Saturday, May 26, 2012

Coming back to earth

This morning I went back to the Tibetan Tse Chen Ling Center on Webster for their morning meditation.  Like the first time I went, I was the only punter, and, like the second, I was led through a bizarre series of visualizations involving deities (or half-deities, who knows) that I'd never made the acquaintance of before.  This time rather than Green Tara it was the turn of White Vajrasattva to take a spin above my head, to be blended with the image of my teacher David, and finally to be melded into the rather tired Satruday morning consciousness of Yours Truly.  Vajrasattva is associated with purification, so the meditation also involved calling to mind any little mistakes I'd made in the past few days, visualizing them as inky spots in my body, and then imagining them being eradicated as my torso filled up with white light.  Later on, I was asked to think of my frailties as puss or faeces that was being flushed out of what the instructor euphemistically referred to as my 'lower orifice'.  Later still, they were insects being driven from my mind out of my mouth and nose.  I thought, 'Yuck'.

At the same time, I could see how these visualizations could be understood as a more vivid form of some of the mental exercises I'd been led through by Jason Newland in his free chronic pain MP3s.  Many of them ask you to visualize your body as free of pain and whole, and this did in my case seem to have an effect on my suffering - hardly surprising, if the recent trend of research that sees pain as part of the brain's image of the rest of the body is on the right track.  Nonetheless I was a bit put off by the repellant nature of some of the Tibetan imagery.  I went to do my laundry, sat in Café International, and picked up one of the array of hippy dippy Bay Area magazines they have on offer there.  It was called Common Ground, and contained a piece on the commune in Marin once inhabited by Alan Watts, plenty of ads by charlatans claiming they could heal you with their 'intuitional insight' (which apparently is hereditary), and an interview with a former NASA astronaut who had an epiphany on his trip back from the moon and has since had his eyes opened to the truth about UFOs.

If there's one quality I admire in others and want to cultivate in myself these days, it might just be open-mindedness.  Still, I have other values (like a commitment to some minimal sort of analytical rigour), and the juxtaposition of ads for blatant fraudsters with notices about Buddhist retreats made me frightened - as happens every now and then - that what I was getting into by taking refuge is just another wacky superstition.  It made my ask myself again why I've chosen to take the precepts, as I'll be doing in a ceremony in July in a sort of Buddhist confirmation ceremony.  In the past, I've explored this question from the angle of what events or experiences led me to take that decision, a narrative approach that has much to recommend it in religious matters.  But there is also a more intellectual side to the story, or at least a rational one: I took the decisions for certain reasons, and it's these reasons that I return to when I'm feeling the pangs of doubt.  Which, naturally enough, I often do.

My attachment to Buddhism (if that's not too uncomfortable a phrase) stems mainly from my love of meditation, but of course meditation is something you can do in a secular tradition without taking any ethical precepts.  The reason I began to want to take up the ethical precepts was partly due to the intuition that meditation - developing knowledge of my own mental processes - was better if I avoided being a dick, and that not being a dick was easier when I made sure to meditate.  On a basic level this is simply a matter of being more contented, calmer and more patient after sitting.  And it also has to do, I think, with developing the ability to step away from the places your own thoughts or feelings are pushing you.  But there is a level at which the connection between meditation and ethics is even simpler than that, since both consist partly in returning to things we already know or sense are true.  This is why the precepts often seem pointless to people - everyone knows that stealing or killing is bad; who needs a bunch of vows to tell them that?

I spend a lot of time around academic philosophers, and they'd be eager to point out at this juncture that ethics is a rather complicated affair.  What is lying?  Would you tell the truth to an assassin who came to your door asking where your housemate was?  And so on.  Of course, we can all admit that ethics is a complicated affair in such extreme cases, and that its basic contours are fuzzy around the edges.  But doing good is an endeavour separate from academic philosophy; it's healthy to bear this in mind if you want to avoid being disappointed with either pursuit.  And nine times out of ten we know more or less what to do; maybe we don't do it at the time because we're angry or lustful, but most people looking on at the time, as well as we ourselves with hindsight, agree more or less about what was right.  That's why most people find it hard to disagree with any of the Ten Boddhisattva Precepts just as they have a hard time knocking many of the Ten Commandments.  Neither provide all the answers in all cases (especially the philosophical thought-experiments), but they remind us of something.

And what they remind us of is that we know, more or less, where to go in order to avoid being a massive prick.  They don't flesh out the content of what it is not to steal, or what it is not to lie, or what it is not to abuse sex, but they do remind us that speech and taking and shagging are areas of life that we might find it useful to be careful about.  This lack of content has actually been a boon to such basic ethical systems, since it has allowed them to remain true in the face of cultural change.  My friends in San Francisco take a rather different view about what constitutes sexual immorality than the average medieval Tibetan lama (I assume), and yet it remains true even in San Francisco that cheating on your partner with their sister (say) is probably not the right thing to do.  So the taking of precepts functions like many of the other aspects or religious practice: it reminds us of what we already know, of ourselves.  When I sit and meditate every day it's partly just to remember what I knew when I was lying in my back yard as a child, watching the clouds wander across the sky. 


  1. It's interesting that you find Tibetan visualisations weird because I do too. I often wonder how anybody can buy into that stuff, but the masters have found a way to justify their practices and Tibetan Buddhism is incredibly popular in the West.

    I've been involved with Tibetan tantric monks for over a decade now. What fascinates about what they are doing is their ability to take control of the body/mind and generate different mental states. Completey opposite to Zen where you are more of a passive observer.

    I prefer to do different visualisations to what they are doing. My visualitions are based on the Sutras and somehow seem more authentic and less strange. For example I would do a visualisation of Avalokitesvara in the Pure Land of Amitayus Buddha, or Sakyamuni preaching the Lotus Sutra on Vulture Peak. It's a nice way to use my imagination and feel connected to the Ancient Path.

    When I took Precepts over 17yrs ago I had no idea how seriously I would embody them. It was the most important day of my life.

    1. One thing that was interesting about this experience was that the meditation instructor was a Westerner (although on Sunday mornings there are dharma talks at the same centre with a native Tibetan lama). He explicitly encouraged us to treat the deities as archetypes rather than as spirits or gods that actually existed somewhere. It is interesting how in Zen you're often encouraged to abandon the idea of controlling the mind, whereas in Tibetan traditions it's all about manipulating your thoughts in order to cultivate certain virtues.