suspect what had happened was, even though I was aware, a part of my brain had drifted into dream land, creating the feeling of floating out and looking back. Not all the details of my room were correct when I’d look back at myself, and this puzzled me until I had that OBE where I went fully lucid.

        I’ve since suspected that deep states of meditation mix with sleep, even though we are keeping our awareness at the same time. In fact, I was practicing being aware for as long as I could at night when I’d go to sleep. I actually was able to follow the process until I heard myself snore. Now, it’s possible I was actually asleep and dreaming I was snoring, or it may be that one part of our brain stays aware while other parts fall asleep.

        This is what I hope neuroscientists will dig into. But I no long believe anyone leaves their body during an OBE. It just really feels that way because dreams feel so real.

        • David S says:

          Interesting descriptions you gave. Good to hear I am not alone! Thanks. In that book I mentioned it gave explanations for the floating feeling, the connection between sleep states and OBEs (a neural switch in the brainstem), and that OBEs having differences from the actual places one sees. So fascinating that this can happen!

          • Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

            Yes, agree, David. It’s fascinating how our brains create our experiences. The experience is real, but where it is happening is entirely within our minds, in our heads. It’s easy to understand why people think they really are leaving their body, and that that is somehow proof of a soul. Suggesting that their brains created the experience is not something they want to consider. Most people want to believe this is a real event that is taking them outside their body.

            Desire and belief are a potent mix, and all the brain needs to create an experience. As Linda pointed out, the brain does this in other ways as well. Neuroscience is making nice headway on that score.

        • Linda Linda says:

          Are OBEs while meditating fairly common? I’ve had one too — same experience as yours, Dana, good solid meditation, seeing myself below meditating, sudden snap back to the normal feeling of being “a self in a body”. These sorts of experiences could easily lead one to think (be certain that) one had a self that was separate from the body — they would seem to be good evidence, and it takes a pretty hard head to *not* see it that way.

          But I don’t think that OBEs are always the result of some part of the brain dreaming. The most vivid and lasting OBE I had was during a trauma in which I was extremely upset and no part of me could have been dozing. All I wanted at that moment was to *be out of my body* and suddenly I was. I made the conscious choice that I didn’t *really* want to be out of my body though, and suddenly I was back.

          The mind is an amazing thing. In the second incident, above, it was giving me what I felt I needed to survive.

          • Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

            Linda, I agree that the brain may create these experiences from a variety of mechanisms. As you mention trauma is another time these happen as well as near death experiences. It’s easy to see why people would think OBEs are proof of a “soul” or solid “self”, but I have found with my experiences with OBEs and other metaphysical experiences is that the brain will create experience to bolster belief or desire. Neuroscience shows that stimulating a certain part of the brain can create the feel of an OBE experience. Perhaps trauma does that.

            BTW, I think this is why the Buddha basically told people not to get excited about those supernatural experiences. I have a sneaky suspicion that meditation can stimulate parts of the brain that mimic supernatural events.

            I’ve been watching this carefully the last few years in regard to belief, and I discovered that my brain will create experience based on my belief. As I saw through this my *psychic* experiences dissolved little by little. But this is also true with everyday experiences we might not think about too much, such as my *belief* that math was hard and too difficult to do. I was basing that belief on past experience, so in my mind I saw it as true.

            So, to overcome that I’ve had to rewrite my old belief and experiences with new positive experiences, and to saturate myself with influences from people who believe math is the most beautiful language ever created! And it’s working.

            Racism, stereotypes, etc are similar types of beliefs, just as religious ones are. Because I’ve seen through my own beliefs and how my brain creates experience to make it seem even more true, I’m very skeptical of not only the beliefs that pop up in my own mind, but the experiences of others regarding ghosts, god, etc. If you have a strong belief in god, your brain may well cook up a god experience. If you are in fear and want to be instantly elsewhere, you may suddenly experience what feels like an OBE.

            But all the while we are in our own mental worlds, right inside our skulls! I think this is the beauty of Buddhism, that Buddha saw through all of this.

          • Linda Linda says:

            I agree with all of that, Dana. What I find puzzling is why, when I had my extraordinary experiences (I’ve had others), rather than being convinced of them being evidence of the supernatural being natural and true, I saw them as evidence of the power of the mind to try to give me what I needed in the circumstances. I would say, “I saw through what was happening” but I could just as well be convincing myself — due perhaps to my native skeptic’s stance — that they are interpretations the mind overlays on experiences that have more rational explanations, because I’m a rationalist. Maybe they’re actually supernatural, and I’m convincing myself otherwise — if the mind is capable of one, the mind is capable of the other! Just because we can press a point on the brain and have it give us the feeling of an OBE doesn’t make an OBE not a real experience that is actually happening, not just interpretation. I would bet we could press a point on the brain to make it feel like one of our hands is burning, too, but just because we can make the brain feel that sensation when it’s not happening, doesn’t mean no one ever experiences an actual burning hand. Being able to get the brain to generate the feeling of an OBE, similarly, isn’t evidence that OBEs don’t actually happen.

            Hoping you’ll forgive me for playing devil’s advocate here.

          • Linda Linda says:

            And, thinking about it, I think this, too, is what the Buddha saw. That we can’t be certain either way. This is why he was counseling us not to waste time being certain of either — that OBEs didn’t happen, or that they did (that meditative states took us to another world, or they didn’t; that our conversations with the dead came from outside us, or only from our minds — whatever). We will take as “evidence” whatever supports our *view* so he is saying -”Just take an agnostic stance. Accept that we can’t prove either this or that. Rather than develop certainty, practice letting go of certainty. That is the path to liberation.”-

            There are things we can be relatively certain of, because they are repeatable. When we practice the path, if we see how clarity about how emotion works improves situations, and this happens again and again and again, that’s solid ground to rest on. When we talk to others and find that they, too, gain similar benefits, we can begin to accumulate evidence that this is something that is not only repeatable for us, but for others as well. That’s something we can work with. But these one-off experiences we have at random intervals, aren’t as certain. Putting out efforts into what works because we can see that increased understanding results in a change in behaviors that results in improved outcomes — that’s wise.

          • Dana Nourie Dana Nourie says:

            Linda, I’ve thought about all of that too. If we look from just a perceptional level, anyone of us could be wrong or right. As David mentioned earlier, experience is a matter of interpretation. I may be wrong about mine being dreams overlapping awareness. Could be something else is going on in the brain, or could be supernatural, as you suggest.

            But I do feel there is more evidence in favor of these experiences being created by the mind. There have been experiments that show if certain areas of the brain are stimulated, they can induce the “feeling” of leaving the body. We also know from brain science that the brain does indeed create our perceptions and our view of the world as an interpretation of the mind. We don’t actually experience the world directly. All information is sent in through the bodily senses, then interpreted by the brain as sound, sight, color, etc.

            How is the world really? We can measure data, such as light waves and atmospheric disturbances, but how the world really appears . . . there is no truly objective way we can view or experience it directly.

            So, in the end, I agree with you. We can’t know if our interpretations are correct or if people who believe it’s supernatural causes. However, evidence weighs in favor of everything being brainmindbody created.

            For me the simple evidence that we experience the world physical animals living in a physical universe. While there may be a supernatural out there (not physical), it doesn’t matter to me, as I only have the experience of being physical. There is plenty in the physical to work with, so I give no time to that which is outside of the physical, whether it exists or not. I could take the same attitude about quantum mechanics, as it’s outside of my experience, and I most do ignore that. It’s interesting to think about, but it’s not something I can experiment.

            I can experiment with my beliefs, and I have discovered beliefs drive experiences. How that is actually taking place, we have our hypotheses and no more:-)

          • David S says:

            Dana and Linda
            I stumbled upon something which pertains to this discussion…
            It is the Kitagiri Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (M.i,477-79). If you follow this link and scroll down to the title, #6. ‘Jhana and the Noble Disciples’ and under, ‘Seven Types of Disciples’ there will be what are listed as differing ways of understanding.

            http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/gunaratana/wheel351.html

            It gives support to the idea that different people will approach understanding from differing standpoints such as faith, experience, intellectually…. Each has its results.

            I need experience and intellectual understanding together. Others do not.

            What is difficult for me is that Buddhism is a tradition which places the phenomenal experience as superior to the intellectual. So if it felt like another realm in meditation then it was. I have deep reservations of this because it denies evidence which keeps accumulating about consciousness being biologically based. Take LSD and you’ll perceive the world differently. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor gets a particular brain hemorrhage and she loses a sense of a self and feel connected to everything. It all points back to the biology of consciousness as an emergent phenomena.

            However, I really understand and appreciate your discussion of being skeptical about being skeptical though. It is always good to ask these types of relativity questions. How all understanding is relative is the most profound understanding for me.

            Besides, if what is taught in Buddhism is true then I don’t think how one views it will change the nature of it. So if you’re not inclined towards faith to understand things then it is not the only way to approach understanding Buddhism.

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