The Problem of Our Suffering: A (Modernist) Zen Buddhist Meditation

The Problem of Our Suffering: A (Modernist) Zen Buddhist Meditation September 16, 2017

Teaching Buddha, Sarnath, India, 4th cent. CE
Teaching Buddha, Sarnath, India, 4th cent. CE


I’ve found myself tangled in a conversation with the always wise Dosho Port. He is wondering what a modernist Buddhist might be. And as he is aware I worry about that issue a lot, kind of like a dog with a bone, he’s put some hard questions to me.

So, modernist Buddhism. Other terms that have been used in addition to modernist Buddhism are “liberal Buddhism,” “secular Buddhism,” “naturalist Buddhism,” (my personal favorite) and also generally as a pejorative, “western Buddhism,” and always as an insult, “white Buddhism.” But it is the term “modernist Buddhism” that appears to be settling as the term of art to describe this emergent school of Buddhism.

I’m sure the Reverend Port’s reflection, which is due within a week or so, will be more thoughtful than what I have to share. So, I’m figuring I should at least get precedence of publication.

What follows is in large part derived from earlier reflections, although put together, and hopefully washed in a coherent and useful manner.

Modernist Buddhism is often associated with Westerners, although not necessarily so. Such figures as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama are sometimes counted in this camp. With, I quickly add, only so so accuracy. Modernist Buddhism, or probably most accurately, Buddhisms, as it, like the great tradition of which it is a part has a wild variety of expressions, tends to turn on the questions of karma and rebirth.

A very good overview of what these terms karma and rebirth mean traditionally from an unabashed believer is Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s The Truth of Rebirth And why It Matters for Buddhist Practice. In a nutshell karma and rebirth is an explanation for human hurt, the existential problem at the heart of so much of religion, why do we suffer? It is the Buddhist response to the same question that we find in Christianity’s original sin.

The traditional Buddhist understanding is that we suffer because of our grasping after that which is impermanent. This is often described in the formulas call the Four Noble Truths. Another way of framing this, which I think is more focused for the purposes of this reflection is how our common human hurt, and with that our healing arises through correctly understanding the “three marks of existence.” These insights do appear to go all the way back to the founder.

The first of these is anitya, a noticing that all things are impermanent, existing for a moment and then passing away. The second is anatman, the noticing that nothing has a special essence, all things are composed of parts that are themselves insubstantial, or more accurately have no abiding substance. Things exist within their moments in way similar to the contemporary wave/particle theory, where from one angle quantum entities are particles and from another waves. However, this is a way of perceiving at the psychological/spiritual level of human consciousness, where our grasping tightly after things that have no enduring substance, is dukkha, that sense of discomfort, of sadness, of hurt that seems to mark so much of human existence.

However it doesn’t end there. The problem as we find it addressed in the Nikayas, those Pali texts that claim to capture the teachings of Gautama Siddhartha, the Buddha of history, is that these marks lead to individuals being trapped on a seemingly endless chain of rebirths. And these rebirths are all of them, however propitious one or another might be, are ultimately experienced as a seemingly endless cycle of suffering. And with that the soteriological project, our healing, our saving from suffering is stopping the cycle. This is the heart of the Buddhisms that adhere to the Pali texts, and frankly, in large degree to those of the Mahayana schools, as well. Although not as rigorously as perhaps some might assert. And important point, to which I will return.

The debate as we currently experience it was framed and has continued full throttle ever since the self-described Buddhist atheist, and secular Buddhist, Stephen Batchelor published his 1997 broadside Buddhism Without Beliefs. While questions regarding the centrality of place within Buddhism for the doctrines have been knocking around for a long time, Buddhism Without Beliefs has become the standard Western critique of these ancient doctrines.

Batchelor continues to evolve and at this point to understand Batchelor’s position one probably also needs to read his most recent contribution, After Buddhism. B. Alan Wallace wrote a scathing critique of Batchelor and his thesis in an essay Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist. Batchelor responded with an Open Letter to B Alan Wallace. Since then, many have joined the debate. Some useful articles to read would include Marjorie Silverman’s MA thesis A Critical Examination of the Agnostic Buddhism of Stephen Batchelor, which I find sucinctly laid out the issues. Silverman’s essay referenced (and provides links to) Bhikkhu Bodhi, Bhikkhu Punnadhammo, and the Venerable Urgen Sangharakshita, each important critics of Batchelor’s thesis. All of whom probably should be reviewed. In addition I found the unsigned article Stephen Batchelor on Self and Solitude a thoughtful critique, as well as Victor Lapuszynski’s reflection, “Remaining Agnostic About Agnostic Buddhism,” posted originally at this blog.

And the debate continues. I would also suggest looking at a most recent book by Richard Wright, Why Buddhism is True, a study of perhaps the more extreme end of modernist Buddhism, well within the confines of “secular Buddhism,” as well as a critique of the book by Ajan Sujato. In fact most of the polemics on the subject turn on that subset of Buddhist modernism that is self-designated, “secular Buddhism.”

However, and I feel this is very important to underscore. The field is in fact much broader than that hard end of the spectrum. And so an equally, perhaps more important volume than Why Buddhism is True is David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, which attempt to situated the phenomenon historically. I particularly recommend the linked review by scholar and practitioner Justin Whitaker, which includes its own links to in depth scholarly and other critiques of this important reflection. Much of it reflects the best of the moment.

Last year I read Dr Seth Zuiho Segall’s article in Tricyle, “A More Enlightened Way of Being.” Dr Segall is a Zen priest as well as retired from Yale’s School of Medicine and as director of psychology at Waterbury Hospital. I wrote a review in which I reflected on the larger points of Buddhist modernism, and what I find is critical as regards new ways of seeking healing, saving, within Buddhism that the modernist project offers.

Dr Segall addresses the fact that a large percentage, I would even hazard possibly a majority of our Western convert Buddhists, do not adhere to the traditional Buddhist understandings of karma and rebirth. And this is, as I’ve noted, the critical marker of Buddhist modernism. To the degree this assertion that many, maybe most convert Buddhists do not believe in a literal rebirth is true, it has numerous consequences to the whole Buddhist project, and most of all for the Buddhism of this subset community.

In his article Dr Segall focuses on ethics and purpose and how this fundamental shift of perspective is playing out among our Western convert communities as a more naturalistic, and for some materialistic Buddhism begins to mature. He points out the entire soteriological project, that is how we identify the core problem of life and address it shifts for Buddhism if we do not posit a literal rebirth.

If stopping the cycle of rebirths isn’t the problem for more modernist Buddhists, what is being addressed? Dr Segall suggests we who fall into the modern or modernist bucket start with a personal inner disquiet, and so are more likely to say things like “I wish I were happier” or “I wish I were a better person.” I think many of of us actually ask even more pointed questions, like “why is there so much suffering?” or even, “why do I suffer so?” as well as “why do we all suffer so?”

So, while many do have that more psychological, even self-help orientation, many are driven by that ancient question, the genuine problem of our human suffering. I suggest that deeper question of suffering actually is the same problem for all of us who call ourselves Buddhist. And the core analysis remains the same. Our suffering, whether we see it as extending over lifetimes or a lifetime it arises out of our misunderstanding of who and what we actually are.

Dr Segall’s essay focuses the Aristotelian concept of eduaimonia, “human flourishing,” as what many of us of a modernist turn unconsciously assume as the actual project. He then proceeds to educate us about what that means, and does not mean, and further goes on to explore conflicts and possible corrections for us as contemporary Western Buddhists pursuing a wiser life within the frames of our time and place. I’m, as I said, quite taken with his reflection. And I commend the essay to anyone concerned with the rubber hitting the road in our contemporary and mostly Western Buddhism. I believe it is a real contribution.

But, he doesn’t explore what I find nags even more for those of us engaged in the modernist Buddhist project. If enlightenment, awakening isn’t the cure to the problem of endless rebirths, what is being fixed? As I said at the beginning I visit this question a lot. Particularly I engage it as a person of the Zen way.

The whole project of Zen is awakening. So, what does awakening look like for us? With Zen, whether traditional or modernist, we’re talking about a spiritual process. And, again, for both, it is a spirituality completely bound up with this actual lived in world. We are not just talking philosophically, about ideas disengaged from where we live. This is spirituality. This is religion.

At the same time we need to not get too macro nor too micro in trying to understand what is going on. Going off into theoretical physics to understand Zen is a mistake, however interesting the apparent similarities might be. And, trying to reduce it simply to the categories of contemporary Western psychology is equally a mistake.

While I fully embrace the scientific paradigm, I am also deeply aware it has shadows. For spiritual practitioners the major problem is reductionism and with that a bare materialism, which reduces our experience to a series of mechanical processes. While there is truth within these observations, they are not the point of the Zen project.

David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism contains a really relevant point. Perhaps even the point.

“That we live in a radically interconnected world has become a truism. Indeed, this age of internationalism and the internet might well be called the age of inter: there is nothing that is not interconnected, interdependent, interwoven, interlaced, interactive, or interfacing with something else to make it what it is. Thus, any religious tradition that can claim “interdependence” as a central doctrine lays claim to timely cultural resonance and considerable cultural cachet.

It is not surprising then that this term has been emerging with greater and greater frequency in contemporary Buddhist literature and acquiring increasing consonance with other modern discourses of interdependence. Sometimes used to translate the term pratītya-samutpāda (more precisely translated “dependent origination” or “dependent co-arising”), this term’s semantic field has now extended to represent what many today see as the fundamental outlook of Buddhism—a doctrinal sine qua non with broad-ranging implications on personal, social, and global scales. It is not only a philosophical description of the world but also an idea with powerful ethical and political implications: if we are all part of a vast, interdependent network of being, what we do can have profound effects on others as our actions reverberate throughout it.

As articulated in contemporary Buddhist literature, the concept of interdependence combines empirical description, world-affirming wonder, and an ethical imperative. The empirical description represents the world as a vast, interconnected web of internally related beings—that is, whose identity is not a priori independent of the systems they are a part of but is inseparable from those systems. Description of this web sometimes melds indistinguishably with descriptions of other interrelated processes like communication networks or biological systems. The contemporary Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has coined the term “interbeing” to capture the idea of the interdependence of all things, presenting it in an accessible and playful style…”

Now, to be clear this understanding of interdependence may not be part of the earliest strata of Buddhist teachings, or, at least it is not fully developed in that earliest strata. But, it comes, and it is fully integrated into Buddhist teachings today and has been for a long time.

So, Tathagatagarba was originally understood as our potential for Buddhahood. But in time, with reflection, it was uncovered both through logic, and more importantly as something found within our individual hearts. What was uncovered was the exact identity of the causal world and our awakening. This fully understood insight is found among other sources in the Mahayana Mahaparinivara Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra, and the Awakening of Faith. And, absolutely, it rests at the foundations of Zen’s understanding of awakening.

It’s worth noting there’s a whole literature explaining why Zen is not Buddhism. The arguments turn entirely on whether original awakening is “Buddhist.” And that Zen is Buddhism is hard to support by a bare appeal to the Nikayas. But, of course, Buddhism is vastly more than a collection of texts put together several centuries after the death of the founder, which purport to be the true teachings. Buddhism is Buddhisms, it is a family of insights that flow from those original observations about the Three Marks of Existence, and found in the Four Noble Truths. For me this is the interesting thing, the compelling thing. I believe what is called “Buddhist Modernism” is in fact not far removed from the Buddhism we find in the writings of the Zen masters.

So, putting it all together.

Through a fortuitous set of circumstances we human beings can find a saving encounter, a healing of that great hurt. We’re called to a Goldilocks spot – echoing for me that tradition in Buddhism about how rare it is to be born human, and to be able to experience liberation. What we call “here.” Or, “this moment” contains the whole mystery of our being.

The point is that this consciousness is something that has been pointed to by people in many, possibly all cultures, in ways that resonate with if not exactly agree with people in other cultures. Cultural assumptions lard all our descriptions, as does the peculiar mix of our own genes and history.

It occurs right here in this world. No place else. And for me, I find it is best described, least obscured among religious texts, most helpfully presented in the Heart Sutra, specifically in the line “form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Form is exactly emptiness. And emptiness is exactly form.” Within the Heart Sutra’s form and emptiness, its separateness and its oneness, and “seeing” both as more intimate than one, are at the heart of the project.

If we don’t cling too tightly to the words, or, to ourselves and our opinions, we find ourselves tumbling into a great not knowing that can inform who we are, and our choices in ways that are healthful, useful, and give our living and dying a sense that while the words do fail, and I’m flailing at how best to present, can be called meaningful. More, that can be the resting of the troubled heart. That is our saving. That, I believe, is the heart of modernist Buddhism.

And this saving does look a bit different than when the concern is ending a chain of lives, and is instead focused on the mess that is us, you and me, here, in this place. For one we find awakening is experienced and lost, itself an oscillation that continues throughout our lives. One kensho after another, discontinuous moments in a flood of experience that connects it all. And satori? Words fail. Words burn away. And in our moment we can recall the memory of our cells and the blood circulating within our bodies. But, recalled as dream, as something vague and difficult to grasp.

For me the greatest danger in the traditional descriptions is that it, and its supporting literature suggests we can have a transcendent moment that takes us away from our conditioned existence. Worse, the way to this is often described as disentangling from the mess of the world. In practice this takes us away from our bodies and tries to get us to live in some spiritual realm uncontaminated.

The words of the Heart Sutra, the guidance of the majority of the Zen ancestors, and my own experience points in another direction. And I find it at the heart of our contemporary emergent Zen. There is no uncontaminated or, for that matter, there is no contaminated. So, there are two errors. One is thinking there is nothing but a mechanistic world, a clock wound up at some time in the immemorial past that is clicking along inexorably. This is the world of form is all that there is – a bare materialism. The other error is to deny the material world in favor of some ethereal other place. Here we have a spacious and beautiful and peaceful realm with no distinctions of high or low – a total otherworldliness.

A third place is to create a hierarchy of experience, with a lower material and a higher spiritual, sort of a ladder to heaven. This image is in fact common in the Buddhist literature. But, it is rife with possible misunderstanding. But the Heart Sutra and the lineage of Zen teachers all correct these errors. The sutra tells us that compounded and uncompounded are one thing.

It sounds like a logical fallacy, where “a” cannot also be “b.” A plain description of it is that there are no substantive things, everything exists temporarily within causal relationships. Things are real, but they are temporary. And we find that perspective the Buddhism of the Pali scriptures. The Heart Sutra and the Zen way is offering a next step. Beyond simple logical calculation, beyond lists of what is and what is not. Here we move from syllogism to metaphor, here we find pointing and invitation. Here we are invited to taste that water and tell for ourselves whether it is warm or cool.

This is not sophistry. It is that all things are in flux, and the flux itself is every individual thing. The empty, open, boundless is exactly the same thing as the constrained, divided, broken, sorrowful, and joyful. This is the “just this” of the just this we’re called into.

And, its encounter is a lifetime practice. Yes, there are moments of deeper insight, even deepest insight, and it all is part of something that continues on. So, we have another problem of language. Our experiences small and large of stepping away from the conventions of our lives are so wondrous that our expressions about them can be so vastly over the top. And, more problematically these enthusiasms can mislead. And even more complicatedly mislead both others and ourselves.

As I look at my life I see this way is really following the vermillion thread ever more fully encountered. There are no things in any permanent sense. Rather there are moments, joining other moments, which, because we have been lucky enough to be born with brains that can do it; we can experience separately and together, consciously. Or, really, consciously enough. So, sometimes I see it clearly. Other times not at all. I have been walking the way for more than forty years. I’ve had small and great insights. I have succumbed to the blandishments of ego and desire and I’ve seen deep and true. And, each moment is just a moment. And in the aggregate I feel a gradual deepening, an arc into the depths of being.

This naturalistic, modernist Zen Buddhist way has given me my life. And, I remain endlessly thankful. And. I know its a path, to cite a popular paraphrase of Eihei Dogen, that is one continuous mistake. And so there’s that other popular Zen saying, one the Korean master Seung Sahn liked to repeat, “fall down nine times, get up ten.”

This said, as human beings we tend to follow some patterns. For instance, if we’re not terribly damaged, most of us are pretty clear on our separation, our individuality. What we miss is our universality, how we are connected, and connected so intimately that we can call ourselves, and everything together, “one.” Although our Buddhist tradition actually pushes this more specifically, saying while “one” can be a useful metaphor, it is also ultimately misleading.

Rather we in all our particularities are all bound together within what is ultimately an openness, a boundlessness. However, for many reasons, again some of my scientific friends suggest whys for, that part which is our sense of the universal, one, boundless, is recessive in our consciousness. For the most part this seems true to me. The gift that we call awakening comes with noticing the opening. And wisdom comes with its integration.

I find it critical to reassert that this insight is in no way owned by Zen or even by Buddhism. That is another insight enjoyed within the modernist expression of the Buddha way. Everyone, everyone, can and frequently does find it. My own initial experience was within the confines of a traditional Zen ango, an intensive ninety-day monastic experience. I also know two Zen teachers who had their first taste of the larger world as children, one was nine, the other was eight. I know of another who says he genuinely feels his first insight, if measured as disrupting his view of isolation and leading him on toward the way, came with an LSD trip in his sophomore year at college. I’ve known others who have found this insight on a walk in the woods, working in a soup kitchen, and in the middle of war.

Kensho, satori, awakening is in fact a natural eruption of the heart. One could even say it comes as a gift, or an accident. We don’t earn it. We can’t make it happen. Rather it hits us like a bus hitting a pedestrian crossing a street.

And. And. And. We need awakening. Without this our lives are meaningless. We are lost in the mists of our imagination, our fears and desires the only reference. And, I think it important to note how Zen without kensho, satori, is a lovely philosophy, but very little more. And, similarly, any emergent modernist Buddhism must take awakening into account.

We need to drink the water and taste for ourselves whether it is cool or warm. Here we find our awakening to a world that doesn’t turn away from hurt, but folds it in within a wholeness. In this we find our healing. With this we and the world awaken.

And so, we, each of us, need to find this experiences, although experience is an inadequate term, we need, each of us, to find this place for ourselves. A meeting of hurt, of suffering, and an expression of the healing awaiting us all.

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