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Indian spirituality

The Philosopher and the Magus

Last week, if you remember, I was at a Buddhist seminar in the Colorado mountains, taught by a Tibetan Buddhist lama called Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. This was quite different to other Buddhist retreats I’ve been on. There wasn’t much meditation, instead there was four hours of teaching every day, over nine days.

Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche first came over to the US to work as a philosophy lecturer at Naropa University, the Buddhist university founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Boulder in 1974. His talks were mind-blowing. I’ve never actually been to a philosophy lecture before, and it’s a head-trip, trying to follow subtle arguments about the non-existence of the phenomenal world, in real time, for two hours.

Rinpoche said: ‘People like dharma teachings to be like opera [ie very emotional]. They’re lazy, and don’t want to grapple with philosophical arguments. In Buddhism there are two kinds of people. Those who are faith-orientated, and those who use discriminating intelligence. The Buddha encouraged the second kind of path.’

This immersion in Buddhist philosophy made me think about the difference between studying philosophy in western academia, and studying it in a Tibetan monastery.

The main difference is there is a specific goal for the student of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy to reach: enlightenment, for you, and for all beings. Philosophy is not something to be studied for the sake of a degree, a PhD, or tenure, it’s meant to be studied as part of the total transformation of the student’s mind and heart. It’s never just theory, it’s always tied to contemplation and to how one lives. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus said: ‘you may be fluent in the lecture-room, but out in the street you’re miserably shipwrecked.’

In Buddhism, as in the philosophy of Pythagoras and Plato, the journey to enlightenment happens over many lifetimes. Rinpoche taught within this context – he said we may not fully understand Nagarjuna’s teachings on emptiness in this life but ‘if you get it in 10 lifetimes, or 50 lifetimes, I will be happy’. So there’s a longer time-perspective than the traditional three-year PhD. The Guru is your supervisor over countless lifetimes (tough if you don’t like him).

Imagine your university lecturer saying, as Rinpoche did, ‘I am confident you will all reach enlightenment!’ Yet this model of philosophy has a lot in common with ancient Greek philosophy. There’s the idea of philosophy as a medicine for the soul. There’s the idea of philosophy as a way of life. There’s the idea of philosophy as a training for death – and books of philosophy as guides for the afterlife (as in the Tibetan Book of the Dead or Plato’s Phaedo, which Cato read as he died).

There’s the idea that emotional disturbance comes from misperception, or inaccurate seeing – tsul min yiche in Tibetan. Epictetus famously said: ‘Men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinion about events.’ Likewise, the Indian Buddhist philosopher Tilopa told his student Naropa: ‘It’s not appearances that bind you, it’s your attachment to appearances.’

In Stoicism, and in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, we heal ourselves by realizing how our opinions cause our emotions, and how the opinions may be wrong. The example I use in talks is that you walk into your office, and see Jennifer frowning, and you immediately feel offended and angry. The Stoic philosopher would get you to realize how your opinion caused your emotion – you thought something like ‘Jennifer is frowning at me, she doesn’t like me, what a bitch’ etc. Your view may be inaccurate – she may not be frowning at you, she may not hate you. And it may be unwise – even if she is frowning at you, so what? Is it wise or helpful to hate her back?

Buddhism likewise suggests that everything depends on the view you take of it. Machib Ladrong, the 12th century Tibetan teacher, told her students: ‘You may think that Gods are the ones who give you benefits, and Demons cause damage; but it may be the other way round. Those who cause pain teach you to be patient, and those who give you presents may keep you from practising the Dharma.’ As Marcus Aurelius put it, ‘Life itself is but what you deem it.’

But the Buddhist goes even deeper in dissolving the opinion ‘she offended me’. Jennifer doesn’t really exist, as a separate, independent, permanent self. She is a bundle of a trillion constantly changing conditions – her genes, her ancestors, her beliefs and culture, her body, how she slept last night, and so on. You don’t really exist either, not as a separate, independent, permanent self. There is no separate ‘she’ nor a separate ‘me’.

For three days, we dug into the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness, or sunyata, as developed by the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who lived in the second century AD in the south of India. He took the Buddha’s idea of dependent origination – nothing exists independently, everything arises and passes based on causes, including samsara and nirvana – and developed it into a rigorous systematic philosophy of emptiness.

All theories of the phenomenal world can be undermined through his ‘tetralemma’ (like a dilemma, but four possibilities rather than two):

The phenomenal world is not born from itself.

The phenomenal world is not born from something else.

The phenomenal world is not born from itself and something else.

The phenomenal world is not born without cause.

For each of these positions he gives various philosophical arguments (I won’t go into them here, as I don’t fully get them yet!) In general, his ‘Madhyamaka’ school of philosophy tries to undermine both the essentialist or eternalist school of philosophy, which argues that things can be reduced to some eternal and indestructible essence such as God or atoms; and the nihilist school, which argues nothing really exists. It tries to find a middle way – things don’t exist in the way we think of them at the gross or relative level, but they do exist in a relative sense.

A rainbow does not exist in a permanent or independent sense. It arises from certain conditions, from a certain perspective. However, it’s still there, in a relative sense. It’s still beautiful, in a relative sense. The problem is, we grasp at things as solid, real and permanent – we particularly grasp at the self as real, permanent and eternal. We chase the rainbow and try and find the pot of gold (ie to ground the self in permanent security, pleasure and contentment and to defend it from all threats). This chasing rainbows is what leads to grasping, which leads to negative emotions, which leads to samsara.

It’s a very radical view. All theories are empty. They all depend on polarities like ‘high/low’ or ‘good/bad’, which depend on each other and don’t really exist as independent terms. There is no God, no Platonic One, no ultimate and permanent Good. Nor is there an ultimate Zero – you mustn’t get attached to nihilism either. You could say, as Heraclitus did, ‘everything flows’, and what we call the self is really a bundle of continuums – continuum of the body, emotions, mind etc. But even the continuums don’t really exist in a permanent or absolute sense.

The theory of emptiness is also empty, as are all Buddhist teachings. They’re not the truth itself, they’re a raft to the truth, which is inexpressible. Over-attachment to any philosophical theory causes suffering – this reminds me of the ancient Greek school of Scepticism.

As the famous heart sutra teaches, revealing the dharma itself to be empty:

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering,
no end to suffering, no path to follow.
There is no attainment of wisdom,
and no wisdom to attain.

The heart sutra, by the by, was supposedly taught in the Buddha’s time, and then hidden by underwater serpents until humanity was ready to receive it. One legend has it that Nagarjuna – a magician as well as a philosopher – travelled to the underwater kingdom and was presented with it. Hence his name, which means something like ‘lord of the water-snakes’. He also taught that external reality should be seen as a dream or a magic show – it’s beautiful, but don’t get hypnotized into thinking it’s real.

‘You see the moon reflected in a pond’, said Rinpoche. ‘You know it has no reality, so you don’t try to grasp it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could relate to our life in that way, without churning emotions?’

So, I had a glimpse of an alternative conception of philosophy, an alternative path to the one taken by western academic philosophy, without the Reformation or Descartes or Kant or the Positivists. Wouldn’t it be great to study at a Tibetan monastery?

Well…yes and no. Sometimes Tibetan Buddhist philosophy reminds me of boring Aristotelian scholasticism – endless lists which the student is expected to memorize, like the 18 dhatus or the 37 limbs of enlightenment. Monastic philosophy also seems rather authoritarian and static – how could a young monk disagree with a supposedly enlightened Rinpoche? Ideas did change in western scholastic philosophy, but they changed extremely slowly. And of course, western monasteries often became corrupted, as many apparently still are in Asia. Imagine if tenure was granted not through achievement, but inheritance!

Still, I’m glad that the ascetic or practical or eudaimonic model of philosophy is gradually returning to the west, via Buddhism and Stoicism.

There is another side to Tibetan Buddhism, which I’ll end by discussing briefly, and that is its love of magic ritual. The last two days of the seminar were spent on a Tara empowerment ritual, which took ten hours, all in all, of chanting, ritual cleansing, visualizing and various other ritual actions – including visualizing Tara in various forms, with a flower on our heads, standing on a magic bicycle (no, really) and taking some grass back home to put under our beds, to inspire prophetic dreams.

This obviously felt quite alien to me – not least because the chanting was in Tibetan, most of which I didn’t quite catch, so God knows what I actually said. I’m all for using imaginative visualizations in meditation, but I’m not familiar with imagery of Tara, so abruptly summoning up an image of a white girl with seven eyes led to rather monstrous results.

I also found it off-putting because it seemed like operational magic to me. By operational magic, I mean rituals designed to create effects in the world. The Tara ritual, like all tantra rituals, supposedly grants great powers, or sidhis – such as longevity, magnetism and enrichment. Other tantra rituals supposedly grant powers like the destruction of enemies. We’re told Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism is the ultimate Buddhist teachings – the most secret, the most exclusive, the fastest way to enlightenment. But, to be totally frank, this aspect of it reminds me more of folk Catholicism, prosperity theology, or even the Law of Attraction. It risks becoming a grasping after power – at least, that’s how it struck me, as a novice outsider.

And with that grasping after power comes spiritual pride and hierarchy: we’re the special ones, specially empowered in a rare and exclusive ritual. The front-row of the tent were extra-special – his closest students were called up for special direct empowerments by the Rinpoche. This included his dog.

I was piqued that his dog got preferential empowerments. And I was also put off by the divination rituals to discover what sidhis Tara would grant us. Would we have lesser or supreme accomplishments? We cast a stick onto a mandala to discover. I got the lesser power of magnetism. Doh! Can I try again?

I also had a dream, after I put the magic grass under my bed. In the dream I was with friends, and we came across a party, where everyone was wearing white. We weren’t wearing white, but we tried to blag our way into the party. ‘Is this a…vajra party?’ I asked. ‘We’re into vajra too.’ Sorry, we were told, you’re not on the list. I don’t know if that was Tara telling me I’m not called to Vajrayana Buddhism, or my subconscious telling me that spiritual hierarchies always make me afraid of being left out. And esoteric magic always has hierarchies – you’re a ‘level 7 wizard’ or whatever.

Anyway, I’m not so into the magic side of Tibetan Buddhism (there was plenty of operational magic in Platonism, Stoicism and Renaissance Neo-Platonism, by the way). But the teachings of emptiness? I haven’t totally understood them yet. It’s OK, I have another 49 lifetimes before my essay deadline.

Ain’t nuthin’ but a vajra party, y’all

The Princess and the Pea

I’m back from a 10-day meditation retreat, at Vajrasana in sunny Suffolk. That might seem a bit of a doss, but it’s also an investment – I really want to improve my meditation practice, for my benefit and others’, and it’s ten times easier to learn on retreat than at home.  It’s like trying to light a match indoors versus trying to light it on the top of a windy hill.

Retreats are not the chill-fests people imagine. When you remove external distractions, you come face-to-face with your inner restlessness and dissatisfaction in its rawest form. You see all the spikes of your likes and dislikes. Outside, you think you could easily be happy if it wasn’t for all the idiots around you. Inside, you begin to see the problem might be you.

Let me give you a short history of my failures on retreat. The first was in 2006, when I went to Optina, the famous Orthodox monastery where Dostoevsky stayed. It’s a beautiful place, full of kindly monks and pneumatic cats. I went there in Lent, rose at dawn to go to the first service, followed the black-cowled figures through the snow, prayed with them by candlelight as the icons’ faces shimmered in the gloom. It was so romantic. And then, very quickly, it was just really hard and boring. The food was terrible, the services were long and incomprehensible, plus the archimandrite kept trying to convert me to the Orthodox faith. So, after two days, I left.

In 2015, while struggling to be a Christian, I went to a Benedictine monastery on the Isle of Wight. I intended to go there to meditate and do some writing. I was disgusted to discover there was no wi-fi or 3G connection. The come-down from all the stimuli of city life was unbearable. I felt so bored, sad, dead even. It was meant to be a silent retreat, but the man in the room next to me Skyped his son one evening. I shouted through the wall at him to shut up. Initially I found the church services somewhat moving, although one of the monks sang flat. But after a couple of days I just found them really boring and alienating. I began to accept that I wasn’t a Christian, I was kidding myself. So, after three days, I left.

In 2016, I went on a Vipassana retreat. It was extremely hardcore – no talking, no phones, no reading or writing, no leaving the perimeter, no contact with the other sex. Just ten hours of meditation a day. I found that I became furious with the people around me – with my room-mate, who crashed around and disturbed my sleep (one night I broke the silence to call him a wanker); or with the person who meditated behind me, who had a dry mouth and was constantly swallowing. Still, I stuck it out and made some progress.

In 2017, I went on a Zen retreat in the hills of south India. I was shown my room, and immediately asked to change room, to get a better view. I then had a lovely room overlooking the central zen garden. I meditated in the dojo, hearing only the tweeting of the birds. I began to feel a sense of inner serenity. And then music started blaring from a nearby village – tinny Tamil pop on the tannoy. It played all weekend, from 7 in the morning until 9 at night.

I could not believe it. How were we meant to meditate with that racket? I started to wonder if it was an act of sonic aggression by the village, to disturb the hippy westerners in the retreat below. How dare they ruin our Zen paradise! Eventually I went to the centre’s administrator and broke the silence to ask him: ‘what’s the deal with the music?’ I expected to hear a story about a long, bitter feud with the village. But he just shrugged. ‘Oh, they’re opening a new church. They’re always playing music, sometimes all week’. No big deal apparently.

This year, I went on a London Buddhist Centre retreat in April, and there were no major annoyances – however, I fell for one of the women on the retreat. I spent much of the retreat looking out for her, smiling at her, talking to her, thinking about her. I really thought we had something going. Then I discovered on the last day she had a boyfriend, who she lived with. The whole thing had been a story I’d concocted in my head. Another wasted opportunity.

So, this month, I went on an all-male retreat instead. The first night, the oom-pah band began. My room-mate snored like a smothered hippo. Every night I was woken up two or three times, and felt knackered in the morning. I considered my options. I considered asphyxiating the room-mate. I considered leaving the retreat. Why stay under such inauspicious conditions?

And then I came to accept that the problem, at least partly, was me. I have a very spiky ego, with sharp likes and dislikes, and one of my strongest aversions is people disturbing my sleep. That’s why I live on my own, on a top-floor flat in a quiet neighbourhood. My old room-mates will testify to the fact I’d often come down, at 12.05, and say ‘hi would you mind just keeping it down?’ They all eventually left. I will often change seats on the train because a person near me is annoying me with loud talk. I am easily irritated.

Maybe this was what I had to work with – learning to accept niggles and annoyances as part of the path, rather than reasons to leave. So I stayed, and the snoring stopped annoying me after a day. Yes, sometimes I was tired, but I still made progress, and took advantage of this incredible opportunity to practice the dharma.

While on the retreat, I read Pema Chodron’s book, Start Where You Are. She writes:

Ego is like a room of your own, a room with a view, with the temperature and the smells and the music that you like. You want it your own way. You’d just like to have a little peace. But the more you think that way, you more you try to get life to come out so that it will always suit you, the more your fear of other people and what’s outside the room grows. Rather than becoming more relaxed, you start pulling down the shades and locking the door.

What she and other Buddhists try to teach is a method for ‘ventilating your prejudices’ – learning to open your heart to what you find annoying, unpleasant, difficult or painful, so that you let some fresh air into the stale room of the ego. You let other beings into the room, even when they disturb you. And when you feel joy, you share that too. Gradually, with practice, you discover a softness, an openness, a flexibility in your mind. You discover that’s your deeper nature – that spacious heart-mind – rather than the constant reality-TV drama of your ego-talk. The obstacles become the teachers, pointing you to your prejudices and aversions, helping you work with them. The snoring room-mate is actually a helpful teacher.

I realized I was like the princess in Hans Christian Anderson’s story, the Princess and Pea. She can’t quite get comfortable, no matter how many mattresses she lies upon. There’s always something niggling her and ruining her serenity. In the fairy tale, the prince takes this ‘royal sensitivity’ as proof of the princess’ pedigree, and happily marries her. Good luck with that. Can you imagine how high maintenance she will be?

So you come face to face on retreat with your ego and its deep aversions and attachments. And that can be pretty disturbing. But you can’t kick down the walls of the ego, shake it off like a sticking plaster, or just bury your irritation. Your ego is always going to be there, and you actually need it to come with you on the journey. What we can do is not immediately believe the stories our ego comes up with, and instead see if we notice a pattern to our prejudices. We can begin to soften the thick walls of our ego, with calm and humorous loving-attention, so that eventually (hopefully!) they go from steel, to concrete, to cardboard, to paper, to thin air.