imageI had an email exchange recently with a gentleman who asked some very good questions, and thought it might prompt some helpful discussion here on the site. Names and identity details were removed.

Email One

To: Webmaster

I just got through listening to your interview on Books and Ideas podscast.

I … attended the local damma center for 2 years until, I believe, my neurobiology informed my behaviour that “been there, done that.” (My bias is that the brain has evolved to categorize stuff and move on.)

Anyway, my question to you is why do you keep studying the teachings of the Buddha after you have assimilated the basic concepts of lose attachment and “monkey mind”.

Are there deeper truths that I am missing?

Reply One

From: The Secular Buddhist

Hi, thanks for reaching out. You’re asking a very good question, one that even devout religious Buddhists ask of themselves, let alone us skeptic / atheist / scientific materialists.

Yes, I agree, we do put ideas into boxes once we’ve gotten enough of the framework to have a working understanding of it. And just looking at the academic aspect of this thing we call Buddhism, what I’ve found is that not only are the concepts vastly more complicated than they seem, but there is also a volume of concepts that is many times more in size than in, say, Christianity with one book as the source of information. So not only do I continually learn some new aspect or nuance of a basic concept upon re-reading what I’ve seen many times before, not only do I learn from others about how they perceive the ideas, but there are a ton of materials in the Pali canon — let along contemporary visions of that body of work, which provide greater insight to me in contemporary Western society.

The other aspect which keeps me involved quite actively with this, however, is the much more pragmatic manifestation of that understanding — practice. And I do *not* mean just meditation, though that in itself is something that continually grows in depth. This fundamental idea about how cause and effect is not only blatantly observable (not a new thing to you and I or many scientifically minded people), but contributes to presenting a body of things to do during our daily activities to capitalize on it. We can, in short, make better choices moment by moment. But practice, in meditation and in our pro-social behaviors, is very helpful.

I find that most of us if not all are less than perfect. And perfection is simply nonsensical as a realistic goal. But, I can do better than I have in the past. That does take some effort, and secular Buddhism (the stuff we do, not the religious constructs about that stuff) helps me develop greater facility with these behaviors.

Hope that helps? Let me know what you think, and thanks for asking.


Email Two

Hi Ted,

Your reply is very much appreciated. I’m afraid I left the wrong impression in my second sentence. It was not actually the “damma speak” I became accommodated to, in fact, I still get immediately calm and mindful when I hear you or Gil Fronsdal start talking about practice. (It’s weird how instantly and reflexively this occurs.) No, it is the actual felt need to meditate that has fallen away.

Anyway as to your point, “..just looking at the academic aspect of this thing we call Buddhism, what I’ve found is that not only are the concepts vastly more complicated than they seem… but there are a ton of materials in the Pali canon… which provide greater insight to me in contemporary Western society.”

Mindfulness and non-attachment don’t seem very complicated. Nor does following a path of moderation/structure which I think is what the 8 fold path essentially is.

Maybe a couple of examples of what you mean by “complicated ” and “insight ” may help.

Reply Two

It sounds like there are two topics here. One is the need to meditate, the other is depth of concepts, so let’s look at each.

Meditation is an ongoing practice to develop competency, like any other skill. In the same way, for example, a musician experiences incremental gains, of course diminishing returns plays a part: we may not see the same big progress in our later years as we did in the beginning. I’ve found in my own practice, however, that there do continue to be improvements which are noticeable and beneficial, even after twenty years. And there is lots of room for growth; I’ve not attained the latter jhanas, for example, and don’t consistently find myself even in the first. So my practice helps with that ongoing development, which really does make an impact in my off-the-cushion time with others. Specifically, my attitude plays a big part in how I respond in stressful situations. Until that is unshakingly suffused with equanimity, I do need to keep working on it, because I’ve found that those times are the most demonstrably beneficial.

Conceptually, we learned a great deal about this idea of emptiness just over the past few days where Gil was also a fellow participant. We related it to ‘not self’, which of course as a lifelong atheist was nothing new, but it does also inform how we reify concepts — give them a self, not just ‘us’. So emptiness became not just an idea of how phenomena are devoid of dualistic meaning (i.e., it’s all just process, not a thing with an external value), but also opened up creative exploration of process. So for me, this very pragmatically encourages a refreshing of engagement with the moment, to more intentionally set aside my pre-conceived and constrictive perceptions of what’s happening around me, and make better choices. And that was just one concept that was briefly discussed as a side note to a particular conversation.

Does that help a bit?


No Comments

  1. Mark Knickelbine on April 22, 2013 at 9:07 am

    It’s interesting to note that Gotama himself is said to have continued practicing right up until the end of his life. I was just looking at some suttas in SN yesterday where it’s reported that he would go off on solitary retreats for months at a time. A clear message that we don’t overcome our need for practice. And if we understand practice as a process of self-directed neuroplasticity, if we don’t keep our kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity circuits firing regularly they will gradually weaken. I think this correspondence does point out the need to cultivate joy in our practice — when we associate practice with feelings of peace and love, it will be self-reinforcing.

  2. Danny on May 22, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    ” So emptiness became not just an idea of how phenomena are devoid of dualistic meaning (i.e., it’s all just process, not a thing with an external value)…”

    This is interesting to me–I wonder did you actually mean to say “internal” value?

    My (perhaps misguided) understanding of emptiness, is that all things (including the self) are dependently arisen from causes and conditions, conventionally real but “empty” of any inherent or “internal” existence. So, there is only external value but never any “internal” value–

    Thank you for your thoughts on this..
    with metta,

  3. Ted Meissner on May 23, 2013 at 2:16 am

    Hi, Danny. Good question, we need to be careful about switching words around. I did mean to say “external value”, to further describe that phenomena are “just process” and “devoid of dualistic meaning”. External was intended to indicate that there was no value external from itself, there was no duality involved. Value is (to me) a word that might be best applied to making a judgment, rather than describing an inherent characteristic. That judgment is done from the outside by a person — conventionally! — and so I used “external.”

    Where you switched words in your reply is empty of any inherent or internal *existence*, instead of value, which is a very different concept. To say all things are empty of any existence, internal or external, would not be my understanding. Things do exist, at least as far as we can tell, setting aside untestable ideas about being in the mind of a deceiving demon or the Matrix, because they are untestable and it is a fruitless endeavor. So emptiness is not a reference to a lack of existence, but to lack of the accuracy of reified ideas (those value judgments) we have about phenomena as actual things instead of processes.

    But, this may simply be a matter of tripping over minutia of the meaning words, perhaps we’re not too far off the mark with one another’s thoughts. Eh, they’re just thoughts 🙂

  4. Danny on May 23, 2013 at 6:55 am

    Hi Ted, Yes, I see my error in switching those terms–thanks for clearing things up for me!

    • Ted Meissner on May 23, 2013 at 8:10 am

      Oh, not at all, thanks so much for asking! You hit on a couple of really key feature of Not Self!

  5. Linda on May 23, 2013 at 11:08 am

    It seems to me that this concept of emptiness is the Buddha’s answer to the idea, in his times, that everything was inherently connected to everything else in fixed (eternal, changeless) ways — “bandhu” was the word for it (“bonds”). A big part of the rituals depended on it.

    The idea that things had an “inherent nature”, seen in that light, adds a subtle complexity to what’s being said, because, with the idea being that if we’re really good we can recognize the inherent nature in things — especially how they connect to *us* — and the Buddha’s denial that this is true, it becomes easier to see that what’s going on is us defining what we think of as an inherent nature in a way that suits us. There isn’t actually an inherent bond — we’re inventing it.

    At the same time, I found it rather disturbing when I first understood this, that the Buddha seemed to be saying “there is no inherent connection between things” and yet at the same time Buddhism puts forth the idea that “we are all One”. I kept wondering how it could be that he would be simultaneously saying “there are no inherent bonds” (nothing that we see or name is “self”) and yet we are all one. After a bit more study I recognized that he is not saying that there is *no* connection between us, only that it isn’t fixed, but there are connections, and those are the ones made through our actions, and the actions that take place in the world.

    If there were “inherent bonds” then we could not change our relationships to each other; it is because the connections are in flux, arising from changing causes, that we are free to do better.

    For me, that’s what practice is. Time on the cushion is time spent developing the skills to pay more attention to how those connections come into being in my life, to see more accurately, so I can make better choices, better connections.

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