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The Unrecognized Influence of Romanticism on Western Buddhism

One of the may wonderful things I learned in the class, “Buddhism In the U.S.” (taught by Jane Iwamura at University of the West), is the powerful influence of German Romanticism on Buddhism.  Interestingly Romantic thought deeply influenced how D.T. Suzuki presented Zen to Western audiences.

An interesting example of Romanticism in Buddhism is the following statement from an article on Daniel Ingram in the NY Times, The Anxiety of the Long-Distance Meditator:

“Stream entry,” is a Buddhist term for initial enlightenment — a shift in perspective where the practitioners’ mind flips inside-out and for a split-second recognizes its own inseparability from the rest of the natural world.

This reads like none of the descriptions of the direct realization of the path that I have seen in the Pali Canon (if you know an equivalent description in the Canon,  please comment with a reference). More common are descriptions found in writings such as MN 44 or AN 10:92.  All references I have seen start with cessation of the five heaps.

Ajahn Geoff from his book “Purity of Heart”  (chapter titled ‘Buddhist Romanticism’) says this about dependent co-arising and Romanticism:

Western students discovered that they could relate to the doctrine of dependent co-arising when it was interpreted as a variation on interconnectedness; and they could embrace the doctrine of not-self as a denial of the separate self in favor of a larger, more encompassing identity with the entire cosmos.

I’d highly recommend those following the Theravada tradition to read Ajahn Geoff’s chapter.  He covers in great detail how Romanticism has influenced Western Theravadin teaching and has a strong opinion how this limits Theravada Buddhism in the West.  The book is online in PDF and other forms at dhammatalks.org.

For my friends in the Mahayana tradition may wish to read “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” by David McMahan.  He discusses in-depth the Romantic teachings that D.T. Suzuki brought to Zen.  McMahan also discusses ways scholars and practitioners have criticized Suzuki for his Romanticized version of Zen.

 Dear Readers, I’ve modified what I wrote about Romanticism and Mahayana Buddhism so as to not imply that the Mahayana tradition should follow the Pali Canon (or in other words, become Theravada).  That was never my intent.  Thanks to my friend Jason for bringing my sloppy writing to my attention.  – Alan

Aside

Mid-terms, so posting will be sporadic

I have mid-terms here at school so not sure when I can post again.  Hopefully after Wed.  I want to tell you a little bit more about myself and my practice (short form, Theravada background, about 30 years as a Buddhist, about 4 years as a jhana practitioner), and discuss lay practice using jhanas, and the importance of not getting caught up achieving “perfect” master of jhana.  See you soon.

Fear

Fear has been a constant presence in my life.  I remember trying to meditate 30 years ago in college and just being overwhelmed with anxiety.  Much of what I have suffered through in life has arisen through fear.  Perhaps fear is too weak, terror, may be more accurate.

And for a long time I made the mistake of ignoring the fear, trying to get away.  Impossible, of course, but sometimes it takes time to really understand a hard truth.

Why was this such a mistake?  Many reasons, but to me the most important is that without understanding my fear it was not possible to see how so much of “my” personality — especially the parts that drove people away — arose as a response to the terrible fear that I felt.  The moment I saw fear’s influence on my actions and behavior my life changed.  And changed very much for the better.

I don’t know if I am unique in being so afraid.  That is the problem with being a “sample of one” and why it is so important to have “admirable friends” with whom you can discuss the spiritual life.  I doubt that I am unique.  In some ways I wish that were true because I do not want anyone to suffer the way I used to.

That fear stirs in me every day.  But that is okay.   This fear is the craving for safety, a safety that does not, can not, exist.  This fear is beyond the power of mindfulness to cure, beyond the power of jhana, beyond the power of thought, beyond the power of anything sensual, perhaps beyond the power of death.  But not beyond everything.  It can end.

The Power of Self-Compassion

The last couple of days have both been, well “one of those days”.

Yesterday anxiety arose.  Today sadness.  Fascinating to watch how these moods construct themselves.

Often I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get to sleep.  My thoughts start to churn and an unpleasant emotional feeling starts to get worse.

What do I do?

Well, if things aren’t too bad, I immediately practice self-compassion. I will first become mindful and aware of the emotion and do so until there is no feeling of aversion or identification with the emotion.   I remember the second jhana and direct the joy that arises from that memory into compassion for myself.  That self-compassion will calm the mind so much I usually fall immediately to sleep.  I find the power of self-compassion to be so incredibly amazing.

What happens if the emotions and thoughts are a little stronger and I can’t arise self-compassion and joy?  I will first become mindful and aware of the emotion and do so until there is no feeling of aversion or identification with the emotion.  At that point, I think, “out of compassion for myself and others I will now enter into the 4th jhana”.  I enter into the 4th jhana and there the mind will come to rest.  I then go to the 2nd jhana and allow non-sensual joy to arise.  I will then practice self-compassion.

Now, when things are really churning around and an emotion such as anxiety arises (in me, the very feeling of anxiety causes anxiety), I often find that I need to go into the 5th jhana to the point where the mind no longer feels the body.  At this point verbal and nonverbal thought are gone as well as the body feeling of anxiety.  I stay here until I am solid and the mind is bright, malleable, and imperturbable .  Once the mind is strong I go back to the 2nd jhana.  Since the anxiety is now gone I can construct joy and then construct self-compassion.

As my practice has deepened I have come to realize the power and incredible importance of self-compassion.  For many of us who have grown up in this culture self-compassion can be very hard.  It is usually much easier to have compassion for others.  But self-compassion is so important that I call it critical.  It is hard to follow the path without it.  Without it how can you bear to be fully mindful and aware of powerful emotions?

Welcome

I’m creating this blog to record my experience using the jhanas as a means of practicing the Eightfold Path. I believe jhana practice to be right concentration as the Buddha defined it during his life. I don’t make any claim that jhana practice is the best and/or only way to awakening. Such a claim, for any of the practices, not just jhana, is impossible to prove. And, very likely, different practices are better for different personalities and skills. I’m good at concentration, so the jhanas were easy for me to learn and easy for me to practice. That said, I do believe jhana practice is just as valid as any of the other concentration practices.

I practice the jhanas as taught by Ayya Khema and Leigh Brasington. These are often called the sutta jhanas to distinguish them from the Visuddhimagga jhanas, which may be an entirely different creature from what I practice (a form of cessation?).

I also may discuss my experience as a Master of Divinity student at the University of the West, an accredited Buddhist University in Los Angeles. This degree will allow me to be a professional interfaith chaplain.

My hope is that blog will help those interested in, or currently practicing the jhanas to awaken themselves. There are so few of us relative to the dry-Vipassana practitioners that it is often difficult to connect and share our experiences.

My writings on this blog reflect my personal thoughts and beliefs, not those of any employer or school.

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