Friday, October 5, 2012

Challenged Points of View

     This article is inspired by some communications I have recently received, by recent shifts in my own awareness, and by a poignant irony to it all. It is about the discomfort, even pain, of having our beliefs called into question, and also the beauty of it.
     Some of you who are inclined to read comments published at the end of articles may have noticed a rather negative one at the end of "Is Infinity Too Much?" (Sept 21, 2012). Just yesterday I received an email from a fellow monk informing me that, partly as a result of that same article, he had given up hope on me as an excessively liberal lost cause, was withdrawing his support and cooperation, and was removing my articles (which he had previously liked and endorsed, considering them to be important) from the Buddhist website he is involved with. On the other hand, some people especially liked that particular blog post and were inspired by it; in fact within two weeks it became one of the most popular posts on the blog. It is a peculiar situation.
     What makes it even more peculiar is that for many years my theoretical religion has been oriented toward having no attachment to views. My most recent post  on nondualistic mysticism gives a rather philosophical example of that orientation. My "Bible," the one text that has been most instrumental in my ability to live as a Theravada Buddhist monk, is the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta Nipāta---which teaches again and again that a monk should neither accept nor reject any point of view.
     In the past I have indulged in philosophical wrangling with other people---sometimes monks, sometimes laypeople, almost always men---over this issue of having no view, and the great resistance of most people to living with this and letting go of their most cherished beliefs. Once, shortly after reading Spinoza's Ethics, I was inspired to write the following little "proof" in the style of Spinoza, who was in fact a very great philosopher:
  1. Some people are strongly identified with their thinking mind.
  2. The thinking mind is a mutually conditioning system of thoughts, with no distinct self creating, controlling, or coordinating those thoughts. (This may be an unacceptable idea to many, but, after all, it is basic Buddhism.)
  3. Thoughts are perceptions. (Or, if one prefers, conscious volitional perceptions.)
  4. Perceptions are beliefs. (I attempted to demonstrate this in the "Essay on the Aggregates of Mind" which can be found at the website; and at the risk of weakening the present argument I will not reproduce it here, as it is somewhat lengthy.)
  5. Therefore, people who are strongly identified with their their thinking mind are strongly identified with their beliefs. 
  6. If a belief is conclusively refuted, then that belief is, in a manner of speaking, killed.
  7. Therefore, if a person who is strongly identified with his thinking mind has one of his beliefs conclusively refuted, then he undergoes a kind of death ("the agonies of death without dying"), as a part of his perceived identity is destroyed.
  8. People have an instinctive, natural, irrational fear of, or aversion for, death.
  9. Because of this fear, people will resort to irrational and even desperate means to avoid death.
  10. This fear of death applies not only to the physical body, but also to the thinking mind, especially among those who are strongly identified with it.
  11. Therefore, people who are strongly identified with their thinking mind fear having their beliefs conclusively refuted, and will resort to irrational and even desperate means to avoid such refutation.
  12. Such people tend to rationalize their behavior and to be largely unaware of their own natural irrationality.
  13. Therefore, people who strongly identify with their thinking mind tend to fear having their beliefs conclusively refuted, and to resort to irrational and even desperate means to avoid such refutation, without even consciously realizing that this is indeed the case. Q.E.D.
I also had a liking for quotations like the following one from Arthur Schopenhauer:
All through life we cling to many errors, and take care never to examine their ground, merely from a fear, of which we ourselves are unconscious, of possibly making the discovery that we have so long and so often believed and maintained what is false.
So then I came back to America, and began interacting with people who speak fluent American. At first I attempted to interact with others much as I did in Burma…and began receiving feedback to the effect that I was opinionated and intolerant. Some of this was mainly the issue of the people I talked with; for example one fellow considered me to be very opinionated when I told him the simple fact that in a Buddhist country like Burma, the word "Sangha" applies exclusively to monastics, and that its application to lay communities is predominantly a modern innovation. It wasn't always the other person's issue though.
     I have found that receiving feedback from men over many years hasn't had much of an effect on me; there is a kind of "alpha male" instinct that I have and perhaps a heterosexual man-to-man cultivated insensitivity that didn't care much if other men, including other monks, considered me to be an arrogant wiseguy, or in plainer language, an ass. But at the same time I have a natural tendency (also related to animal instinct) to be more considerate and gentle toward women. So when women began bringing up the issue, once or twice even with tears of emotion, I listened. Well, at first I didn't listen so well and became edgy, sometimes dealing back retorts to the effect that, as the great philosopher Popeye used to say, I yam what I yam, and if they didn't like it they didn't have to interact with me---accept me or don't. I still haven't mastered this kind of listening. But gradually the feedback sank in. 
     I began realizing that I was not very skillful at putting my theoretical religion into practice. This realization is of profound importance, and it is largely (but not entirely) because of this that I seriously consider my spiritual progress to have been greater during the year and a half I've been back in the West than during the previous five years spent meditating in tropical forest caves---although my years of solitude and meditation strengthened and prepared me in important ways. My whole point of view, how I look at the world, has been radically challenged. I simply do not have the luxury of staying the same. Considering my own limitations and rigidity has been painful and disorienting, but it has been of very great value. I have little choice but to let go of this behavior or else shut down and admit defeat.
     For years I considered myself to be an open-minded skeptic, among other things, but I was an intolerant skeptic who insisted on the truth of my form of skepticism---which could hardly be called being very skeptical. I would consider others who criticized me to be sloppy thinkers, or whatever, as a way of defending my point of view. Usually there would be impatience and irritation arising at such times.
     Fortunately I was also exposed to the wisdom of a man named Paul Lowe, who has much to say on the subject of irritating feedback. For example,

Often when someone makes an observation about us
and we don't like what we hear, we get distressed - spelt: ANGRY!
("Don't kill the messenger because of the message.") 
This is not very intelligent. In fact it is very stupid.
Who says it, and what they say, is irrelevant.
The only thing that is relevant is what goes on in you
when you hear what is said to you. A gift. 
Listen - let it in, and feel.
If you are moved - one way or the other,
there is something there for you - repeat - FOR you.
Everything is for you - what you need in order to evolve.*

He says we generally don't get annoyed at feedback unless there is some truth to it that we don't want to hear. The very fact that two people can hear exactly the same words and one of them becomes upset while the other doesn't, is adequate proof that the words themselves aren't really causing the reaction. It's a matter of attitude. But whatever the reason, if we simply react in the same way every time, we don't wake up. We remain semiconscious automatons habitually reacting with knee-jerk predictability.
     Another interesting thing he says is that if we hear spiritual guidance and we agree or disagree with it, either way we're still stuck in a box, as all we have done is taken the information and fit it into the box of our own unenlightened belief systems. Even to think that we understand it fits it into the box, whereas the ideal purpose of course is for it to help us out of this mental prison we inhabit. Consequently the wisest approach is neither to agree nor disagree to guidance or feedback, as the Aṭṭhakavagga also advises, or even to think that we really understand, but just to consider.

*From Paul's mailing list, accessible via his website, He also has many fascinating videos on You Tube, plus a documentary called The Workshop which, I must admit, is almost pornographic, and thus perhaps unsuitable for small children, religious fanatics, and celibate monastics.

Sati (Attention): I have recently added a new article to the associated website,, "What Did the Buddha Really Teach?," investigating what the original Dhamma taught by the historical Gotama Buddha in the ancient Ganges Valley was likely to be like. Also, an improved edition of the Aṭṭhakavagga has been added, with a new Appendix on the textually similar Pārāyanavagga. (I think the new version has only one typo: On page 71, in the second paragraph, "to speak sore Dhamma" should read "to speak some Dhamma.")



  1. What does "speak fluent American" mean? Are yo being judgmental here or are you fitting people into a box, maybe a negative box?

    1. It means speaking a language I was unused to, the language of a new and different world.

  2. Thank you for sharing your process with us. It is nice to know a spiritual journey is not limited to forest cave dwellers. So much richness is possible by paying attention to our relationships and observing our own reactions indeed.

    I like the Paul Lowe comment as well. Write on.