Buddhism, and Meditations on Nothingness…

img_0991If my stated mission here is to try to rid Buddhism of all unnecessary superstitions, in order to modernize it for its new role as leader in the modern world’s philosophical conversation, then the roll-out of that role is seldom clear-cut and the results rarely definitive. Once in a while, though, I score a clear-cut victory in my battle against BS, and we can all share a laugh at some of the absurdities involved in following a 2500 year-old religion, and trying to keep it relevant for the homies in 2018…

This is one of the perks of getting a MA degree in Buddhist studies, poking around the nooks and crannies of the discipline and getting a bird’s-eye (monk’s-eye?) view of what goes on in there. So, many is the time that I have said that IMHO there are only two kinds of meditation—guided and unguided—and that everything else is BS, regarding exactly what is the object of meditation, and exactly which nostril to breathe through, uh huh…

Which is not as silly as it sounds, since different meditation ‘systems’ are highly proprietary, and at any one meditation ‘retreat’, they may insist that you only use their system, at least while there, as if anyone could tell what goes through your mind, anyway, and they’re only trying to help, I’m sure, since you wouldn’t want to be the only navel person in a nostril temple, now, would you?

And that goes for sitting posture, too, especially since some people are very proud of their lotus positions, and wouldn’t want someone else to get full credit for a half-assed half-lotus posture. But any meditation instructor worth his sitting pad knows that none of that is terribly important, and that what IS important is that you sit still, and quiet—and, well, meditative. I’ve even gone so far as to say that the only reason to sit in a lotus position is because it looks cool, half-jokingly but still…

Well, that’s the last thing I’d ever expect to have confirmed, but sure enough, there it is, in a sutra by the venerable Asanga, half-brother to Nagarjuna,and no slouch himself, as related in the ‘Lam Rim Chen Mo’, a Tibetan text by Tsongkhapa, like so: “Asanga’s Shravaka Levels give five reasons for sitting as the Buddha taught, cross-legged on a seat, stool, or grass mat: (1) This posture in which the body is pulled together well is conducive to the arising of pliancy, so you will develop pliancy very quickly.” Wait for it…

“(2) Sitting in this way makes it possible to maintain the posture for a long time; the posture does not lead to physical exhaustion. (3) This posture is not common to non-Buddhists and our opponents. (4) When others see you sitting in this posture, they are inspired. (5) The Buddha and his disciples used this posture and bestowed it upon us. Asanga’s Shravaka Levels says that, in light of these reasons, you should sit cross-legged. It also says that you keep your body straight so that lethargy and sleepiness will not occur.”

Ha! Inspired or impressed? In other words: it looks cool. No matter, the point is that how many loops you can twist your legs into has no effect on the quality of meditation that you will experience, and sitting in a chair can work fine—as long as people can see that you’re meditating, and don’t hand you dirty laundry or something to sort, or peas to shell while sitting. And D. T. Suzuki said that meditation is not a natural state of mind, but I’m not so sure…

Looking back on my career as a space-cadet-in-training, I’d have to say that my first experience at something like meditation was at my grandmother’s house when I was still a very young child. She had the coolest repetitively geometric wallpaper, such that if you looked at it with fixed gaze, then relaxed the eyes, eventually you (I) would lose focus, and the entire wall of geometric prints would move forward at maybe half the actual distance (to match the relaxed focus?)…

So that not only was I seeing a false wall, pure optical illusion, but I could hold that illusion as long as I wanted, sometimes for quite a long time, so enjoyable was the break in internal dialogue. Other times, lying in the bed of a quick-moving pickup truck, and navigating country roads, through woodlands and partly cloudy skies, I would close my eyes and let the geometric images, of light filtered through tree branches and capillary systems of my translucent eyelids, play footsie with my mind’s eye, and never begging to stop…

All such activities, however playful and primitive, I would consider intuitive attempts at meditation, efforts to go mindless, or mindful, in a way, that is both non-hurtful, toward others, and downright helpful, to oneself, by invoking a cessation of narrative, a cessation of discourse, a cessation of dialog, both internal and external, such that one feels relaxed, renewed, and refreshed, at the end of the session, and memorable even after fifty years, as memorable as the post-natal dreams of lights, and distances, and divisions, of space…

And whether this is ‘natural’ or not, per Suzuki, might involve distinctions and definitions, of semantics and syntax, from which it would be impossible to draw conclusions. I doubt that the original meditators, from the Indus Valley Culture, apparently, ever thought that they were establishing a paradigm, that would still be helpful, if not revolutionary, some 5000 years later…

Most likely they were simply filling extra time, late evening and early morning, in darkness, in a way that seemed sublime, and appropriate, after the duties of reproduction had run their course, and the duties of work and husbandry were hopefully reduced…

For once we had language, we were bound to think with it, and there was simply no other way of turning it off. This is the problem with all inventions, of course, that you become prisoner to them. And this is a great challenge, of course, and one of the main reasons that Buddhism exists, IMHO…