Varieties of Avidya

Bhaisajguru, the Medicine Buddha

ImageBhaisajguru, the Medicine Buddha

Recently Barry Briggs brought to attention various definitions of avidya in a post called Three Poisons. This is usually translated as ignorance. He quotes teacher Ken McLeod, who is a translator, as using the term indifference rather than ignorance. Barry seemed rather partial to the new rendering while Ben in comments brought up some potentially difficult semantic and motivational issues with it.

Personally I’m not sold on the term indifference. And I will return to the issue of translations of this term shortly.

The term indifference can be a facet of the broader category of ignorance.This got me thinking about avidya in general and it’s numerous manifestations. There appear to be quite a number if one takes it out of the ideological realm and puts it in practical terms.

The term Three Poisons is derived from the Three Unwholesome Roots-lobha, dosa, moha and these I find translated as greed/lust/desire/craving, hate/ill-will, delusion/ignorance. Ken McLeod’s translations, which Barry quoted are “attachment, aversion, indifference”.

One might look at some of the types of ignorance through the notion of obstacles to practice.

Fortunately there are all kinds of Buddhist lists relating to these obstacles. These lists include:

1. The ten fetters-samyojana

  • belief in a substantial self
  • skeptical doubt/doubt/uncertainty about the teachings/lack of trust
  • clinging to rules and ritual
  • sensual craving
  • ill will
  • craving for fine-material existence
  • craving for immaterial existence
  • conceit(mana)
  • restlessness
  • ignorance

2. The five hindrances-panca nivarana

  • sensual desire,
  • ill-will,
  • sloth and torpor,
  • restlessness,
  • skeptical doubt

3. The ten defilements or impurities-klesha

  • greed
  • hate
  • delusion
  • conceit
  • speculative/wrong views
  • skeptical doubt
  • mental torpor
  • restlessness
  • lack of shame
  • lack of moral dread

4. The four taints outlined in the Abhidharma-asava

  • sensual desire,
  • desire for eternal existence or becoming,
  • speculative opinions or ignorance of the dhamma or the way things are
  • and ignorance by way of attachment to opinions

5. The five aggregates as they relate to clinging or attachment-skandha

  • matter (rupakhandha)
  • sensations (vedanakhandha)
  • perceptions (sannakhandha)
  • mental formations (sankharakhandha)
  • consciousness (vinnanakhandha)

6. The 8 fold path can be miss-taken

  • Understanding/View
  • Thinking/Intention
  • Speech
  • Action
  • Livelihood
  • Effort
  • Mindfulness
  • Concentration

7. misunderstandings can also arise around the three characteristics

  • All conditioned phenomena are unsatisfactory
  • All conditioned phenomena are impermanent
  • All  phenomena are devoid of Self [That would include nibbāna/nirvana, which is not conditioned.-note added as per comment below for clarification]

That’s a fairly big mountain of obstacles to address. There are facets of ignorance that can be outlined from the above lists.  And if we look further into the Dharma we can also find remedies to these.

These remedies include-

development of the four Brahma-viharas or highest attitudes

  • metta-loving kindness
  • karuna-compassion
  • mudita-sympathetic joy
  • upekkha-equanimity

This can be done by way of:

1. Iddhipada or the four bases of power or success

  • chanda-desire [more on this one in the end note]
  • viriya-persistence/energy/effort
  • citta-intention, mind, thoughtfulness
  • vimamsa or panna-investigation/discrimination

2. Sammappadhana or the four right efforts

  • guarding-prevent unwholesome/unskillful from arising
  • abandon-prevent unwholesome/unskillful continuing
  • develop-cause wholesome/skillful to arise
  • sustain-maintain wholesome/skillful

The 8-fold path itself also serves as remedy.

These 3 latter items (Iddhipada, Sammappadhana, 8-fold path) are part of the bodhipakkhiyā dhammā which is the 37 qualities related to enlightenment.

The precepts also provide direction in avoiding unskillful and unwholesome situations.

I want to look at ignorance as unskillfulness, contrasted with wisdom or skillfulness and try to match up a few remedies for some of the problematic situations. This approach emphasizes the difference between kusala and akusala and can be used to reconcile those.

Kusala – Skillful, tending towards integration and balance, beneficial, good, wholesome…  Leads to liberation.
Akusala – Unskillful, tending towards disintegration and imbalance, detrimental, evil, unwholesome.

~from p.13 of Abhidharmakosa Study Materials Introductory at the Abhidharmakosa Study Blog

Perhaps a chart will make these facets a little more clear.

Obstacle Ignorance, error or unskillful factor Remedy or wisdom factor
1 ignorance or unskillfulness basic unskillfulness, being unaware, lost and moved through life by samsaric currents, clinging to insubstantiality, clutching at straws, looking for refuge in insubstantial things “It’s fate”, “That’s just the way I am”,  “We have to just go along with it”, “This relative idea is the absolute truth” developing skillfulness, disembedding, learning to recognize and counter compulsions, recognizing impermanence and attempts to cling to it, learning and practicing the Buddhadharma, developing discriminating wisdom (vimamsa)
2 belief in substantial self egotism, atman(soul) beliefs, deep attachment to props of identity, selfishness recognizing anatta (no permanent self), Tibetan Chöd practice
3 skeptical doubt or lack of trust cynicism, insensitivity, arrogance, unreliable grounded perspective, interdependence and interbeing
4 clinging to rules and rituals dogmatism, narrow mindedness, faithless, equanimity, Right View
5 sensual craving lust, addictions, wasteful, renunciation, equanimity
6 ill will anger, brutality, resentment, stubbornness compassion, mudita or sympathetic joy,
7 craving for fine-material existence envy, jealousy, paranoia study of desire (chanda) as in the endnote to this post
8 craving for immaterial existence excessive religiousity, soul beliefs, piousness, fundamentalism, greed in seeking merit accumulation, spiritual materialism study of anatta,
9 conceit, pride arrogance, insensitivity, self-centeredness, low self-esteem, unforgiving study of anatta, compassion
10 sloth and torpor laziness, indifference, unmotivated, convenience oriented, desire (chanda)
sometimes a poison is also a medicine, cultivation of bodhicitta
11 restlessness agitation, anxiety, unbalanced sensations, lack of commitment, indecisive, scattered refuge, clarification of the third of the four basis of power which is citta-intention, mind, thoughtfulness
12 greed hoarding, superficial attachments, uncooperative, miserly generosity, metta, Tibetan Tonglen practice
13 speculative or wrong views or ignoring the way things are defensiveness, combativeness, constricted, confused, hypocritical, Right View, understanding The Three Characteristics
14 lack of shame over-indulgence, performance for attention, histrionics, callousness, extreme ambition Right Action See also #22
15 lack of moral dread behaving without conscience, minimizing consequences, ungrateful understanding of karma, review of precepts, Right Mindfulness
16 skanda-matter-rupa materialism, lust, shallowly oriented clarification of desire (chanda) – see end note of this post
17 skanda-sensations or feeling-vedana hedonism, emotional instability Right Mindfulness
18 skanda-perceptions excessive risk taking, obsessed with novelty, excessive extroversion, lack of shame (one of the kleshas) See #11, 14
19 skanda-mental formations-sankhara over-intellectualism, compulsive theorizing, lost in details See #13, 26, 27
20 skanda-consciousness day dreamy, tormented by mental contents, disorganized thinking, excessive introversion See #10, 13,
21 Inappropriate or wrong
See #1 <————
22 Inappropriate or wrong Thinking/Intention See # 4-12 <———–
23 Inappropriate or wrong Speech petty, gossipy, dishonest, withholding necessary information The 4 Right Efforts
24 Inappropriate or wrong Action passive, complacent The 4 Right Efforts, review of precepts
25 Inappropriate or wrong Livelihood irresponsible, lazy, disrespectful of others, selfish attitude See #7, 12, 15
26 Inappropriate or wrong Effort laziness, apathetic, workaholism and overexertion The 4 Right Efforts
27 Inappropriate or wrong Mindfulness complacent, indifferent, unreliable, mental dullness, overfocused Understanding of skandas (#16-20), Right Mindfulness
28 Inappropriate or wrong Concentration/
unfocused, dissipated See also #20 Right Concentration See also #20
29 Misunderstanding unsatisfactoriness Continuous satisfaction seeking through appetites See # 5, 12, 16
30 Misunderstanding impermanence Rigidity, clinging See #3 4, 5, 7, 8
31 Misunderstanding that all conditioned phenomena are devoid of Self The ignorance of nihilism-“nothing exists” “nothing matters” or the belief in substantial self noted above See #2

That’s just a quick sketch of the ignorance situation when applied to the various obstacles to practice. It’s a pretty neat system of illness and remedy when you delve into it.  There’s a lot more that could be said about all of this (and has been). Pretty much every good dharma talk you encounter addresses some of this stuff from different perspectives.

The practice of wisdom-prajna is generally the antidote to ignorance. The development of prajna includes

  • Study (Sanskrit: śruta)
  • Reflection (Sanskrit: cintā)
  • Meditation (Sanskrit: bhāvanā)

This leaves open the questions What to study? What to reflect upon? What meditation? The more precisely we can pin down our ignorance factors the more precisely we can then apply the necessary antidotes. For example if we are willing to concede the existence of mis-perception, sensual desire or any other aspect we can then choose to openly reflect the light of the dharma into those aspects as we study, reflect and meditate. [Is there such a thing as a Concordance to the Suttas? Can anyone recommend something along that line other than Google?]

It is helpful to consider ignorance as darkness. People tend to feel rather bad about themselves when asked to take on the label of ignorant. We know that we know stuff, have had experience and maybe learned a thing or two. But we also know that no one knows it all, no one is utterly perfect. It is only by admitting there’s some darkness that we can manage the situation. We are all unskillful in the dark;banging into the walls, stubbing our toes, tripping on shoes left in the middle of the floor, spilling our glass of water. The dharma is like a flashlight that allows a more skillful orientation. But if we don’t admit that it’s dark it’s like walking through a dark house with our eyes closed as well. Even a flashlight won’t help if we won’t open our eyes to it.

A few things that became obvious when I was working this out was that actions arising from ignorance in pretty much every instance are accompanied by defensiveness and actions that close one off, be they as mild as indifference or outright hostility. When these manifestations appear they are tied to distorted self-beliefs and being embedded in egoic processes hence the defensiveness. If you observe some skillful people, especially when they are in conflict, there remains a sense of openness to their approach. They remain willing to listen, willing to discuss, willing to continue towards solutions to problems, willing to be challenged, willing to reconsider positions in light of new information, willing to accept disagreement with some adjustment but without much defensiveness.

Getting Back to Translations

It seems to me that attempted translations and expositions are slippery things. There are a couple of things to consider about translations versus original terms. I personally prefer the original terms but I know that puts a lot of people off since one really shouldn’t have to learn a whole new language in order to practice. But then again working with new terms does tend to get a person out of their habitual mental ruts which is helpful. And it takes a little bit of effort to come to understand them which again combats the tendency to laziness and expecting to be spoon-fed by others.

Something from the old Usenet news group talk.religion.buddhism, Glossary of Buddhist Terms, has this written in the introduction:

Another reason is that the words that would have to be used to render a Pali or Sanskrit technical term into English (or any other living language) are inevitably freighted with unintended meanings. The advantage of using a “dead” language is that semantic precision becomes less of a moving target.

Languages that are currently in use change so definitions and nuances change as well.

There are some disadvantages to adopting the original terms though, since often the definitions become entangled with currently prevailing notions. Consider the term “karma” as one example. It has come to mean, in popular parlance, something like the “revenge of the gods” or “payback time” or some extraordinary omnipresent, omniscient “force” with all kinds of supernatural odors wafting about it.

Or consider the word “nirvana” which in popular culture has often come to signify some extraordinary and even supernatural state of outrageous bliss where one loses touch with everything. Chogyam Trungpa, among many other teachers, tried to dispel this kind of notion when he said:

If we regard meditation as just getting into a fog so that you do not see, you do not feel, something is terribly wrong. In that case meditation would reduce one to a zombie. The enlightened man would have to be rescued. Someone would have to feed him and take him to the bathroom. We would have to have an enlightenment ward.

Glimpses of Abhidharma

Matthieu Ricard said something similar recently:

The goal of meditation is not to shut down the mind or anesthetize it, but rather to make it free, lucid and balanced.

On the other hand there are some good reasons to use the original terms. For example from the same Glossary of Buddhism mentioned above:

One reason is simply that these “foreign” terms have the authority of 2500 years of tradition in many cases, and are understood by members of all Buddhist traditions (even if their first language is something like Finnish or Swahili).

If we are all saying karma rather than “cause and effect”, “Ursache und Wirkung”, “årsak og virkning” “”na kusababisha athari” (German, Norwegian, Swahili) then there is a common Buddhist language set that facilitates communication.

So each of us has to decide which is given the weight, a common Buddhist language or individual linguistic preferences.

Links, References Consulted and Inspirations

Dharma Lists from Insight Meditation Center

No Religion by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

The Five Aggregates by Ven Thubten Pende

Noble Eightfold Path


Upadana (clinging)

Abhidharmakosa Study Blog

End Note on Desire as Remedy:

[Nathan had a good post today about questions regarding the usefulness of desire so perhaps others will find the following useful]

Iddhipada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of the Bases of Power from Access to Insight. Particularly the element of desire which is both poison and medicine:

“And how is desire overly sluggish? Whatever desire is accompanied by laziness, conjoined with laziness, that is called overly sluggish desire.

“And how is desire overly active? Whatever desire is accompanied by restlessness, conjoined with restlessness, that is called overly active desire.

“And how is desire inwardly restricted? Whatever desire is accompanied by sloth & drowsiness, conjoined with sloth & drowsiness, that is called inwardly restricted desire.

“And how is desire outwardly scattered? Whatever desire is stirred up by the five strings of sensuality, outwardly dispersed & dissipated, that is called outwardly scattered desire.

Paracelsus the alchemist-physician related a similar notion in the 16th century when he noted:

Alle Ding’ sind Gift, und nichts ohn’ Gift; allein die Dosis macht, daß ein Ding kein Gift ist.“All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.”

Which is often interpreted as:

The only difference between a medicine, an intoxicant and a poison is the dosage.

Further on desire as a skillful means Ajahn Thanissaro writes in Wings to Awakening

…although the desire here is directed toward a state of concentration — which is a type of becoming — if that becoming is aimed at going beyond becoming, this desire shifts from a cause of stress to part of the path to its ending. And even though the desire for Awakening, when not yet realized, can be a cause for frustration, that frustration counts as a skillful emotion, as it leads to further efforts along the path [§179]. It is to be transcended, not by abandoning the desire, but by acting on it properly, as explained below, until gaining the desired results.

And he hits the nail on the head with these prescriptions a little further down in the same section. I’m just going to quote the whole thing because it’s so pertinent [emphasis mine]:

Many popular Western writings criticize the four qualities listed in the bases of power — desire, persistence (effort), intent (will), and discrimination (the discriminating mind) — as enemies of proper meditation, both in that they interfere with the calming of the mind and are antithetical to the goal of the Unfabricated, which lies beyond desire, effort, and the categories of discrimination. The first part of the extended formula deals with the first of these criticisms.

  • There is the case where a monk develops the base of power endowed with concentration founded on desire & the fabrications of exertion, thinking, ‘This desire of mine will be neither overly sluggish nor overly active, neither inwardly restricted nor outwardly scattered.’ (Similarly with concentration founded on persistence, intent, and discrimination.)

This passage shows that the problem lies, not in the desire, effort, intent, or discrimination, but in the fact that these qualities can be unskillfully applied or improperly tuned to their task. If they were absent, the practice — if it could be called a practice — would stagnate from loss of direction or motivation. If they ran wild, they would interfere with mindful concentration. So the trick is not to deny them, but to tune them skillfully so that they will help focus the mind on the present moment. Thus, for instance, in the practice of meditation, as with any skill, it is important not to focus desire too strongly on the results one hopes to get, for that would interfere with the mind’s ability to focus on giving rise to the causes leading to those results. If, instead, one focuses desire on putting the causes in proper order in the present moment, desire becomes an indispensable part of the process of mastery.

Passage §67 deals with the second criticism — that desire, etc., are antithetical to the goal — by showing that these qualities are necessary for anyone who pursues a path, but are automatically abandoned on reaching the goal at the path’s end. The image of the path is important here, for it carries important implications. First, the path is not the goal; it is simply the way there, just as the road to the Grand Canyon should not be confused with the Grand Canyon itself. Even though many stretches of the road bear no resemblance to the Grand Canyon, that does not mean that the road does not lead there. Secondly, the path of practice does not cause the goal, it simply leads there, just as neither the road to the Grand Canyon nor the act of walking to the Grand Canyon can cause the Grand Canyon to be. The goal at the end of the Buddhist path is unfabricated, and therefore no amount of desire or effort can bring it into being. Nevertheless, the path to the goal is a fabricated process [§105], and in that process desire, effort, intent, and discrimination all have an important role to play, just as the effort of walking plays a role in arriving at the Grand Canyon.

Eat [recipes]

Yesterday I made this post for one of my other blogs but maybe it’s useful here too. Especially since there is a cluster (#%$*) of really long rambling posts that are coming next and any readers I have left will need to be fortified for the stamina required to read them. [that may be a joke] I’d come there and cook it for you but I don’t have that many airline points. I’d then read the posts to you though, in a really loud evangelical sort of voice-sort of a heaven and hell presentation.

But being the uber-compassionate Bodhisattva-like being that I am, I’ll spare you that horror and let you enjoy some pretty good food.

May 7, 2010 A Quick North Indian Meal

Here’s what we had last night to eat. It’s pretty easy and quick to make. I’ll give a veg. and a non-veg. method. This is enough for 3-4  people depending on appetites.(maybe 5 if some are kids) It’s all pretty cheap to make and tasty.  It also stores well if there’s left-overs.

Sometimes you’ll see pullow (also spelled pullau, pilaw or half a dozen other ways)  or raita on restaurant menus. But usually you wouldn’t be served that in someone’s home since it’s more like family food than “guest” food. “Guest” food tends to be a little more fussy and fancy.

None of this is spicy. You can add some chopped green chilies to the pullow or the greens or even a dash of cayenne (but NOT to the raita!-one restaurant did that to us once and it was horrible)  if you want it to be more spicy. But the masala (spice) that is included adds a good amount of taste without making your eyes water.

Most people just eat raw green chilies on the side if they want that kick.

Pullow (sort of like Pilaf or Paella)

Ingredients are listed in order of use.

1 Large Pot with lid (we use a pressure cooker which is faster but most people reading this won’t have one so just a pot is OK)

3-4 tbsp. oil

2 chopped onions

chopped or whole cloves of garlic (as many as you like depending upon your garlic preferences)

1 tbsp. chopped fresh ginger (sometimes we leave ginger out-depends if you want the tang of it)

1/2 tsp. ground turmeric

1/2 tsp. ground coriander

1/2 tsp. Deggi Mirch (a mild ground red pepper mix-not as strong as cayenne-a mild Mexican chili is also OK)

1 tbsp. salt

4 small or 3 medium chopped tomatoes

1 lb. chicken with bone (500 gms.) (if making the non-veg type) or meat (beef, pork, goat-the latter is what we use sometimes) or sea food (but using sea food with a pressure cooker is not recommended since it cooks fast anyways)

3/4-1 cup rice-basmati or any kind

3 cups coarsely chopped vegetables (Choose 2 or 3 of  carrots, peas,white radish, green beans, eggplant, cauliflower, zucchini, broccoli, potato or any harder type of vegetable. Spinach and other greens are not recommended as they become too mushy)

1/2 tsp. MDH Kitchen King spice mix or any garam masala mix

about 1 cup water-depends on the water content of veg and non-veg ingredients-basically enough to just about cover the contents of the pot-too much and it gets mushy and not enough won’t cook the rice enough.


If making veg. kind then just skip any steps about chicken or meat.

Heat oil. Add onions and saute about 5 min.

Add garlic, ginger, turmeric, coriander, Deggi Mirch, salt and saute until they start to brown.

Add  tomatoes. Cook and stir until it becomes like a chunky sauce. (sort of like a salsa-mash the tomatoes with a fork if you are using them on the greenish side)

Add rice and stir and cook 5 min. on med. heat

Add chicken (or meat) if you are making the non-veg kind and cook for about 10 min at med. heat. (if using seafood put that in when there is only about 10-15 minutes cooking time left or it will be like mush)

Add all vegetables- cook and stir 5 min. on med. heat- if it seems a little dry add some of the water now

Add Kitchen King (or garam masala) and water to almost cover the contents.

Bring to a boil then reduce heat.

Cook with the lid on at med-low heat (slightly bubbling) for about 20 min if making veg or seafood type.

If using chicken or meat increase cooking time to about 25-30 min.

Check if meat is thoroughly cooked.

(if using a pressure cooker then it’s about 2 pressures, turn heat off and wait for pressure to subside-about 15 min. total final cooking time with meat)

It is done when liquid is all taken up by the rice and rice is soft.

You can garnish with some chopped cilantro (fresh coriander leaf-which I don’t like but lots of people do) and some sliced hard boiled eggs (which is what restaurants do for both veg and non-veg sometimes-so if you’re vegan and in India make sure to tell them no eggs or just say “pure veg” which means you won’t get stuff made with butter either)

Serve hot.

Green Onion and Garlic Saute

Ingredients are listed in order of use.

2-3 tbsp. of butter or oil

1/4 tsp. turmeric

1/2 tsp. salt

chopped cloves of garlic (we put lots but depends on your garlic tolerance)

4-5 bunches of green onions chopped-about 4 cups total (depends on the size of the onions and bunches-it cooks down to about 1/4 of the uncooked) (you can also use spinach, dandelion greens or just about any kind of greens in this recipe)


Heat butter.

Add turmeric, salt and garlic.

Saute for about 5 min.

Add green onions.

Saute and stir for about 5-7  min. until onions/greens are soft.

Serve hot.

Raita (yogurt and veg. side dish)

Ingredients are listed in order of use.

500 ml plain smooth yogurt (about a pint or 2 cups)-the Balkan style which is creamy

1/2 tsp. salt

1 cup shredded veg (mostly cucumber but added onion, tomato, white radish are good accents)

Masala (spice)
Fast way Longer way
2 tbsp. Chunky Chat masala mix 3 tbsp butter or oil
2 tbsp. cumin (jeera)
pinch of turmeric
-heat butter, add cumin and saute until cumin starts to brown, add turmeric, stir and lat brown a little more.(total cooking time about 5 mins-med heat) Let cool for a few minutes before pouring into yogurt mixture


Mix yogurt, salt and shredded veg.

Add spice and mix together thoroughly.

Some people garnish this with a little chopped fresh coriander leaf (cilantro) but a little fresh parsley would be OK too.

Serve cold. (Also makes a nice dip or sauce for a wrap)

About Spice Mixes

Spice mixes mentioned here are often available at Indian grocers and sometimes in the Asian sections of big grocers (I’ve even seen a few at Walmart!) MDH makes a pretty good quality lower priced mix-it’s the most popular in this area. No need to buy the fancy package ones you see sometimes in cookware stores. They have the same ingredients but cost about 4 times as much and are often stale.

MDH-Chunky-Chat-Masala MDHDeggiMirch MDHKitchenKing

About Pressure Cookers

This is one of the two we have pictured below. It is the Indian style with the long handled lid that fits inside the pot and then clips to the end of the pot handle. It has a rubber gasket around the lid.  I don’t know much about pressure cookers of the North American or European style. Some I’ve seen have dials and complicated valves and such.

This Indian style is pretty straightforward. When the pressure is up the little top knob spins around and shoots out steam. That is called One Pressure. So recipe timings go by the number of pressures at a certain flame height. Flame is put to high to bring pressure up then usually set to medium.  So for cooking hard vegetables like potatoes is usually 2-3 pressures depending on consistency of potatoes, rice 2 pressures, chicken  2-3 pressures, meat 3-4 pressures, hard beans like Rajma or any kind that have to be soaked overnight is 5-6 pressures over 15-20 minutes or so. Then the time to decompress-about 10 min. Some things we decompress quickly by lifting up the little knob with a spoon (its hot!) and releasing the steam. This would be for rice, potatoes or vegetables.

One important thing to note is to always leave space in the cooker for the steam to pressurize.  Never fill you pressure cooker more than 3/4 full before cooking. 2/3 is better since some contents can expand. So get a large enough cooker to allow for that depending upon the size of family or group. We use a 5 liter (about one gallon) size for a big dish like pullow. Though we also have a 3 liter Minolta for cooking dal and beans.  If your cooker is too small and contents expand you might not be able to get the lid out without making a huge mess. (that’s Manoj’s tip since he is contributing here in a roundabout way-that means he’s reading this over my shoulder and making suggestions-ahem!)

It is important to keep the valve clean and open so it doesn’t clog and blow out the emergency valve which will ruin the lid and probably the pot too. If using a pressure cooker read all relevant instructions first-I’ve seen a 20 liter cooker full of potatoes blow up at a restaurant because of too much heat and clogged valves-it pretty much demolished the kitchen. Potatoes on every surface including the ceiling and a twisted hole in the side of the pot. That’s quite an unusual occurrence but it happens if one gets sloppy. Pressure cookers are great though, when used properly, since they save a lot of time and cooking gas or electricity

You can get the Indian style pressure cookers in some Indian grocers sometimes. I’ve seen them in Vancouver and other larger cities. You can also order them over the Internet. They are a lot cheaper than the deluxe western kind. (about half the price) I’d recommend Hawkins, Minolta or Hawkins-Futura brands as these are the most commonly used and I’ve used all of them myself. You can also get then with a non-stick interior.

In a price comparison I’ve seen the Hawkins 5 liter pressure cooker for less than 40$ while the equivalent Fagor or Presto North American brands go for 70$ and up.  There are used (or as they say “vintage”) ones on E-bay but I’d be wary of that since you don’t know it’s use record. If you find a used one somewhere like at a garage sale check the bottom. If it is not flat or is bowed out on the bottom then the metal has weakened or it has been over-pressurized and it may not be too good.

Hawkins Pressure Cooker 4 Liters

What’s Happened to Original Sin? It’s Become Unhealthy


Sin and Death by Francis Hayman, 1749 from ILLUSTRATING PARADISE LOST part of Darkness Visible:A Resource for studying Milton’s Paradise Lost. Cambridge University.

Romans 6:23 “the wages of sin is death”

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, he gave his one and only son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”

This post isn’t about Christianity per se. It’s actually about secularism and beyond that about some basic concepts in Buddhism. But Christianity is mentioned since some central concepts of Christianity still remain strong cultural themes even in the very secular and scientific arenas.  And increasingly this undercurrent is presenting itself in various Buddhist arenas.

Certainly the terminology has changed.  And the determination of many to throw off what has been sometimes perceived by some people as the shackle of an authoritarian and restrictive religion is certainly in evidence in many media these days. The tone set by some of the New Atheist Sect, can leave many believing that Religion, with the capital R, in the Abrahamic sense, is well on it’s way out. We have overcome!

But what if that is not the case? What if some of the core concepts of the Abrahamic religions, in particular Christianity, still lurk under the bright shiny technological badges of secularism?  What if they have only been transformed and incorporated into the secular matrix? There are lots of concepts that can be examined in this framework such as Commandments ( Law and Order-tv show and political platform), resurrection (resuscitation, cryogenics), grace (Deus ex machina, Ghost Whisperer), messiah (Obama, Lady Gaga) and many others. 

The two concepts that I want to examine in this regard are those of original sin and redemption.  These are the very heart of Christianity and the center of Euro-American* culture. The central question then is–Has the deep impact of “the great imperfection” of humanity actually declined with the advance of secularism? Or has it simply taken other forms? And how is this affecting the shape of Buddhism among convert communities in Euro-America?

From the blog Stuff Christians Like the author Jon takes issue with the many euphemisms for sin that appear in the Christian community in a post called #494. Sin Synonyms – Pretty ways to say an ugly word.

But when Christ died on the cross He didn’t do so because He wanted to shift my paradigm. He didn’t come to help me realize my full potential and unpack my baggage.

He died because my sin was so great it separated me from God. He died so that my sin would die too. The big ugly, gross pile of sin, sin, sin, I was carrying around. Sin is one of those words intricately tied to my salvation and I don’t want to mute it in a sea of spin off ideas.

I am not particularly interested in refuting Christian doctrine in this post. What I am interested in with this particular quote is the characterization of sin, and especially Original Sin. The idea that we are, from birth, wrong, bad, incorrect, misshapen, flawed, broken, guilty and in need of correction is rather interesting. The doctrine of Christianity, the Old Testament, book of Genesis to be exact, explains the reasoning for this. And the Gospels of the New Testament explain the redemption part. (the little Bible quotes at the top of this post summarize the basis of Christian doctrine-oh I feel the wave of reductionism accusations approaching already)

From Original Sin to Original Sickness

It is interesting to note that many of the synonyms for original sin or sin in general are very similar to those that are illness related. Consider the examples below. Can you tell the difference between those that connect to sin and those that connect to illness?

affliction malady breakdown weakness deficiency imperfection trial
break sickness frailty blight misery injury defect
flaw pestilence tribulation pain broken diseased, ill lacking
impairment torment curse infirmity fault unwholesome reversion
failure condition unsound dirty impure something that causes hurt suffering

Now that I’ve gone and mixed them all up I can’t either. But I assure you that about half are in the sin pile and half are in the illness pile, although a number of them are in both piles.

With concepts of sin and illness having such overlapping definitions it is not surprising that Euro-American culture, with rapidly escalating technology and emphasis on rationality and science is moving away from the sin model into the sickness model of the original face of humanity.

To be unhealthy is becoming the New Original Sin.  Secular scientific and particularly medical models are becoming the modality to happiness as the numbers of “sick” increase every year. Although “cures” seem to be less and less forthcoming.

Where Aristotle indicated and Keats stated,  “Beauty is truth and truth is beauty”, now it seems that Health and Beauty is not just a department in the drug store but also indicative of secular Ultimate Truth. Healthiness as well as cleanliness has now replaced godliness.

The New Holy Grail is eternal youth, clear vision, perfect health, ideal heart rate, athletic ability, glowing skin, firm buttocks, lustrous hair, perfectly arched feet, plump moist lips, straight white teeth, globular breasts/solid pecs, optimum weight, regular bowel movements, firm calves, dense bones, 6-pack abs, well-focused attention, cheerful mood, calm abiding, creative expression, serene countenance and abundant happiness all brought about by (and a guarantee of) the material comfort of technological secularism. Sounds kind of like heaven or, more cynically, the ideal of a eugenics program.

4147127258_84aa98f571A great deal of current physical “sickness” is related to the technologically driven lifestyle. Increases in weight, for example, can in some part be attributed to various combinations of the increased availability of  transportation, entertainments that do not require physical participation, foods that do not require much physical labor to acquire and more jobs that require less effort to do.

The body has become something to ignore, pamper, tolerate or sometimes obsess about. It can be seen as an impediment, a prison, a point of social conflict (think racism), a vehicle for “me” (If I see Descartes on the road I’ll shoot him with my cross-bow), an extension of the mind, a possession, a toy, an interconnected network of self-mobile sensory apparatus, meat and bone, a shell, a physiological machine. Whatever the case it is the material manifestation of the conglomerate we identify in space and time as self.  Physical desires, comforts and enjoyments revolve around doing less or having someone else do the more grueling physical work on our behalf. And where physical work is required or even desired it is preferably on the terms that it be an enjoyable experience. (gardening vs. toiling in the field, hobby boat building vs working in the shipyards).   Necessity has it’s limits, even in the gym.

We have our skin exfoliated, feet pedicured, teeth veneered, noses straightened, eyes lasered, colon cleansed, ears candled, hormone levels checked, body hair waxed, sinuses neti-potted, muscles massaged, bones chiropracted, eyebrows plucked, prostate probed,  scalp treated, fingernails manicured, blood sugar tested, joints physical-therapied, boobs lifted, bowel colonoscopied, blood grouped, face tightened, cholesterol levels verified, cervixes papped, ears acupunctured, hearts ECG-ed, bodies scanned and brain waves measured.

The effects of changes in physical conditions within the culture are quite obvious. However these changes, when taken up in the psychological realm are a little more amorphous in terms of effects.

Technology promised an easier and more enjoyable lifestyle. The media in the 20th century depicted many of these rosy possibilities with the assurances that as soon as we had the right technologies in sufficient abundance all our problems would be solved and life would become an experience of unending enjoyment. We would be as shiny and bright on the inside as we were on the outside.

But things haven’t quite worked out that way.  Many people have everything they want in almost unending supply yet there is discontent.  The feelings of emptiness, unrealized expectations, disappointment, even nervinebetrayal abound. And these feelings have become pathologized and more notably taken to mean that there is something wrong with us rather than the cultural environment we are creating around us.

We have our moods adjusted, thoughts realigned, creativity enhanced, attention recalibrated, imaginations re-engineered, minds refocused, lives counseled, paradigms shifted, feelings analyzed, habits deconstructed, personalities typed, diagnoses suggested.  We are all, if not at the moment, then in the past and certainly in the future somehow unhealthy.

There is a new revision of the DSM-Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association in the works. Many categories have been expanded and some new “pathologies” have been suggested. How about excessive laziness or just plain old anger as a diagnosis category? That ought to get pretty much everyone that has so far escaped, into the clinic.

Will the psychological juggernaut continue until everyone can be labeled “sick”?  What will the transformation of Original Sin to Original Sick bring with it in the future?

A great deal of time and effort is now spent to rectify the illnesses of discontent. Devoted confessions are made to counselors of all types. Miracle cures are gulped down several times a day with the fervent prayer to wellness. Pilgrimages to wellness centers are made and donations are offered to obtain relief. Medical clergy, and their suppliers offer absolution in the form of the next new mood pill, on nightly television commercials. Satisfied parishioners show up on talk shows to laud the miracles that have relieved them of the heartbreak of psoriasis or their re-oriented methods of attraction for malfunctioning lifestyles.

An entire industry of self-help is devoted to identifying the “weaknesses” of the human heart and mind, and for a fee, offering to help manage those chronic disturbances. Why are so many so willing to believe they and their lives are flawed, incomplete and unmanageable? I

Quackery is often as believable as science if presented with enough zeal and the perfect tone of righteousness especially by someone well known.  A celebrity endorsement without any valid scientific backing can cause millions to lose their common sense and replace it with hysteria. (see recent elephant journal reprint of an article regarding vaccinations and autism for an example)

My caveat. There is certainly legitimate science, medicine and psychology and it has a definite purpose and demonstrated validity. But you’re not going to find that in Rolling Stone magazine or on Oprah or in the ads of their advertisers.

Testimonials to “bad habits” that have been overcome also abound. These are encouraged in order to demonstrate repentance and atonement and to make way for forgiveness. Many 12-step programs function on this basis. (12-step is beneficial to many people. I am just pointing out this characteristic.) Just like in the revival setting, the crowd shouting “Testify!” and the contrite parishioner begins his tale of woe and redemption. That’s part of the treatment to resolve the flawed human perspective.  Things like alcoholism, gambling, excessive indulgence in sex and the like are now seen as a disease rather than a vice or sin. There are very few of us who cannot come up with a good tale of contrition and the price paid for sins of commission or omission.

No need to forget the self-confessed Bad Buddhist in this area as well. Catalogues of failure, ignorance, distraction, lapse, bad behavior, missteps, errors, overstatements are fairly common.  It is as if these are some price to be paid or some kind of admission of failure in order to begin a redemptive process. It is as if we need an excuse to become Buddhists. It is as if we have to admit to some original “badness” to be worthy of what Buddhism offers. I think that’s bullshit.  

Science and in particular medicine and psychology comprise the new church in the secular culture. Where physical ailment is not sufficient to identify the particular tribulation of an individual, the psychological disciplines can provide definition of the area of frailty quite handily.  And for some, the non-Christian spiritual realm as well is being beset by this metaphor of illness/unworthiness. so we have psychology sneaking in the backdoor of the Buddhist temple as well.

I came across this rather profound revelation on someone’s blog a while back:

It just occurred to me that there might not be anything wrong with me

What if that is true for all of us? What does that mean in terms of self-esteem and other aspects of the psychological framework?  Suppose we are not originally flawed, wrong, misshapen, bent, ill-formed? What does this mean in terms of larger culture? What does this mean in terms of spirituality? What does this mean in the way we live our lives?


The metaphors of illness do appear in Buddhist texts. But they do not carry with them the hopelessness of the born bad, inherently evil, perpetually atoning individual. In other words they are not accompanied by an unending burden of guilt.  There is not so much the need to redeem the human in the sense of physical, mental, spiritual existence as there is to assist him in simply seeing what he really is. There is no need for redemption, and it’s implication of the fallen being in Buddhist practice.

Unfortunately though the psychology of original sin is well entrenched in Euro-American cultures. Mixing the image of  “fallen man”  into the Buddhist endeavor simply turns Buddhism into either a form of psychology or a Judeo-Christian endeavor with a different costume and terminology.  It becomes about redemption rather than about enlightenment. They are not the same thing.

Robert Aitken wrote:

Many Zen Students and even a few teachers think Zen is a kind of psychology. This is a little like thinking that persimmons are a type of banana. The Zen master is more like a flea than he or she is like a psychologist. More like a cool breeze. More like a mountain peak. I am not exaggerating or being fanciful.

via A Gift of Dharma for 4.9.10 Rev. Danny Fisher

There are many posts on this blog about Buddhism and psychology. (list here) I don’t think it’s a good mix for a variety of reasons. Two of the major reasons are:

1. Psychology and Buddhism have different objectives. Psychology attempts to heal egoic suffering. The ego is intimately involved in that process. It is a process of ego engaging with itself as a discrete entity, a closed loop that does not seek to look beyond. Even in psychological frameworks such as family therapy it remains egos as fixed entities engaged with each other.  Buddhism attempts to relieve suffering by moving far beyond the notion of individual ego to the point of transcending or realizing the insubstantial nature of the ego itself.

2. Psychology and Buddhism have different initial views of what constitutes the inner foundation of the human being. Psychology posits ego. Buddhism posits Buddha nature.

Ego and  Buddha Nature are somewhat at odds with one another until one has looked at it though the dharmic eye. The Buddha Nature is not in any way, shape or form (indeed formless!) the same as the ego. To the Buddhist way of thinking the ego as it is, is the neurotic element. It cannot be “fixed”. Efforts to that end may relieve certain samsaric difficulties and give a more comfortable existence but they will not reveal Buddha nature. That is not their purpose.

Psychological redemption allows people to feel better about specific issues for varying periods of time. Buddhist redemption, although I find that term misplaced in Buddhist context (and no I won’t use the word soteriological), isn’t about such specifics. The difference here is between the relative and the absolute.  The difference is between redemption and enlightenment. Redemption makes what was bad good. Enlightenment simply shows what is. Redemption changes the participant to some degree although they remain with the same set of original core beliefs in the solidity of existence. Enlightenment shows the participant who they really are. Good and bad are irrelevant. They are completely different orders of experience.

Another reason I find the term redemption misplaced in the Buddhist context is that it implies first that there is something to be redeemed and second that to redeem is to save (ie. our souls) from some less than desirable circumstances. Both of these insert a lot of needless notions into the process. There is nothing to be saved and the only circumstance actually available is reality.  One can try to escape reality for a time or make some kind of dualistic peace with it but one cannot be saved from reality.

Basic Sanity

In Buddhism there is a completely different way of looking at human’s basic nature. That is the Buddha Nature.   In some schools it is related to or called “luminous mind”, tathāgata-garbha, suchness, essential nature, ultimate reality, the source of all, Buddha Essence, the ground of all things, Dharmata or the mind of Buddha. There are many variations and descriptions of what it entails. (If indeed one were to label Shunyata an “It” and thereby reifying the unreifiable-but that’s for another discussion) To describe the indescribable takes a lot of description.

For the purposes of this discussion, because we are dealing with the original nature of human beings as well as psychology, I am going to take up Trungpa Rinpoche’s term “basic sanity”.

Sanity by general definition can be called a state free from delusions. Sanity is characterized by reality contact, that is knowing what is and isn’t real.

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche discusses the term “basic sanity”:

[Trungpa Rinpoche said] “You could have a basic sound understanding of the logic of things as they are without ego. In fact, you can have greater sanity beyond ego; you can deal with situations without hope and fear, and you can retain your self-respect or your logical sanity in dealing with things.”

Basic sanity in Trungpa Rinpoche’s thought represents the attitude of enlightenment, which is free from hope and fear. The implication here seems obvious enough: the attitude of ignorance, if it can be put that way, dominates our deluded, samsaric mind through the inveterate afflictions of hope and fear. In the idiom of Trungpa Rinpoche’s teaching style, this would be termed neurosis.

from First, the Bad News in Buddhadharma Magazine Spring 2006

The awakened state of mind, of which basic sanity is the hallmark, and the discovery of this natural-born state is discussed by Trungpa Rinpoche in the Introduction of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism:

According to the Buddhist tradition, the spiritual path is the process of cutting through our confusion, of uncovering the awakened state of mind.  When the awakened state of mind is crowded in by ego and its attendant paranoia, it takes on the character of an underlying instinct.  So it is not a matter of building up the awakened state of mind, but rather of burning out the confusions which obstruct it. 

In the process of burning out these confusions, we discover enlightenment.  If the process were otherwise, the awakened state of mind would be a product, dependent upon cause and effect and therefore liable to dissolution.  Anything which is created must, sooner or later, die.  If enlightenment were created in such a way, there would always be the possibility of ego reasserting itself, causing a return to the confused state. 

Enlightenment is permanent because we have not produced it; we have merely discovered it.  In the Buddhist tradition the analogy of the sun appearing from behind the clouds is often used to explain the discovery of enlightenment.

In true meditation there is no ambition to stir up thoughts, nor is there an ambition to suppress them.  They are just allowed to occur spontaneously and become an expression of basic sanity.  They become the expression of the precision and the clarity of the awakened state of mind.

There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is in itself freedom.  This egoless state is the attainment of Buddhahood. The process of transforming the material of mind from expressions of ego’s ambition into expressions of basic sanity and enlightenment through the practice of meditation – this might be said to be the true spiritual path.

from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa

There’s not any mention of guilt or the like in these descriptions. And it is fairly clear in the first paragraph that whatever paranoia we may feel, be that in the form of incorrectness, incompleteness and unwholesomeness is a function of the ego and not generated by the basic sanity of the individual.

A Buddhist’s View of Original Sin

In a most interesting interpretation of the Original Sin narrative, Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, in speaking to a Western audience, describes it as follows:

In people language, “to die” means that the bodily functions have stopped, which is the kind of death we can see with our eyes. However, “die” in the language used by God has quite a different meaning, such as when he spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden telling them not to eat the fruit of a certain tree, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gen. 2:17). Eventually, Adam and Eve ate that fruit, but we know that they didn’t die in the ordinary sense, the kind that puts people into coffins. That is, their bodies didn’t die. Instead, they died in another way, in the Dhamma language sense, which is a spiritual death much more cruel than being buried in a coffin. This fate worse than death was the appearance of enormous sin in their minds, that is, they began to think in dualistic terms–good and evil, male and female, naked and clothed, husband and wife, and so on. The pairs of opposites proliferated making the pain very heavy, so much so that their minds were flooded by a suffering so severe that it’s impossible to describe. All this has been passed down through the years and inherited by everyone living in the present era.

The consequences have been so disastrous that the Christians give the name “original sin” to the first appearance of dualistic thinking.

from NO RELIGION by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu

[I’d like to examine this telling a little further but the post is already quite a length. Consider the references to God, the cruelty of being buried in coffins, inheritance, minds flooded by suffering and the appearance of dualistic thinking as definition for original sin in bi-cultural terms for a start. I also wonder how much is the translator’s imposition on this narrative.]

Starting with the premise that the Buddha Nature is the foundation of the human being rather than some flawed being with an ancestral burden of anguish gives a considerably less dour view of human existence. That there may be blemishes or imperfections caused by ignorance, rather than such flaws inherent in every being, paints a somewhat more optimistic set of possibilities for people. These flaws, or accretions simply comprise an impression of solidity. Where these accretions congregate or aggregate might just be mistaken for a thing in itself. That is, we might mistake aggregates (skandas) for a solid thing such as an ego.

The portrait of the sin filled individual eternally bearing the Sysiphus-like burden of the ages, always on guard lest his original nature return, being punished for crimes he did not commit and waiting until death for some relief, strikes me as a rather onerous way to live.

On the other hand the Buddha Nature scenario says, “We can get over it.”


*Euro-American means Europeans and Americans, Americans (North, and to some extent Central and South) of European descent, those who’s culture is predominantly European based at present or historically and is still practiced to some degree, in short Euro-American means mostly white people with Christian origins.

Musical Accompaniment- The Doors-Break on Through

Links-Definition Related

Buddhism, Psychotherapy and a Little Bit of Woo

Some time ago I wrote a couple of posts about Buddhism and psychotherapy as well as some of the woo out there that some folks wish to append to the Buddhadharma. (here, here) And it is something that I’ve wanted to post about again particularly with regard to psychotherapists as Dharma teachers and introducing alternative methods to dharma practice. There have been numerous recent blog posts related to this topic as well. (links at the bottom for more discussion)

Further to that, someone sent me an email with their perspective on this topic and they’ve allowed me to share it here under agreement of confidentiality.

Dear Nella,

I have been concerned about this matter. I am a layperson, not a professional.

This matter warrants concern. I used to attend a meditation group led by someone who teaches in the vipassana tradition. This person had a list of Vipassana Therapists for members to consult, most of whom were affiliated with the same retreat center on which this teacher was part of the teaching council.

This particular meditation center is supposed to be Buddhist but is also a hub for some non buddhist and rather questionable methods that use…[specifics redacted]. On long and silent retreats one becomes tender and receptive and it can be very easy to accept recommendations from a friend or teacher one has come to feel close to.

I know of just one Buddhist Center (I think it is Berkeley Zen Center in Berkeley California, with Mel Weiztman as abbot, where they had posted an ethics section on their bulletin board.

You can read this excellent list here.  [I’ve used a shorter link than the one that accompanied the email]

Psychotherapists who understand boundary issues know that there is a great hazard, both morally and legally in what is termed a ‘dual relationship’–that is to say when a therapist tries to combine roles of teacher, friend, business associate. It is considered the safest course for a therapist NOT to be one’s friend, ones guru, ones practice teacher, and therapists should operate on a clean, fee for service arrangement and avoid unnecessary socializing outside of the sessions with clients.

Another matter that is often not understood is that if a therapist becomes famous and in demand as a dharma teacher, he or she acquires a public persona, and that interferes with the creation of a therapeutic alliance in which the two parties are to interact as human beings, without masks.

Two, if a therapist becomes famous as a dharma teacher, all too often that means he or she risks being seduced onto the Dharma Celebrity Circuit. The person is out of town for retreats, for conferences, and that interferes with being available to clients. There are only 24 hours in a day, and something has to give.

Finally, one is often flattered and deferred to as a Dharma teacher/Dharma celebrity, which can provide a great deal of flattery. A client may risk being subconsciously drawn into nurturing the therapist/gurus public persona and, disastrously, in the guise of therapy, re-enact the kinds of early childhood relationship traumas that made therapy necessary in the first place.

Finally if a client is troubled, where can he or she go? That client may risk having to leave the sangha of which the therapist is head, or an honored senior member. That troubled client may lose friends who continue to venerate the therapist as a guru.

The only way I could solve my issue was go to my Zen Center, but consult a therapist who practices in another city, is very well informed in Buddhadharma, but who himself practices in another tradition entirely. I would refuse to seek therapy from anyone affiliated with the network of Zen Centers of which mine is a part.

To illustrate the hazards, here is what happened in California when some therapists were besotted with an unlicensed guru and recruited their clients into a group. One client who expressed misgivings was brutally rejected by her therapist. But..she was lucky. She was less damaged and had the energy to bring a lawsuit.

The author sent a few related follow up comments as well:

… some Buddhists mix in a strange stew of techniques that are, IMO ‘bells and whistles’ and not part of the heartwood of the Dharma…

Buddha supposedly stated that he had not held anything back and had passed on all that was needed. So one need not fret that some hidden teaching has to be found on a cave wall, or [elsewhere].

Feel free to use whatever you suspect may be useful to readers. I am not a well traveled Buddhist, so I have no idea whether the Berkeley Zen Center is the only place that has seen fit to mention that association in the sangha is never to be for personal gain, and that professionals must beware of the temptation of dual relationships.

And sangha by extension is not supposed to be used as a marketing node or ‘point of recruitment’.

There are quite a number of issues apparent in this communication. The ones I would like to address are:

  1. Sangha codes of ethics
  2. Dharma stew-mixing untested, unscientific, psychologically manipulative techniques into Dharma practice without outlining potential dangers to Sangha members. Informed consent at the very least should be sought before such techniques are introduced.
  3. Vulnerability
  4. Marketing of services by Sangha members and leaders
  5. Fishing for psychotherapy clients in the Sangha pool
  6. Dharma fame
  7. Dual relationship
  8. Boundary issues

1. Sangha codes of ethics.

There are now numerous groups that are publicly placing codes of ethics or similar documents in their policies. Here are a few more examples:

Berkeley Zen Center

FWBO has an ethics page on their main website and outlines it’s application to members

San Francisco Zen Center has quite a number of pages under it’s Ethics heading on their website

Spirit Rock, Insight Meditation Society, and Gaia House have a joint document on ethical guidelines for teachers including a procedure for grievance redress. (could be posted a bit more prominently on the website though-took some digging to find it)

Zen Center of Denver has the Diamond Sangha Teacher’s Ethics Agreement posted

2. Dharma stew and 3. Vulnerability

There are a  lot of things one could call skillful means. That is those things which help students to gain understanding, deepen their practice or clarify and relieve passing issues such as anxiety and lack of concentration as well as assist others in these endeavors.  Many, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction for example, which serves to teach people:

…how to use their innate resources and abilities to respond more effectively to stress, pain, and illness. The central focus of the Clinic is intensive training in mindfulness meditation and its integration into the challenges/adventures of everyday life.

and we might also cite something like Upaya’s Being with the Dying programs which:

…addresses the need for healthcare providers to develop knowledge and skills in the psycho-social, ethical, and spiritual aspects of dying: an approach to caregiving that is relationship-centered, including community development and cross-cultural issues; the development of skills related to care of the caregiver; and the means to implement these skills in traditional medical settings. Much of this content is not addressed in the current training of physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and other healthcare providers, and is essential in the care of dying people.

as examples which integrate science, psychology, medicine and other disciplines with a Buddhist methodology or techniques in a legitimate way. Their aims, curriculum and related information are easily available and participants are informed about the purposes of any accompanying activities. They are not experiments by untrained or unethical or self-serving individuals conducted at the expense of naive participants, particularly for personal profit.

These have been developed in controlled settings and backed up by open and qualified research. There are adequate safeguards in place and backup techniques should a participant experience psychological difficulty while undertaking these methods or courses.  Significant training on the part of teachers and leaders is involved in order to provide these services.

Some techniques may be rather benign and others rather powerful. If there is readily available information about them, then students can do a little research and discover what their purposes are and how they work. Any reason for using adjunct measures in a Sangha context should be explained fully and justified. Ideally any group leader will provide this information or at least sources for further study. Those employing such techniques should be properly trained in their use and be able to recognize any arising difficulties. A procedure should be in place for such difficulties. Providing references to co-facilitator’s psychotherapeutic practices should not be part of the procedure.

But that is not what is meant by Dharma stew.  The types of things being talked about include, but are not limited to:

Dharma teachers pushing their pet theories, employing alternative methods or deciding who needs this kind of “help” without considering the ethical ramifications are abusing their positions of trust as well as compromising (read watering-down) the power of the dharma itself.

Sure, they may think they’re a good person who only wants to help the people they practice with. All these “tools” are often methods to display some kind of fake expertise when actual dharma training and knowledge is lacking. It’s easy to become a past-life regression therapist (16 days) or a Reiki master-teacher. I know because I did the latter, from start to finish, in less than a month. (It was fairly entertaining and not completely without benefit. I’ll make a post about it some time-apparently I was spiritually precocious! Ha.) 

But thorough grounding in the Buddhadharma takes years if not decades of both study and practice. Sometimes though, even those who have gotten the grounding succumb to the temptation of offering quick results to make a fast buck. This rather mystifies me. What would cause someone, who had spent decades in study and practice, to just say “Fuck it! Gimme the money.” and then proceed to bilk hundreds of people? Did they run out of patience? Did they go off on a tangent and attempt to rectify that mistake by turning it into a corporation? Did they not get the results they had anticipated with practice? Were they disappointed to find their results were “nothing special” after all?

It just strikes me as a really cynical thing to do.  And actually I feel a certain amount of compassion for that because of the shallowness of it. When someone, after years of practice decides to only chase after the riches of materialism and celebrity, basking in large, almost captive audiences while sitting under a spotlight on a stage, especially when it’s at the expense of others who would place their trust in that teacher, because they have not fully realized the riches of the Buddhadharma, then it’s a painful situation all around.

Most people don’t know much if anything about the Buddhadharma when they walk into a practice group. They are curious and receptive. And because it is purported to be a nice religion run by such nice people as HH Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, and followed by such other nice people as Richard Gere and Goldie Hawn, they are preternaturally trusting.

Abusing that trust in this way can only be called spiritual vampirism.

4. Marketing.

Is it a Sangha or a swap meet? At the link for the Berkeley Zen Center mentioned in the email author’s communication.  It states:

Therapists and Helping Professionals
Sangha members are discouraged from using the community as a source of
business or professional clients. We request that BZC teachers and sangha
members who work as psychotherapists, physicians or attorneys avoid entering
into professional relationships with sangha members. Others in the helping
professions are asked to be sensitive to the delicate balance between worker
and client, and the possible complexity of dual relationships when both parties
practice at the same dharma center.

While I’ll take up the issue of dual relationships in another section, this is exactly the type of complicated situation that can be foreseen in any group setting. And one that a group can be prepared for.

Simple transactions between people will naturally occur in any group setting, particularly as people get to know each other. Someone is selling their old aquarium or looking to find a music instructor for their child or wants a companion to join them at a used book sale. These are incidental occurrences that don’t necessarily involve an ongoing relationship, divulging of personal information, or legal and ethical matters to any great degree.

On the other hand, I certainly would not want my divorce lawyer meditating next to me and involved with my Buddhist practice, nor my doctor who gave me a pap test (or for the guys your prostate exam), nor a therapist who knew all the details of my family history. Way too close for comfort. And if the professional relationship goes awry it’s rather difficult to disguise that. The ramifications affect the entire sangha when members have internal problems with each other enough. Adding outside and unknown relationship problems compounds the issue as well as leads to gossip.  It becomes everyone’s problem.

5. Fishing

Using the sangha as a fishing pond for clients is as uncomfortable as the situation of those who bring their creations for their Ebay store to work every Monday and try to sell them to workmates. You may be deft with the old wood-burning set but, NO, I don’t need a piece of toast with the shape of Manjushri burnt onto it. [Save it for the Rocky Horror Picture Show revival] 

There’s a time and a place for such things. Forcing these issues can violate people’s comfort zones [not always a bad thing] and cause confusion as to the purpose of a group activity.  It’s awkward, there’s a sense of false obligation and it risks alienating people and setting up a scenario of resentment.

It leads others to believe that they too should be doing business in the sangha which sets up all sorts of conditions for competition, disappointment, wounded feelings and territoriality. [“My clients”, “My products”, “My services”, “My methods”]

And if it’s the dharma teacher doing it that compounds the discomfort. Why even go there?

6. Dharma fame

Some people become well known and start to believe their own hype. We see it in the tabloids all the time with Hollywood types. If someone is not fairly grounded in reality there is a lot of temptation to revel in the attention, praise, importance, material benefits, sycophancy and power that comes along with celebrity.

Everyone around a celebrity wants advice, time, a share of the spotlight, material benefit, intimate knowledge and connections from the famous and soon the illusion of celebrity is leading and controlling the person’s life rather than the other way around. And the scope of acceptable, allowable behavior becomes larger as the spotlight becomes brighter or larger. People don’t say no to celebrities often. In fact people will encourage even more outrageous behavior if it is possibly to their benefit. And if the celebrity can’t say no to themselves first when necessary, as well as to others then consequences  are often disastrous.

This is the situation in the lives of all people who accrue power or fame in any realm. The dharma celebrity is no different.

7. Dual or multiple relationships and 8. Boundary issues

In the American Psychological Association’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct  states:

(a) A multiple relationship occurs when a psychologist is in a professional role with a person and (1) at the same time is in another role with the same person, (2) at the same time is in a relationship with a person closely associated with or related to the person with whom the psychologist has the professional relationship, or (3) promises to enter into another relationship in the future with the person or a person closely associated with or related to the person. section 3.05

It would not be out of line to question someone from your sangha who seems to insist on acting on your behalf in a personal matter, or who insists on asking for professional opinions repeatedly. In the first instance if you had sought their opinion on a particular matter, due to their expertise, and whether they provided an answer or not, this does not obligate you or them to develop an ongoing professional relationship.  Likewise if someone asks for an opinion, the professional should feel perfectly free to cite conflict of interest or other professional ethical codes and decline. Neither party should push the matter nor feel resentful.

From a piece by Lorne Ladner Taking a Stand-The importance of healthy boundaries

This is precisely the way to go about setting healthy boundaries. You begin by correcting the person, telling the other how you wish to be treated, or stating what you are or are not willing to do. It can be difficult in the short run to set a clear boundary with someone you care about, but not doing so often leads to many more difficulties over a much longer period of time.

Boundaries provide a framework for relationship.  Without them, without some critical judgement, questioning, and decision making all manner of activities become acceptable. No one takes the time to really examine their limits of acceptability. Such things are forgotten and anything goes. It reminds me of the old phrase “Those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.”

The Dharmic Conclusion

Shodo Harada Roshi said in this video:

When in the past we each could just consider our own needs and be aware of what the small world around us was requiring, we are now approaching a time when we can’t do that any more. The world is just too connected, just too full of things that are connecting all of us. For example the amount of information that comes into everybody. It gives us the sense of not needing to judge things for ourselves any more. We’re always being told what to do, what to wear, how things should happen.

People’s lives have really taken on a sense of isolation without any way to express how miserable that makes them feel. And along with all that comes all the business of life because of all the media, because of all the information, because of the pace of things happening right now. In the middle of this isolated, uncomfortable mind we are walking around a world that is so busy we can’t even find time to find out what it is in our mind that is making us so discontent and unhappy. And in order to somehow assuage that feeling we go into entertainment that has so much stimulation that we are just kind of numbing ourselves to all of that. Or we become intoxicated on things like drugs or alcohol. Or a hobby that takes us away from thinking about how unhappy we are inside. Our world has become a place where we are always avoiding facing the core issue and dealing with what’s really really our true nature. Instead we try to find some satisfaction in an external world outside of ourselves.

The whole series of talks he gives are eye-opening.

The sangha, retreat or other place of refuge and teaching, when fraught with “the business of life”, ceases to function for it’s allotted purpose.  It becomes another place to which we must numb ourselves rather than free ourselves.

The need to recover a sense of autonomy within the Buddhist path is necessary. Yet so is the need to examine whatever sense of autonomy that is currently present and insure that it’s direction is in accord with the Dharma if we call ourselves Buddhist and wish to have the benefits of the Buddhist path. It is with some trepidation that I would cite the Kalama Sutta here because that has been over used and abused too many times.

Unfortunately, what I see  happening in some cases is a rejection of the Buddhist path in favor of personal opinion or wishful thinking. One small section of the Sutta is often cited, though more often paraphrased, without reference to the context, to justify this rejection:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’

This is not a blank check to use to fulfill every whim we have. Nor is it license to throw Buddhadharma out the window and substitute a bunch of woo. Particularly related to the teachings themselves,  rejection is very popular. There may be several reasons for this.

There is a strong anti-intellectual tendency in popular Buddhism globally. To some degree that is even reinforced by some of the hierarchical structures within the Buddhist establishment. So it is quite understandable that a knowledge approach would seem rather unattractive compared to an intuitive or “organic” approach. But both are necessary.

As well rejection is often confused with judgement. Rejection and judgement are not the same thing. Rejection or acceptance are decisions made after investigation and analysis. They are results of judgment which is a result of analysis which is a result of investigation. There is a whole chain of events that precedes rejection.  This is the meaning and method of free inquiry that is encapsulated in the Kalama Sutta.

The criteria for judgement are laid out plainly in the Sutta. They immediately follow the above quote. On the subject of rejection it is stated:

Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.

And similarly for acceptance:

Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

These are the criteria for wise decision making. We cannot accept or reject until we know what it is that is being dealt with. Just because somebody on Twitter says “Buddha said to reject texts, or precepts, or teacher’s opinions, or our own ideas.”  do we blindly accept that opinion? It’s tempting to do so because it gives us license to do whatever we want. Without references to any alternative, since we have rejected them, we are left to fall back on our own greed, delusion and desire. Acceptance and rejection are conditional upon knowledge and experience of the subject. A priori rejection [the blank check] is not included in this approach.

Yes we need to maintain a critical eye towards what is and isn’t beneficial. But beneficial in the relative sense of the ego and beneficial in a much larger sense are two very different things.

There may come a time for rejecting. When one has digested and benefited from their study then particulars fall by the wayside. The raft is left behind as it were. This seems to be the emerging trend and that is not a problem for mature practitioners. However, for those who have not yet benefited from the raft, its disposal may be a little premature leaving them lost on the little island of I.  (Yes I am referring to Batchelor’s latest work but that’s for another post)

Setting boundaries, making informed decisions, questioning methods, using sound judgement, asking for proof, abandoning the harmful, accepting the beneficial, knowing what we are accepting and rejecting intimately are all part of the process. 

But most importantly these criteria are also to be applied to ourselves. We have to look within and monitor our own actions and reactions. The Buddhadharma as a whole is not only some kind of lens with which to examine and judge that which is deemed outer to ourselves. That sets up our egos to be the ultimate arbiters of everything. We remain in the same position as always and are essentially running in place.

While it can certainly be useful for the purpose of external observation, it is a mirror with which we are to view ourselves as well. Buddhism as an external thing, a refuge outside of ourselves is ineffective. It is like a medicine in that sense.  To be taken not merely looked at or displayed. It is only a costume if we do not apply the same scrutiny and criteria within as without.

So when it comes to teachers, students, methods, “tools”, relationships, ideas, occupations and ethics, a rigorousness and universality needs to be applied in approaches to the Buddhadharma.


On a few blogs,related topics have come up and comments were quite interesting. Check these posts for more:

Dying of New Age on Petteri’s blog Come to Think of It…  on New Age “woolly-headedness”

Caution: Meditation May Lead to Brainwashing from Gniz at Reblogging Brad Warner blog followed by Cautions about Meditation and “Brainwashing” Revisited

Big Mind, Big B.S.  Nosan Lawrence Grecco on The Wheel of Dharma blog discusses …”packaging Zen Buddhism as if it were instant oatmeal.”

The inimitable Brad Warner of Hard Core Zen has been into similar subjects for quite some time. One of his more recent posts is THE END OF SUFFERING IS POSSIBLE FOR YOU

Semi-Related Videos in a Somewhat Comedic Vein

more from Supreme Mistress Looprah Woo 

(she reminds me of the Phoebe character on Friends in that last video!)

She also has a Facebook Fan page and a Twitter account

FLM:Factories of Bliss

[This is another episode of this blog’s occasional column, Fear and Loathing in McBuddhaland ]

Like most of the others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that my instincts were right. I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going. Hunter S. Thompson from The Rum Diary


This is a bit of a tangent taken from my last column FLM:Dr. Feel-good and the Medicalization of Buddhism.

As well some time ago I got into what could have been a very heated discussion with one of the scientists at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies regarding the mixing of science and religion. (my blog post on this Science and Religion make a Lousy Cocktail… ) but fortunately civility reigned and we had a nice discussion. The discussions there range from debate over human enhancement with technology to global security and techno-immortality. Interesting subjects in the forums and blogs. This Institute also has something going on called The Cyborg Buddha Project which links a number of scientists, all of whom have Buddhist backgrounds including monastic backgrounds to:

…promote discussion of the impact that neuroscience and emerging neurotechnologies will have on happiness, spirituality, cognitive liberty, moral behavior and the exploration of meditational and ecstatic states of mind.   from the ieet CBP website

These and an email from a friend have prompted further thought. This time about the techno-medical-pharmaceutical-psychological establishment if I can compound all those together into one great Behemoth to tilt at. I like big targets because then I don’t need my glasses.

So get out your God helmet and strap in.

In the Beginning…

…there was the evolving human brain. From this brain came religion to explain the mysteries of existence. Then, after some time there came psychology to explain the mysteries of the brain that invented the notions of religion. Then there came technology to explain the mysteries of psychology. Then there came pharmacology to alter the human brain. Then there came the corporations.

OK maybe it didn’t happen in just that order. Many of these things co-evolved in many cultures. Pharmacology has long been tied to religion and religious experience. And psychology, though not named as such, has a place in many religions. Ethnopsychiatry, an interest of mine,  generally means the indigenous diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. The questions in that discipline revolve around the identification of behavior that is “abnormal” for want of a better term, within a given culture and what is the culture’s response to such behavior.

In academia this has been a fairly scholarly sort of cataloguing endeavor with regard to “other” cultures. The usual ethnographies and texts are written and few bother to read or remember what exactly they were about. And this kind of discipline has extremely limited exposure in the general culture of the Americas or Europe or anywhere else for that matter.  Sociology has sub-disciplines based on medicine and psychology but they too are not generally known.

So it occurs to me why not look at “Western” culture through this kind of lens and get a handle on the patient-culture that North America is becoming. And further why not look at some of the efforts to extend this disease/dissatisfaction-model of human existence into the future.

The Modern “Abnormal” and The Culture of the Damaged Individual

A guy walks into a bar and catches the eye of a beautiful young woman. He walks up to her and says “What’s your diagnosis?” She smiles and they exchange the phone numbers of their respective mental health professionals for screening.

Was viewing some of those self-help program web sites recently and they had a pages of testimonials. Some of the quotations included such phrases as:

  • I attended the … Retreat hoping to find healing, and renewal.
  • … it was deeply healing.
  • I am moving towards wellness again.
  • you saved my life this weekend.
  • You helped me to access my emotions to enable healing to occur
  • I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to heal with you.
  • “Thank you … for seeing my hurt, for calming my fears, for enabling me to get through my pain, fear and anger that has been an anchor in my life for too long.
  • I finally feel as though my cloud of doom has lifted!

There are thousands of such testimonials on every kind of self-help website imaginable. Looking in the mirror it seems all people see reflected is some kind of damage. And on some of these sites it’s almost like a damage sweepstakes and some kind of achievement to have the longest list of emotional and psychological problems, ailments and detrimental beliefs.

Time and time again people invoke some kind of illness or popular psychological jargon in casual conversation. Some of the things I’ve heard include:

  • I’m so neurotic..
  • I have panic attacks all the time.
  • I’m sure I’m bulimic…
  • I think my child has social phobia
  • That time gave me PTSD. I mean I still think about it.
  • He has ADHD for sure…
  • You are sooo OCD…

Yet none of these people had any sort of psychology background nor had they been to any sort of psychotherapist regarding these complaints. Nor had they even seen their family doctor about any problems they were confessing to.  And the last comment was directed at me. Someone said that to me once sarcastically. I asked them to define OCD. They mentioned something about the neatness of my house and that my DVD’s were in alphabetical order.  I am fairly mindful of my surroundings but not in a pathological sense. Neatness is not OCD by a long shot!

Are we all really this fucked up?

Is the “damaged individual” the new archetype? (Consider the celebrity press!)

And are we also demanding that others take on our own versions of perceived illness?

Are we becoming a culture of psychological hypochondriacs and fantasy diagnosis pushers?

Why is it not OK to be OK?

The Big Catalogue of Misery

In an email to me recently Ven.Kobutsu Malone wrote:

The thing about western psychology is that it is solely concerned with 
psychopathology…. it cannot identify one single “healthy” state of 
As for the DSM…. talk about “corporate” influence?  That book was 
created for the insurance industry to enable psych people to fill in 
insurance forms with number codes.

In popular culture the DSM has become something more. The hegemony of psychological ideology into people’s lives particularly in American culture has both enabled corporate profiteering in the health care sector and disabled otherwise healthy individuals with diagnoses that are often overblown and incorrect. The ignorance disguised as scientific authority with which the psychiatric and psychological community continue to practice is almost unbelievable. Ask any of them how ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) actually works or what the exact mechanism of SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors-aka Prozac and it’s relatives) action is on the brain and you’ll get an answer that starts with “We think it does…”  Please read the criticism/controversy/adverse effects sections of the Wiki pages cited for more information on the dubiousness of these treatments. I could also cite many medical studies that run contrary to the corporate funded research that lauds these things so highly. Only for the sake of brevity will I refrain.  [No I am not affiliated in any way with Scientology and their anti-psychiatry campaign!]

What is becoming increasingly popular is the realm of self diagnosis. Any self-help section of a large book store has hundreds of books on subjects taken right out of the DSM. There are such titles as

  • Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder For Dummies
  • The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook
  • Anorexia Nervosa: A Survival Guide For Families, Friends And Sufferers
  • Conquering Math Phobia: A Painless Primer
  • The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook: A Guide to Healing, Recovery, and Growth

It is not that these books are not useful to those that actually may suffer from these conditions. And it is not that the symptoms clusters do not present themselves with some degree of association and regularity. It is that in this instant expert world and especially with everyone believing they are an expert on themselves, self-diagnosis is often mis-diagnosis. If psychologists and psychiatrists, who have actually taken the time to study these behaviors in depth can often be wrong how much more so for people with little or no knowledge of the subject?  Suggestibility is much higher in people than they would like to believe. And in view of marketing campaigns and big bookstore sales tactics that suggestibility is manipulated as much as possible. (Did you know books just below eye level are purchased much more frequently than those lower down? Now you know why they waste space with table displays in book stores instead of all shelving which would be much more sensible and efficient for the housing of books. And these tables are usually dining room sized, which reminds people of food consumption. There’s a lot more that goes into designing the “browsing/buying” experience than most realize.)

These books are well marketed not only to patients but to potential patients. And in the marketing business we are all potential patients. Tell someone they are ill long enough and they might start to believe it. The  classic movie Gaslight reminds us of that. Of course there the woman’s husband was setting her up with the scenario. But it does seem increasingly we are setting  ourselves up for our own “gaslighting” with self-talk, reinforced by strong marketing campaigns relating to our “unwellness”.

So much time and energy is expended on going from one thing to another in an attempt to relieve this “unwellness” this dissatisfaction with self. After a time we start to look for a definitive definition of this vague “unwellness”. The lists of available “ailments”continue to grow. Look through the big book of misery and try on the diagnosis.

I came across an apparently abandoned blog by a young woman who I will not name here, as she may not even remember writing this a couple of years ago. She wrote the following:

The question is not whether I would receive a diagnosis, but what particular diagnosis it would be; it is apparent that the intensity and nature of my inner experiences would not be considered normative or healthy by the majority of people.
A few months ago, it dawned on me that I might “be” bipolar. Looking over the course of my life experiences, and then stripping them of the spiritual or religious meanings I once attributed to them, it is all too apparent that they match a bipolar cycle of uplift and abjection. I ascend the heights and think I have discovered the “truth,” only to turn around and find it all meaningless.

This young woman had taken some psychology training but was not a psychologist. When you are a psychology student you go through a kind of sympathetic symptom syndrome where you start to think anything described in your Abnormal Psychology text is about you. Sort of like men who go through a sympathetic pregnancy (Couvade syndrome) with their wives.

In any case this kind of self-scrutiny is becoming all too common. And the big catalogue of psychological misery known as the DSM-Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association is rapidly becoming popularized. Articles appear in consumer culture magazines such as Redbook and Cosmopolitan with their advice columns which encourage reliance on some outside “authority” for life’s questions and often pull a considerable amount of their data from the authority of the DSM or from those who’s practice involves invoking said manual. Where the advice giver is not an “expert” in the field outside “experts”, usually psychologists are often consulted and quoted.

Romanticizing Psychological Dysfunction

Susan Sontag’s 1978 epic work Illness as Metaphor contains the following:

With the modern diseases … the romantic idea that the disease expresses the character is invariably extended to assert that the character causes the disease – because it has not expressed itself.

I would take up that theme of linking character with disease and expand it to presently include the romanticization of currently popular psychological dysfunction.

In another quote from the anonymous young woman’s blog she states:

So the question is, then, what is illness, and what is Genius? If so many creative individuals have been driven at least in part by what would now be termed “mental illness,” then why is it that the average “sane” person in this world finds so much inspiration in the fruits of their efforts? Might not such creative individuals, through their “dysfunctional” brains, be brought to the threshold of liberating truths and visions capable of filling others with a holy fire? If the hunger for meaning is universal, what then should we make of the fact that we would diagnose those who have provided us with it as “ill”?

In this case the label of mental illness becomes a metaphor for “special”, “creative”, visionary and liberated.  Sontag stated :

Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance.

My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness–and the healthiest way of being ill- is one most purified of, most resistant to metaphorical thinking.

And if illness is not a metaphor then neither is wellness. Increasingly the terms wellness and happiness are becoming interchangeable. We can be wholly well yet unhappy. These are different categories of experience. Happiness is too often synonymous with satisfaction of every goal, craving and whim. The striving for happiness is not unlike trying to dress in smoke. One is covered until a good wind blows. And it is never satisfying.

Kicking It Up To The Nth Degree

The healthy are not healthy enough. The intelligent are not intelligent enough. The insightful are not insightful enough. The visionary are not visionary enough. There is something lacking, something is not satisfied. One may take this lack and perform the metaphorical blessing of the DSM-IV and become one of the romantically liberated, the psychologically significant and the Divinely “touched”.

Sontag again had something to say on the subject of psychology. She called it “a sublimated spiritualism”. That sublimation of spiritualism is taking new turns with the advance of technology.

One may, without recourse to disease models, instead search for relief from the self-perception of ordinariness and inferiority into the technological realm which includes the pharmaceutical.

Spiritual technology in various forms in nothing new. In the Amazon basin rites of passage, which have long been affiliated with shamanism, are marked with an initiation ceremony involving participants receiving bites of “bullet ants” which are large poisonous ants. Here is an additional explanation. And here is a video  from the National Geographic of the ceremony.


Spiritual technology, be it through natural or chemical substances, manipulation of sensory experience through deprivation or bombardment or other alteration, neurosurgery, machinery or technological enhancement has been and will be something that continues along with the developments in human technology. The apparent need for external manipulation of one’s internal condition is not something that is going away any time soon.

There was a series of articles and interviews from Tricycle magazine in 1996 about Psychedelics and Buddhism.  Most of the articles are only subscriber access but one is available The Roundtable: Help or Hindrance with Ram Dass, Joan Halifax, Robert Aitken, Richard Baker. The discussion revolves around the use of drugs and it’s efficacy in the spiritual experience.  This series is taken from  Zig Zag Zen which is one of  the first books to raise some of these issues. The book contains articles and interviews as well as artwork related to the topic. Although most of the material is of a historical perspective questions are asked as to the utility of the drug-induced psychedelic experience in relation to the spiritual. Several excerpts and abstracts are available here.

This is only the tip of the iceberg.  Technoshamanism is a term that has been around for quite some time. In essence it is the melding of technology in service to shamanistic spiritual practices. It was taken up by the Rave culture and many of those that self define as Modern Primitives the latter of which also involves body modification often employing elements of tribal cultures. The use of music with strong rhythms along with the strenuousness of dance and often drugs produces an altered state of consciousness.  Whether this altered state is for the purpose of spiritual discovery or just having a good time depends upon the individual. Steve Mizrach has an interesting article on the Modern Primitives for those interested entitled “Modern Primitives”: The Accelerating Collision of Past and Future in the Postmodern Era .

The inner/outer apparent dichotomy and the manipulation of one to understand deeper truths and possibly effect change is nothing new in the world. It is not even new in the realm of science which is often seen as a bastion against irrational experience or unprovable speculation. Quantum Mysticism with such eminent thinkers as Heisenberg and Bohr pondering the possibilities and it’s critics such as Victor Stenger (Mystical Physics…,, The Myth of Quantum ConscienceQuantum Metaphysics ) bring these questions into the material realm.

What it comes down to is experience, sometimes its a peak experience, an altered experience, a way to understand experience, a search for a new experience, a way to augment our current experience or simply a satisfying way to understand our human experience.

Dissatisfaction with the ordinary perspective on experience drives most human searching behavior, whether one is a scientist or a shaman.

There is no reason why this will not continue. We have seen it in the popular imagination with such films as Johnny Mneumonic including it’s themes of Neurohacking or the imagined reach of technology in Total Recall or Vanilla Sky.

It’s about experience and dissatisfaction

What strikes me is the zeal of the scientific quest. And the willingness of Buddhists to participate in that quest. It is as if Buddhism, unless proven by science is dissatisfactory. And that science will remain unsatisfied unless it can quantify the spiritual experience with some kind of measurement. It will not accept that there may be something beyond it’s reach.

The psychonauts of the Neurotheology movement are just getting started. Buddhists in America and elsewhere have been invited and are all too willing to attend. (Neurophysiology of Meditation, Meditation skills of Buddhist monks yield clues to brain’s regulation of attention, ZEN BRAIN-from Upaya Institute,  Wired 14.02: Buddha on the Brain, etc.)

How long will it be before the Factories of Bliss start to manufacture satisfaction and happiness? That seems to be a promise so many religions have been accused of reneging on. Will science finally make it happen?

It’s about experience and dissatisfaction

Cyborg Buddhas Indeed!