The Nonsense of No-Self

If you’ve spent any time around Buddhists you’ll surely have heard someone declare that there is no ’I,’ that the self is an illusion, and that the way to nirvāṇa is to realize the deep and hidden truth of egolessness. Does this mean that Buddhists don’t exist, or that they’re trying to not exist?

The Buddha Gotama certainly used the term anattā (not-self) but to be fair, this is a naive interpretation.

Here is a more sophisticated one, from Wikipedia:

‘…not-self (anattā) characterises all dhammas [things], meaning there is no ‘I’ or ‘mine’ in the conditioned as well as the unconditioned (i.e. nirvāṇa).’   [Wikipedia]

This impressive statement has presumably been reviewed by other Buddhist scholars and found acceptable. It is subtle and authoritative, but don’t be intimidated by the tone; it’s a mass of contradictions and a magical claim. For a start, Gotama’s prime tenet is that all things (dhammas) are conditioned—period. That means they’re formed by causes and conditions that come together temporarily and then fall apart: they’re contingent. Since nirvāṇa (which means literally, ‘blown out’) is not a thing, it may well be unconditioned, but to call it the unconditioned is presumptuous. There’s no definite article (‘the’) in Pali or in Sanskrit. This claim makes nirvāṇa sound suspiciously like Heaven.

Those who present nirvāṇa as an escape from suffering are mistaking the Buddha’s instructions for a metaphysical statement

If nirvāṇa is unconditioned how could it be achieved? It stands beyond time, beyond cause and effect, out of reach, impossible to experience. There’s nothing you, I or God Almighty can do to get there or to make it be. Even if it were possible, it would be pointless.

Besides which I am sitting here typing on my computer, so whoever tells me, ‘there is no “I” or “mine,”’ is not making sense. He or she is toying with the basic rules of grammar which, imperfect as they are, are all we have to think with.

A man called Vacchagotta asked the Buddha straight out, ‘is there or is there not a self?’ The Buddha remained silent. What’s the point, he explained later to his younger cousin Ānanda, of getting into metaphysical speculations that can be neither proven nor refuted? The real question is, why did the Buddha raise the idea of anatta (not-self) in the first place? Here’s what he said:

“…any form, feeling, perception, inclination or consciousness whatever should be seen with complete understanding as it occurs: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’”   [Saṃyutta Nikāya 22:59]

He’s not describing the ultimate nature of reality; he’s giving meditation instruction: don’t identify with experience. Earlier in the same discourse he points to the common fantasy that as individuals we can take charge of experience. If that were so, he says, we could dictate our lives.

‘If consciousness were the self, this consciousness would not lend itself to disease. It would be possible [to say] with regard to consciousness, ‘Let my consciousness be thus. Let my consciousness not be thus.’   [ibid.]

We know that’s absurd, not because we’re great philosophers but because it’s our common experience. When I’m sad, I can’t decide to be happy instead. I have to go through it. We all hate it, but it’s true. Dukkha—usually translated as ‘suffering’—is far more pervasive than just suffering. It’s not only what we feel; it’s the inescapable way that things are.

Those who present nirvāṇa as an escape from suffering are mistaking the Buddha’s instructions for a metaphysical statement, and we know what he thought of those. There is no escape. What is ‘blown-out’ when he speaks of nirvāṇa is not suffering but reactivity. Sadness and other feelings are an integral part of the human experience. People who don’t feel are sociopaths (not to be confused with people who don’t know what they’re feeling).

the way to nirvāṇa is through self-reliance which, it goes without saying, takes self-confidence

However, we don’t need to hate sadness. If we create a mindful gap between stimulus and response we can let go of such knee-jerk reactivity. With active attention —‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self’—we can stop resisting bad feelings and instead respond properly to them. Such mindful reflection is true morality, as opposed to simply following rules made up by someone else—even the Buddha. This is your path; not someone else’s. It makes you a stream-entrant (sotāpanna).


“have gone beyond doubt, become free from perplexity, gained intrepidity and have become independent of others in the teaching.”   [Majjhima Nikāya. 73, i. 491]

In other words, the way to nirvāṇa is through self-reliance which, it goes without saying, takes self-confidence. Stream-entrants don’t hesitate to question others’ interpretations and come to their own conclusions. Far from having no self, they have a robust self, even though it’s just a thing (dhamma), as contingent and impermanent as any other.

Nirvāṇa is stopping. It’s a non-act; neither a thing, a place nor an achievement. It simply reveals peace and freedom. In a moment of mindful reflection we can choose to not be driven by blind automaticity. The ‘path’ is your way of cultivating that non-reactivity.

This down-to-Earth nirvāna may sound less majestic than the End of Suffering proclaimed by devout Buddhists, but it’s infinitely more substantial, and realistic. How could I inhabit this body and live on this planet without suffering? It makes no sense. It is beyond my experience and my imagination. I cannot believe it.

To end reactivity is to stop thrashing around in futile attempts to make things turn out the way I want. It’s huge. Imagine letting go of the baggage that distracts you from being exquisitely alive and conscious, no matter whether it suits you or not.

I ask nothing more of life than to learn and grow my self, until I can no longer.


A Sense of Belonging

This article first appeared in Tricycle Magazine, Spring 2005

By my late twenties I’d been a Buddhist monk for five years and was blissfully ensconced in the security of a thousand-year-old tradition when I went to live in Sera Monastic University, in South India. The time I spent there in the late 1970s was a life-changing, formative period—though in none of the ways I had expected. It brought me to a painful turning point that led me to give up my robes, cut all ties, and wander off alone.

I was a child of the sixties—restless, intolerant of my elders and idealistic. I exasperated the poor nuns at my convent primary school in England, who tried to force-feed me on Catholic dogma. I endured the obligatory encounters with political radicalism, drugs, and pop mysticism and dropped out of university when it finally dawned on me that the system was designed not to enlighten but to make a useful citizen of me. I wanted none of it. What I craved was a truly meaningful life, so, like many others at the time, I hitchhiked to India in search of “myself.” The inexorable windings of the hippie trail led me to Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s classes in Dharamsala, to the annual Kopan thirty-day retreat in Nepal, and then to Switzerland, where I was ordained by Geshe Rabten.

Geshe had gone to the West to turn out Western teachers, and I joined his small group of students near Rikon, Switzerland, where we lived in cramped conditions. Some of the others had been studying for years and already spoke Tibetan. We took the prospect of becoming teachers very seriously and discussed our mission in earnest. Geshe endeavored to pass on to us the training that had led to his geshe degree, and we thought a great deal about what it would mean to be the future interpreters of Buddhism in the West.

This was an exciting community of like-minded people. All of us in our own ways lamented the limitations of Western thought and were eager to learn Tibetan, to debate the monastic textbooks and transcend conventional knowledge. I discovered that the directed human brain was a powerful tool. My Tibetan progressed, and I was able to peek into the ancient texts for myself. Soon I began to experience self-esteem for the first time in my life; I enjoyed the respect that came with the robes and looked forward to becoming a teacher. After a reprobate youth, I was actually becoming useful.

As I became more proficient, I took part in discussions about how to translate the dozens of technical words that had no direct English equivalents. The language of the debate textbooks is precise and relatively static, but English meanings shift over time as they take their place in ever-evolving systems of thought. It became clear that we’d need to expand our familiarity with Western thought if we were to become effective translators. Geshe happily shared his broad knowledge of the debate textbooks but showed no interest in our language. He taught us as he’d been taught and never apparently considered that we’d be expected to teach any differently when our time came. Nevertheless, we had to understand our audience, and as we gradually delved into Western knowledge from the distant perspective of Tibetan Buddhism we discovered a new respect for our own roots. At first we tried to share our discoveries and dilemmas with Geshe, but he preferred that we spend more time on debate and forget about other subjects. However, the simple fact that we spoke English among ourselves, and to those who spoke no Tibetan, made thoughtful translation an inescapable priority.

Translating Tibetan into English had its challenges, but framing the religious or psychoanalytical questions of Westerners in Tibetan Buddhist terminology is almost inevitably to misrepresent them. Each Tibetan term is precisely defined and thrashed out through constant debate into a clearly shaped building block. It’s not that Tibetan is a less sophisticated language, rather, it’s not sophisticated at all. This gives it a tremendous inner coherence. (The Oxford English Dictionary defines sophisticated as “mixed with some foreign substance; adulterated; not pure or genuine.”)

Problems arose when we were called upon to interpret private interviews between Tibetan lamas and their Western visitors. There was no shortage of professionals and academics eager for cultural exchange, with occasionally improbable expectations. They sought Geshe’s opinions about Christ’s dying for our sins, on Einstein’s theory of relativity, about Jung’s collective unconscious, and even about whom they should or shouldn’t marry. Once rendered in the precise language of Tibetan debate, these questions became a strange caricature of Buddhist philosophy, often provoking Geshe’s consternation. His frowns and smiles were compassionate and fatherly, but they were also a conversation-stopper.

Not surprisingly, the Tibetans laughed at us a good deal. Our consumer approach to enlightenment left us hungry for instant gratification, and we compounded our overexertion by trying to outdo our own teachers in a strict—sometimes positively anal—observance of monastic rules, raising the neurotic stakes still higher. Whereas the Tibetans tend to be a good-natured and easygoing lot, we were uptight and anxious, and their generally compassionate responses often lapsed into gentle condescension. One concerned geshe in Sera actually suggested that I focus my entire practice on finding rebirth as a Tibetan, so that in my next life I’d have a real shot at enlightenment. All this was fair enough, if not actually therapeutic, but when our concerns over questions framed in Western terms were greeted with the same paternal condescension, we were more troubled. “Cultural exchange” seemed at times to be a one-way street that flowed from the superior to the inferior. Anyone who has studied Buddhist tenets will know how various interpretations of emptiness are arranged in a philosophical hierarchy, in which each version is slightly less flawed than the previous, until one arrives at the pinnacle—the “correct” (and admittedly elegant) Prasangika-Madhyamika view. Most geshes trying to understand a foreign system of thought would instinctively seek to place it in this hierarchy, with predictable results.

The situation was disappointing, but not yet critical. In the meantime, something much more important was worrying me—my studies were progressing, but I wasn’t finding the emotional control and stability I’d expected. I was learning about dharma, but what about the practice? Geshe Rabten assured me that learning came first, realization second, and encouraged me to persevere. Thus I returned to India to improve my Tibetan and to see his alma mater for myself. The hundred or so Sera monks who had relocated in South India to rebuild their shattered institution had gathered about three hundred boy novices, cultivated fields of corn, and rebuilt their colleges and houses brick by brick.

Geshe had suggested that I become the monastery’s first resident English teacher, but the completion of the schoolroom suffered interminable delays. It took me a while to realize that this wasn’t the result of poor organization, as the abbot preferred me to think, but of monastic realpolitik. The old-school teachers claimed they didn’t want their boys wasting time, but the real concern was that they’d be tempted from the hallowed halls by the suspect world that English would open up to them.

I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic, for I, too, mistrusted the consumer culture and saw that these boys had little resistance to its dubious charms. The walls of many monastery buildings were strangely littered with calendars featuring fantastic pictures of great cities whose streets swarmed with modern automobiles and whose skies teemed with jet planes. Living in that sun-baked compound reclaimed from the jungle, even I was drawn to those icons of physical ease. In fact, my distant but growing respect for Western thought was echoed by a subliminal craving for Western interaction: I missed the eclectic conversations with my colleagues in Switzerland. I wrote long, candid epistles to them from this bedrock of the Gelugpa—one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism—orthodoxy, and received astonished replies, for what I described wasn’t what they had expected.

Neither was it what my Tibetan hosts had expected, for I wasn’t exactly a polite, reserved visitor. Although I managed to see the monastery’s first dispensary off to a good start, I also raised hackles in many quarters by protesting vociferously against the clouds of DDT that were sprayed into one house after another. I spoke out against the living conditions of the novices, who slept in bundles of filthy rags, didn’t taste fresh fruit and vegetables from one year to the next, and were perpetually infected with ringworm, intestinal parasites, and other easily preventable ailments. The last straw came when the abbot point-blank refused my request to step between a particularly brutal teacher and his six-year-old charge. Eventually, the boy’s mother spirited him away, an occurrence over which there was much shaking of heads and for which I was justly blamed. At that point, I ungraciously abandoned the beautiful but very conspicuous room I’d been given in the Sera-Je temple complex for a rat-infested hut in the remotest corner of the monastic compound. There I could think and tend in peace to the boys who came to me with their cuts and scrapes.

The boys themselves were oblivious to their poverty. With remarkably few exceptions, they respected their elders and studied hard. Despite severely overcrowded conditions—up to a dozen boys in a single room—there was a notable absence of fighting or any deep-rooted conflict at all. The crowding was compounded by a complete absence of running water or toilets.

Only those who have actually visited a Gelugpa monastic university can believe just how noisy it is. Forget about quiet courtyards, silent meditation, and the serene exchange of ideas! Morning and evening, boys pace up and down verandas and laneways yelling their memorized texts at an extraordinary rate, each vying with the next, until they’ve etched hundreds of pages in permanent memory. The older boys expend their testosterone in excited debate, where pushing and shoving is considered good fun and the spittle flies—Gelugpa debate is no dry or pious exercise. Its main purpose is to thoroughly familiarize the student with the content of the Buddhist canon, although the inspired debater will recognize the inherent limits of thought, and land in the sort of existential quandary that points beyond conventional knowledge. Such debate is considered a form of contemplative mind-training.

“You believe that?” asked a bright nineteen-year-old incredulously.

I actually considered it a fact, but since it wasn’t within my direct experience and the thesis remained unproven—at least among Tibetans—it was indeed a belief. “Yes,” I agreed, “I believe it.”

With the adversarial gusto of a practiced debater, he rose to his feet and reminded me that the wind that destroys the universe at the end of the aeon blows continuously, just above the summit of Mount Meru, destroying everything in its path—American spacecraft included. I jumped at this diversion from scriptural rote and entered cheerfully into the spirit of things.

However, it soon became clear that this was no intellectual exercise. When I suggested that Mount Meru, the center of the classical Hindu and Buddhist universe, was at best a metaphorical description, he became perturbed. Worse still, I responded to his scriptural citations by stating that not everything the Buddha said was necessarily true. The mood changed perceptibly, but I blundered on a little further before realizing that the conversation had gone beyond the pale. I was now struggling with my companion’s personal sense of belonging, his moral and intellectual security. I was no longer just an adversary, but an outsider.

With that, reality hit me in the face.I could learn to speak Tibetan, put on the red robes, and even live in Sera Monastic University, but I was as completely out of place here as I’d been at home—a mass of contradictions when I began and a mass of contradictions now. I “believed” in enlightenment, but without real experience what did that amount to? Such convenient belief was an arbitrary decision, made as if I were an independent entity in charge of my beliefs, thoughts, and existence—not dependent, a product of my times, born of an environment from which I was not separate. I wasn’t a Tibetan but a Westerner who for some reason or another was compelled to ask questions that consistently undermined my own sense of security. I could no more unplug my urge to ask awkward questions than I could abandon my mother tongue. As a godless, disenfranchised Westerner living, as Stephen Batchelor puts it in Living with the Devil, “on a ball of rock and mud hurtling through space, who is skeptical about the promises of religion,” I was already predisposed to questions that resisted final conclusions, even though I still ached neurotically for security.

The eminently human young Tibetan whose insecurities had so shocked me had unwittingly undermined the illusion that had most convincingly brought me into the Tibetan fold—that Buddhists are more tuned in to reality, more open than most religious and even scientific Westerners. The realization that ordained monks and respected scholars might be acting out of insecurity was as painful and therapeutic as having a boil lanced.

I put together an inventory of what I felt compelled to believe, as opposed to what I simply wanted to believe, and remembered that the path is not an instruction manual. A superficial reading of the Prajnaparamita Sutras—a series of vital Mahayana sutras—suggests a sequence of identifiable stages, as if the attainment of each one qualifies the seeker to embark on the next. This wasn’t what the Buddha did, or what he taught. Since becoming a monk I’d filled my life with study, tantric imagery, and monastic ritual that was fascinating but guaranteed nothing. I asked myself, “What is dharma practice?” and the simple words of Lama Thubten Yeshe came to mind: “Know[ing] your own mind and how it works.”

I left Sera and traveled south, going into retreat in a Sri Lankan monastery, away from the romance and colorful imagery of Tibetan Buddhism. There, the differences between the plain bread and water of Vipassana practice and the huge ice-cream sundae of the Tibetan tradition took on a practical new meaning. Perhaps my dharma diet had simply been too rich for me.

After fifteen months, I returned to Switzerland with mixed feelings of relief and foreboding. My robes represented the freedom to devote myself undistractedly to dharma practice, but what did that mean? I began to see the path as a state of mind, an attitude that, when maintained, is itself Buddhahood—not an achievement but a process. Far from being a concrete, predictable, and infallible road map, the path is empty. Like everything, it’s uniquely related to one’s own mental formations. We find our path, I thought, in probing our own creativity.

The question now was, what practices would help me? To what extent were they authentic? How to measure authenticity? Like any other, the Tibetan establishment was a human institution, self-perpetuating, tending to resist the change, questioning, and doubt that is every true seeker’s life mission.

Back in Switzerland I found myself the elder monk, as most of the core group from Rikon had now left for a variety of compelling personal reasons. I taught younger monks, interpreted for Geshe and other visiting lamas, and traveled to other European centers to translate. This was less straightforward than I’d initially imagined. While I’d seen Western audiences happily swallow the most unscientific tales from a Tibetan lama, I was now expected to explain how I reconciled things like Tibetan cosmology with the terms of objective inquiry. It got worse. Following in the tradition of my predecessors, I traveled once a week to Geneva to teach a group of laypeople. I sat before them with crossed legs, feeling constrained to present the same systematic teachings I’d heard myself so many times, and to which they too had grown accustomed. After all, I wore the robes, was there under the aegis of Geshe Rabten’s dharma center, and had a responsibility to represent the orthodoxy. I felt that my delivery was wooden and lifeless, but afterward I was praised for my wisdom and insight. I shuddered inwardly. I’d finally earned the right to teach, but I felt like a fraud. It was time to leave.

I felt my departure as a going forth to homelessness. Buddha’s original intention was to free his followers from the all-consuming commitment of the householder life and to leave behind the illusion of security. He didn’t advocate community life for his bhikshus but instructed them, “Wander forth, O monks. Let no two go the same way.” I was beginning to realize just how much could change in the two-and-a-half millennia between the communities that gathered around Buddha in northern India and today’s renewed Tibetan tradition. The Tibetans had to be understood in their cultural context. By extension, I also had to admit my needs as a Westerner and walk a path sufficiently broad for my exasperatingly sophisticated baggage.

I’d acquired some marketable skills and might have found a place in any number of monastic or academic institutions, but I’d had enough of ivory towers and was bitterly aware that scholasticism tends to make things more exclusive, not more accessible. The direction that instinctively emerged was much less convenient. I would abandon everything, go somewhere unknown, and enter the great rat race. I trusted that whatever I’d learned of truly practical significance would continue to grow in me, and that whatever had been arcane, self-perpetuating dogma would fade. In the meantime, I’d live like most other people, find out what the lay life was like, and perhaps even discover why they call it “real” life.

Abandoning the sense of belonging to a group that held the key to enlightenment was a wrenching experience that left me feeling isolated for years, but once made, the decision proved irreversible. Clinging to this security had undermined the most important aspect of my practice—that of critical thinking. And yet, without the refuge of my formative years, how would I have acquired such a clear notion of where I was going and of the unique and creative nature of every path?

Two decades later, I owe a great deal to the lay life. I prefer words of common sense and humor to the flowery epithets of wisdom and compassion. I think less about Awakening than simply staying awake to the enlightening moments that are everywhere for anyone who pays attention. It’s not about belonging at all, but letting go.

I indulge myself too, and look back on the days of my monkhood with wonder and fondness. The people with whom I shared those huge idealistic dreams are dearer to me than I would ever have imagined. And although at first I horribly missed the moral support of a community, the sacrifice has been more than worthwhile: as the idealism has faded, the dreams have become unexpectedly real.

The Buddha taught for many years, but the dharma he explained wasn’t about acquiring knowledge; it was about changing the mind. It doesn’t take a lifetime of study. We all practice as we learn, all at our own rates.

I first encountered Buddhism as one who’d found his way, but I promptly got lost again in the very words that were supposed to set me free. Still, I remain in awe of the man Siddhartha Gautama and his skillful teachings, a treasure that not only survived the fossilizing effect of sanctification but even penetrated my thick skull. I’m as profoundly grateful to the teachers who maintained its vitality as I am to the instinct that led me off on my own. I think that all those who feel so inclined should study the old languages and texts of Buddhism, even take ordination and rise in the hierarchy—but never let down their guard against the illusion of security. There is nothing to hang on to. The path emerges from a personal, surprisingly innate sense of direction and not from what’s expected of us by those who supposedly know better. Staying awake means continually reevaluating the ground on which we walk. Buddha wasn’t trying to be humble when he told us to think for ourselves; it’s the very essence of his teaching:

Do not be satisfied with hearsay or with tradition or with legendary lore or with what has come down in scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or with liking for a view after pondering over it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought, “This monk is our teacher.” When you know in yourselves, “These things are wholesome, blameless, commended by the wise, and being adopted and put into effect they lead to welfare and happiness,” then you should practice and abide in them.

—From the Kalama Sutra

Buddha’s perverse theory

‘“Everything is,” Kaccāna, this is one dead-end. “Everything is not,” this is the other dead-end. The Tathāgata (Buddha) reveals the dharma from a middle that avoids both dead-ends …’ *

Sometimes being right is just a way to avoid doing right.

Like everyone, I get into arguments with my family. The people we let down our guard with most easily are the ones we battle with most viscerally. Also, like many over-educated people, I tend to deal with the most blindly reactive side of myself by retreating into the convenient clarity of logic. When my wife and daughters are most anxiously in the grip of their emotions, I take refuge in being correct, and couldn’t be more wrong.

I became a monk in part to escape the confusion of emotional relationships, in part to find nirvana. I presumed the two were compatible, but over the years they remained stubbornly at odds. Whenever I denied messy feelings, my inner voice escalated to an incessant babble. One way or another I managed to rationalize my behavior, but reason became more of a maze than a source of clarity.

I’d been intoxicated by my scholarly ego, trying to interpret a simple instruction as a sophisticated theory

Buddha taught from “the middle,” and so I embarked on what I imagined would be a balancing act. I visualized the middle way as a sort of tightrope, a fine line through life with treacherous falls on both sides. This fit the idea of nirvana as elevated and difficult, requiring rare skills; perfectly removed from imperfect reality.

It also fit with what my Tibetan teachers taught. They explained that my thinking should be free of the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. As a good student I was able to rattle off definitions of these abstract terms, but exactly how they inflected my life was a mystery to me. Before Buddhism, I’d been trained in the natural sciences. I had no illusions that anything lasted forever; life was contingent, but experience was too real to ignore. As far as I saw I possessed the Buddha’s ‘right view.’ So why was I still hesitant, stuck in self-doubt?

I found nothing that resembled the precise middle way of my imagination. Life was a confusing ground of criss-crossing paths, each with its own shades of right and wrong, none of which I could figure out until I’d walked it. Thinking I should be taking one clear and recognizable step after another, I felt the chaos of my life as a mark of failure. Convinced that nirvana had eluded me, I sank into years of disappointment. I wrote my story and called it The Novice, because that’s how I felt.

You might think it perverse to persist in that disappointment, but it one day bore fruit. As a good Buddhist I’d long believed that the problem wasn’t with the world outside but with my expectations of it; now I finally internalized it. I’d been intoxicated by my scholarly ego, trying to interpret a simple instruction as a sophisticated theory.

All Gotama said was that life was unsatisfactory. Where Buddhists so often go wrong is thinking his path is a solution to that; rather, it’s an acceptance of it. The difficulty is not to understand it but to swallow it.

The middle way has nothing to do with mastering philosophical views. I finally learned this through my willingness to stumble and fall and pick myself up; to try and err and respond pragmatically, rather than with high and mighty ideas.

The opposite of the middle way is anta (a dead-end) in which we insist on seeing things as we want, as this and not that. Instead of responding pragmatically, we identify personally with our place in life. In being defensive we become petrified, unable to act. What helps in these situations is the agility to let go of judgments and opinions. We arrive at a dead-end when we insist on clear, satisfactory solutions.

The middle way is not about being right, but being unstuck

I saw the error of my ways by staying with my disappointment until I knew it from the inside. It’s not just a matter of being miserable, but of viscerally exploring that feeling and what it makes us do. Embodied attention (yoniso manasikāra) gets past theoretical correctness to understand suffering practically and personally. It’s the first step (complete view) of the eightfold path, a perspective on life that no longer relies on the opinionated either-or of “it is” one way and “it is not” another.

The middle way is not about being right but being unstuck. It reminds me that logical correctness isolates me from my loved ones, from their emotional pain. Whether they’re right or wrong is not the point. Logic has its place, but this is not it.

By insisting on what things are and what they aren’t we create an abstract world that may help us describe things in words, but it requires a deft touch. It’s not just easy—it’s tempting—to become academic, correct and out of touch. The pragmatic life is inconvenient and unsatisfactory. The challenge is to be real, not to be right.

* From the Kaccayanagotta Sutta (on Complete View): Saṃyutta Nikāya 12:15. Translated & abbreviated by Stephen Batchelor


Buddhist Hubris

As religious founders go, the Buddha was different. He prayed to no one. Rather than promising bliss in the next life he embraced every breath in this one. He showed no interest in transcendence, only in what was “immediate, visible here and now.”[1] His practice was grounded in experience. His path lay in comprehending dukkha.

When I was a Buddhist I was different too, but it wasn’t quite the same. As I settled into the subtleties of Buddhist philosophy and the rigors of meditation, I became increasingly convinced that ordinary people would never get it. The role of monk, scholar and initiate set me apart. What I’d forgotten—and remembered again only when I left—was that although life is utterly mysterious, it’s not that complicated. We all know pleasure and joy, pain and suffering. They’re what keep us going and make us quit.

Buddhism often gets in the way of following the Buddha

Surely everyone gets that. Well, not everyone. Safe behind the high portals of Madhyamaka philosophy and the Bodhisattva ethic, I had forgotten it. I frittered my life away in dreams of a reality apart, a Nirvana that was anything but “immediate, visible here and now.” My Buddhism became just another religion, reassuring me that a better place awaited.

Even worse, Tibetan lamas taught me that Nirvana and Enlightenment were elevated states, available only to extraordinary people. None of those lamas ever claimed to be enlightened, but one politely assumed they were; they reciprocated by politely denying it. But why would anyone committed to awakening for the sake of others keep their accomplishment secret? It makes no sense. How can you not wonder whether any of them were awakened?

The Buddha said, “I have taught the dharma without making any distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ teachings. I have no ‘teacher’s fist’ in regard to doctrines.” He did not hold anything back for a select group of initiates. He had no interest in establishing a lineage.

He also said, and this was in his last days, “…you should live as islands to yourselves, being your own refuge, with no other refuge, with the dharma as an island, with the dharma as your refuge, with no other refuge.”[2]

So when the devout behavior and formulaic language got me down, I decided to be my own refuge. It was hard to go without the security of having my questions answered for me. As for taking only the dharma as my refuge, that meant self-reliance, not hanging on to beliefs but negotiating life without them. It’s a practice.

The dharma is something you do
not something you think

If you’re thinking of investing yourself in a Buddhist community—and I’m not necessarily against it—be warned: Buddhism often gets in the way of following the Buddha.

The Buddha’s task is simple: to ‘comprehend dukkha;’ but it’s not easy. Even the most committed Buddhists shy away from unpleasantness; that natural reactivity is the target of dharma practice. The easy way out of this existential dilemma is to turn it into a logical problem: to make ‘comprehending dukkha‘ a theory about how you should behave and what you should know. It may be done with great subtlety. It may be intellectually seductive. However, these versions of Buddhism are infused with notions of transcendence—code for ‘escape.’ They’re precisely what the Buddha rejected, which is what set him apart. The dharma is something you do, not something you think.

To present nirvana as some metaphysical peak that can only be climbed by those with special knowledge is to turn it into just another religion. The Buddha described his awakening as a rediscovery of something forgotten. He pointed to it as “immediate, visible here and now.”

That includes the banal and the tragic as much as the extraordinary and the glorious. To comprehend it all means to accept it. To accept it is to dissolve resistance, to let go of reactivity. It’s no small thing.


1 [A. III. 55]

2 [DN 16 ii. 100]


Experimental Dharma

Awakening is not a solution; it’s a skill.

Whether you’ve joined an ancient Asian tradition or are trailblazing the new mindfulness movement, there is always a danger that your practice may reinforce an illusory place of security and happiness.

The mindfulness that’s popular today originated in Buddhism. Many would say it’s Buddhism with the religion taken out, but it’s not that simple. Removing the religion and leaving the secular is like trying to excise the nervous system from an animal while leaving all other tissue intact.

Buddhist myths are not mere superstitions, they are metaphors and methods. Mara may seem to be a supernatural demon, but if you take him as the sensual side of the Buddha’s own nature you may find their conversations mirror the conversations in your own head. Contemplating those conversations, I better understand myself.

Nothing could be less Buddhist than to swallow Buddhism whole, but it seems so presumptuous to interpret it your own way—not to mention intimidating. Surely you’d have to be an expert on Buddhism.

The promise of happiness is Buddhist marketing

Not according to the Buddha. He did not subject his audience to any course of study. Centuries of Buddhist philosophy notwithstanding, here’s what he said:

“I will teach you everything. And what is everything? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and smells, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile sensations, the mind and its contents. That is everything.” [S. 35:23, also cf. 35:92]

This is an admonition to ground your practice in the sensorium, not in beliefs or philosophies. This empirical approach is mindfulness, so palatable to modern ears. Notwithstanding this suggestion however, it’s hard to keep one’s attention within the sensorium. We instinctively fall back from the difficult act of beholding life to the far more comfortable act of theorizing and explaining it. This is how Buddhism has grown into a vast canvas of beliefs and rationalizations.

In today’s terms, it explains why the mindfulness movement, just like its parent Buddhism, is under pressure to turn a simple experiment into the goal-oriented pursuit of stress-reduction.

At this point I’m compelled to defend religious Buddhism. While religious institutions are public and political, the religious mentality is personal. It’s how we confront our finitude and our bafflement. The impossible question is, ‘What’s the point?’

I used to meditate to calm the mind, but in time I came to see the promise of happiness as Buddhist marketing, a sort of pedagogical sleight-of-hand.

Awakening is not a solution; it’s a skill

Rather than dwelling in the experience of being alive, conscious and awed, the pursuit of happiness is more about consumerism. The Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek hit a nerve when he said that Buddhism is becoming the “opium of the bourgeoisie.” He’s right in many ways, though it’s not what the Buddha taught:

“This dharma I have reached is deep, hard to see, difficult to awaken to, quiet and excellent, not confined by thought, subtle, sensed by the wise … it is hard for people who love, delight and revel in their place (ālaya) to see this ground (ṭhāna): the stilling of inclinations, the relinquishing of bases, the fading away of reactivity, desirelessness, ceasing, nirvana.” [M. 26]

Utterly open mindfulness changes your attitude towards happiness, suffering and the point of life. It’s not a faith-based or rational viewpoint, but an untethered attitude. Rather than pursuing a secure place it reveals a shifting, elusive ground. Through repeated exploration of that ground one gains balance. Awakening is not a solution; it’s a skill.

It seems at first inconceivable to cultivate a practice without goals, but simply being open to that possibility begins to reveal the everyday sublime.


The Buddhist Mob

People new to Buddhism want to make good karma and be happy. They haven’t yet caught on that chasing happiness is same old, and that the way of the Buddha is more subversive than that. Only when you get that does your path begin to crystallize. Sadly, not everybody gets it.

This week I visited one of the better Buddhist websites: The host is a New Hampshireman called Bodhipaksa. He checks the veracity of online Buddha quotes, and finds many are not by the Buddha at all. He’s good. What might be a sanctimonious rant in less capable hands turns out to be a subtle exercise in reflective/critical thinking.

As an example, try an Internet search for the saying, ‘There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt.’ Google delivers nearly a million hits citing the Buddha. In fact, it was coined in 1934 by Dwight Goddard. The Buddha considered chronic indecision a problem, but he also cast doubt on what we believe and how we rationalize. This righteous quote implies that out there somewhere is The Truth, just waiting to be nailed down by the magnificent human intellect. It resonates with neither the Buddha’s teaching nor his style.

Here’s something the Buddha did say: “Do not be satisfied with hearsay or tradition.” He disparaged Brahmin spirituality and suggested instead, “know in yourselves.”*

Today we have a new spiritual hierarchy, not a priestly elite but an Internet mob. At first glance they seem unbound by tradition, quite contrary to the staid Brahmins, but it turns out they’re alike in one fundamental: both are hanging on to something, whereas the Buddha let go.

Do-gooders and seekers of happiness are easily provoked. Bodhipaksa was primly accused this month of being a ‘Buddhist Canon Nazi.’ He strikes me as a mild-mannered, intelligent interpreter of early Buddhism, and a good influence. As you read his posts you find yourself stepping out of the box and thinking for yourself. What could be more Buddhist?

I too get comments from self-satisfied pillars of the community suggesting I should be less critical, more kind-hearted. You know the type.

This one accused Bodhipaksa of, ‘promoting such discord, by judging translations and people’s preferences.’ That’s a good one. A popular battle cry of do-gooders is that judgment is bad. Seekers of happiness believe that kindness means enabling everybody at every turn, no filters required. Their maxim is: ‘It’s all good.’ And yet they lash out like the rest of us.

It’s not all good. We’re constantly bombarded by unwelcome reality. The mob handles this with false positive thinking. Call it good and it will be so, the same way they make up Buddha quotes.

A mobster this week appeared on my page Why Celibacy is Perverse. It’s a provocative post. In his comment, Patrick Tomei compared intercourse with defecation, and said, “sexuality is for the weak-minded, and lower organisms.” He kindly added, “I’m sorry, you did not have the will to overcome this condition.” He probably thinks he’s compassionate, not nauseating.

Unfortunately, there’s a point of no return when you invest your whole self in a structure of belief. You end up inquisitorial, stuck on a high bench and surrounded by security. You’re in charge of something—sort of; but there’s no escape.

What is good? How to be kind? When to be positive and when to face facts? If your answers to these questions are beyond doubt, you’re in trouble. Honest answers emerge from honest living, and that’s a process. Each thread changes endlessly, and you have to match it. It takes skill.

Without those skills you’re defenseless against the chaos of life. The mob adapts to unreliability by being indiscriminate about everyone and everything. They discriminate anyway. They can’t help it. We all do. However, we’re not all two-faced about it.


* Both citations from Kalama Sutta (trans. Nanamoli Thera)