the highest esoteric teaching is that deities are projections of your own mind

My commitment to atheism is so strong that I didn’t feel comfortable describing myself as Buddhist until fairly recently. It’s not that I didn’t have a Buddhist practice, a shelf full of Buddhist texts, a zafu, a yab-yum statue, and an enso tattoo. It’s that I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea, like I believe in magic or something.

The whole point is that, until 4th or 5th grade, I had the mindset of a Jehovah’s Witness, and undoing that is a lifelong process. Still, I developed the habit of being more religious than most people, and it needed expression with or without “religion.” Religion without god is awe, ethics, and psychotherapy.

Zen was the most palatable because it didn’t say very much…sort of. It’s common to point out that, for a sect that says it’s about “wordless transmission outside the scriptures,” it’s ironic that Zen has the most written about it. Really, that’s because texts can be a big part of religion, and Zen was also a literary movement that appealed to the literati. One of the tropes is that the literature is all just a “finger pointing at the moon,” not to be confused with the moon itself. The word Zen comes from dhyana, or meditation. Zen is the meditation sect. A lot of the literature is either imagery to give you the right idea on how to meditate, or stories to meditate on.

Because the essence of the whole thing is wordless, it doesn’t make any claims that contradict scientific materialism. Just sit. These brain scans show that it’s physically good for you. It doesn’t matter why it works. It does, empirically. The rituals, chanting, and altars always made me uncomfortable, and made me feel distant from other “spiritual” people. I had such bad experiences with other people’s magical thinking that I just won’t even entertain it. It goes against my whole value system.

Most of my early experiences of “omg mystical feelings” were drug-induced, which just further confirmed the materialism. Like my favorite undergrad professor said, “A drug is a gang of molecules.” It was profound to me that drugs could so consistently induce those feelings, while being physical objects with physical mechanisms we could understand. Molecules interacting with proteins, which are basically nanobots. You could sensibly relate the distribution of receptors in the brain to the effects of the drugs. The amazing thing is that it’s not magic, that those profound experiences are naturally occurring physical brain states that we can learn to induce.

That’s not to say I was lacking in magical thinking. I had an evangelical belief system…about drugs. If only everyone would just get high and have a mystical experience, we’d all start being nice to each other automatically! Such was not the case. I had to see from experience that my life wasn’t consistently getting better beyond the afterglow, but somehow things were better if I did things the hard way and meditated regularly.

I began to see great wisdom in the Soto way of looking at things, which deemphasizes exalted states. Not like a Hindu or Theravada escape from reality, but the identity of nirvana and samsara. Emptiness and nondualism. Not getting attached to experiences. Not getting fixated on whether I was high enough was an object lesson in this. The issue basically mapped onto the difference between Soto and Rinzai Zen, where Rinzai is about seeking a mystical experience until you drive yourself crazy…at first. Hakuin actually wrote about “post-satori practice,” and how zazen at the highest level of Rinzai is basically shikantaza.

On a practical level, Soto was a better long-term choice for me. I’m high-strung and need to calm down. I don’t necessarily need to perseverate on an intellectual problem more. Actually, I regularly felt like studying neuroscience was one big koan, and enlightenment was realizing people had good lives for hundreds of thousands of years not knowing these things. On the other hand, thinking about prairie voles and oxytocin was a kind of lovingkindness meditation.

I sat in a very unstructured way. As long as I was on the cushion and spending the time, that was the practice. I figured this worked because you spend your time differently each time you sit, and over time you developed everything. I approach skateboarding in the same way. I might learn something in stages, and I don’t try things I’m not ready for, but in general I don’t have big projects. I work on whatever feels good that day. Learning to skateboard is very Zen, but that’s a different topic. My point is that “go skate” or “go climb” are effective training strategies, as long as you’re working on something that’s a bit difficult.

I will say in favor of drugs as a spiritual practice that there’s no point to them if you’re not noticing their effects, i.e., being mindful. It actually takes a good amount of introspection to manage staying functional and being high all the time. Are you going to get too tired or hungry to work? You’re anxious. Should you hold off on smoking or smoke more? What kind of weed should you smoke? How do different strains effect you? I can’t be smoking Master Kush or The White all day and maintain nearly the same as I can vaporizing CBD oil mixed with Jack crumble. It took a lot of buying something different every time I went to the dispensary to figure that out, and it sort of led me to reconnect with my sense of smell.

I wish I could remember who said something like “The whole path comes down to mindfulness of the body.” I really did not need more elaborate concepts and stuff to memorize.

My background was almost entirely with Chinese and Japanese Buddhism (with a few books by Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Seung Sahn). When I was reading obsessively about Zen history, I thought it was awesome to discover the short-lived Bao Dang sect. A contemporary (Zongmi) describing their style:

The difference lies in the fact that [Wuzhu’s school] practices none of the phenomenal marks of Buddhism. Having cut their hair and donned robes, they do not receive the precepts. When it comes to doing obeisance and confession, turning and reading [the scriptures], making paintings of Buddha figures, copying sutras, they revile all such things as delusions. In the cloister where they dwell they set up no Buddha artifacts. This is why [I say the Bao Tang idea is] “bound by neither teaching nor praxes.” As to “extinguishing consciousness,” this is the path that the Bao Tang practices. The meaning is: all samsaric wheel-turning is caused by the arising of mind. Arising of mind is unreal. They do not discuss good and bad; non-arising is the real…Therefore, in their dwellings they do not discuss food and clothing, but leave it to people to send offerings. If sent, then they have warm clothing and food enough to eat. If not sent, they they leave matters to hunger and cold. They do not seek to convert, nor do they beg for food. If someone enters their cloister, it does not matter whether he is highborn or lowly, in no case do they welcome him–they do not even stand up. As to singing hymns and praises, making offerings, reprimanding abuses, in all such things they leave it to the other. Indeed, because the purport of their thesis speaks of non-discrimination, their gate of practice has neither right nor wrong. They just value no-mind as the wondrous ultimate.

After doing a bunch of therapy and discovering I’m autistic in the meantime, being super antisocial no longer seems like the idea of Buddhism.

Interestingly, my understanding is that Mohoyen, representative of Chinese Buddhism in Tibet, was a Bao Dang person. I remember reading this book about Mahamudra and Dzogchen, without any background in Tibetan Buddhism. I basically thought all the guru worship was gross and thought the rest sounded like zazen. Tibetan Buddhism seems to take reincarnation literally, so that’s a nonstarter for me.

One problem I’ve always had is feeling alienated from people drawn to Buddhism because it’s a religion. They want to be reincarnated because they’re avoiding their fear of death. They want there to be deities who answer their prayers.

It’s becoming apparent to me that Tibetan culture came up with a very interesting solution to this problem: everybody does the same practices together, but people might understand the meaning in very different ways. Counter-intuitively, increasingly esoteric teachings are increasingly atheistic. The purpose of the teachings is to make you understand that the near-death experience is just the projection of your own mind. If you can remain serene in that situation, it’s believed you don’t have to be reincarnated unless you want to come back and save more sentient beings first. Basically, the goal is to die at peace.

Buddhism really doesn’t make sense if you’ve never meditated. It’s an interesting feature of the religion that most people are said to be lost in ignorance and delusion, not really getting it. The doctrines emphasize “skillful means”: how to help these ignorant fools who might not understand before this lifetime is over.

I started reading about Bon, having heard it’s a blend of shamanism and Buddhism. This is how it’s reconciled, in Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche’s Healing with Form, Energy, and Light: The Five Elements in Tibetan Shamanism, Tantra, and Dzogchen.

The ground of individual existence is empty awareness. This may not sound very inviting. Emptiness is usually considered to be undesirable: an empty feeling or an empty life or an empty head or an empty heart are considered negative. So we’ve been filling this emptiness since time without beginning. We make up identities and things and stories, but because we are mistaken about what all these really are, they never quite satisfy.

Shamanic practice is creating order in what fills the space, learning to exercise power over what arises and what may interfere with us, and learning to find support in the environment. The shaman does not care so much about abstract philosophy. He or she instead learns how to connect to, manipulate, and defend against forces.

Sutric practice is based on renunciation, on getting tired of much of what has been accumulated in space. Practitioners try to throw out the negative, get rid of the self-centeredness that’s caused them so much pain. And they try to finish with the greed, anger, and delusion that’s kept them in misery for so long and just keep the love, compassion, faith, equanimity, peace, and wisdom.

The tantric practitioner doesn’t throw anything out. Instead, he or she takes what is at hand and turns it into beauty, into sacred ornaments that adorn the empty space. Ordinary deluded beings are transformed into buddhas. Sounds are transformed into sacred mantras. Sensation turns to bliss. The practitioner trades in a small, confined, scared, unhappy, anxious identity for an expansive, unlimited, grounded, joyful, peaceful identity.

The Great Perfection practitioner lives in pure empty space, and appreciates it. He or she lets go of everything, even the sense of self, and it all dissolves into the limitless base, the kunzhi, from which all phenomena arise as pure light and pure experience. Everything is empty and emptiness is enough. It’s very spacious and luminous.

So which practice should you do? The one that seems appropriate in the moment. The one you’ve connected with, understood, practiced, applied. If you cannot resolve everything with one practice, then use other practices. Experiment with the practices in this book until you know how to work with them and know how they affect you, and realize that the longer you work with any practice the more profound its effects will be. Learn what works and what you need. The spiritual path isn’t a passive journey. You don’t just follow what someone says.

That’s the perspective of a Dzogchen practitioner from the Bon tradition. He’s against “psychologizing” the practice. Here’s a Buddhist Dzogchen perspective, from Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche in Dzogchen Deity Practice: Meeting Your True Nature:

Kunzang Tuktig belongs to the Great Perfection, and, therefore, its exclusive focus is on recognizing mind-essence. That is the entire intent…The mandala of the peaceful and wrathful deities includes any possible yidam, the Three Jewels, the Three Roots, the deities of the three kayas, and so forth, in myriad ways. They are not something different from the inner core of our basic nature. Often they are called the deities naturally dwelling in the mandala of one’s vajra body. In other words, through this practice and training, we realize the various aspects of our basic nature.

…Yidam practice mans something we bring into our life in any situation, at any moment, not only when we’re sitting down…

Since it belongs to Dzogchen, you’re not limited by a material situation; you also have what is mentally created–both materially present as well as mentally created. So the offerings, the praises, all the different aspects you usually find in the Seven Branches–prostrating, apologizing, making offerings, rejoicing, requesting to turn the wheel of dharma, beseeching not to pass into nirvana, and dedicating the merit for all beings–you can train in all these on a mental level. You don’t need to have something materially present, and the same is true for all the other aspects of the sadhana that are the support…

When the buddhas teach, they teach in various ways adapted to the different types of recipients. When the recipients are shravakas, it is not possible for the buddhas to teach the three principles of deity, mantra, and samadhi. They are not taught to the pratyekabuddha type either. To some extent, these three principles are taught, but not completely, to Mahayana type people. Only the Vajrayana has two main aspects, called the outer and inner tantras. The outer tantras–Kriya, Upa, and Yoga–do not give the complete teaching either. The divine principles are introduced, but in Kriya Yoga they always appear as superior to oneself, and one is an inferior ordinary being. In other words, the deity is like a king, and one is like a subject, with an emphasis on the purity of the deity. In Upa, the perspective changes slightly, where the deity becomes like an older brother. In the Yoga Tantra, one is equal to the deity, but it is still dualistic.

In the inner tantras, the perspective is radically different. From the very onset, everything is all-encompassing purity. In other words, this body is itself a mandala of the victorious ones, in the sense that the five aggregates, in their pure nature, are the five male buddhas. The five elements are the five female buddhas. The sense bases, the consciousnesses, and their objects are the male and female bodhisattvas and so forth. The nirmanakaya quality of disturbing emotions, symbolized by the arrival of the buddhas into this world in different realms, is also included…

When condensing all the extensive and profound principles into the very basics, then all of the mandalas of all the deities are included within the sole indivisible unity of emptiness and cognizance. Training in that as the main principle is what will allow you to accomplish all buddhas. Our experience is comprised of two basic aspects, mind and objects, or phenomena. Mind, the doer, is Samantabhadra; objects, the deed, are in essence the female buddha, Samantabhadri. These two represent the nonduality of emptiness and experience, which itself is the primary source, the root of all tantric deities…

Vajrayana is also represented as the “four great gates.” The first is the gate of mudras, the second is the gate of offerings, the third is the gate of recitation, and the fourth is the gate of samadhi. These are extremely important. When looking at a person who knows these four gates and can manifest or apply them, it seems like a lot of childish play. Practitioners move their hands in the air, carry stuff around, sing different tunes, recite verses and mantras, wear hats and costumes, and so forth. All this looks like childish play, and some people find it extremely superficial and beside the point, whereas the “real thing” is to look into mind-essence. Anyone who says this lacks real understanding, because it is incredibly significant. All four gates are important. Never regard them as pointless or insignificant. It is said that if the three yogas are disconnected from the melodious tunes, the tradition of Vajrayana will fade away and vanish.

Rituals are important not because they’re “real,” but because of how they affect our minds. If someone believes the deities are external to themselves, they haven’t penetrated deeply enough into the nature of Mind. The shamans already think in terms of archetypes, at least some Tibetan lamas!

I thought it was interesting that there’s a parallel between the problem of “trying not to think” and the problem of “am I visualizing right?” The book addressed all kinds of points like, what if you can’t picture the whole thing at once? When do you visualize and when do you just sit in emptiness?

I love the premise of Secret Drugs of Buddhism, that the initiations for a particular deity took place under the influence of a hallucinogen, so that the person is reciting a liturgy for you to visualize while tripping. Forever after, you evoke that imagery. The practice makes a lot more sense to me, if that’s how it was.

It’s the same meditation practice as before, but takes advantage of the fact that visualizing something and experiencing the real thing involve a lot of the same neural circuitry. So it adds an element of deliberately manipulating your identity in keeping with an archetypal ideal, as something to do with your time in the Great Void of Emptiness.

The visions really do mean closed-eye visuals. From Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche’s Wonders of the Natural Mind: The Essence of Dzogchen in the Native Bon Tradition of Tibet:

There are particular techniques to produce the experience of light such as by looking at the sun, gazing into the sky, or doing the dark retreat. An easier way is to close our eyes and press our eyeballs slightly with our fingers so that we see the natural, self-arising light. This is the inner light. There is an infinite number of different visions we can see in this way, such as five-colored circles of light, light beads, images, stupas, or mandalas. Whatever is present in the mind can manifest as vision. When we project the light outwards, it manifests as the visible forms (people, houses, etc.) that we see. They are produced by the gross elements but their true quality is the pure light of the primordial condition. Likewise, inner sound manifests externally as music, noise, and so forth.

This is the insight that our minds only ever work with neural representations. In other words, the visions are manifestations of your mind. They manifest from the ground state of your mind, which is pure, blissful, and free of conceptual thought. It’s always struck me that there’s no logical reason emptiness should be good news instead of bad news. It makes sense if it’s just an observation about what tripping feels like. The euphoria and the loss of self go together because they just do.

I see meditation and cannabis as different ways of adding religious feelings to everyday life.

It does say something about my personality that, when I could study anything at all about Buddhism, I ended up getting fascinated by the buddha nature of dogs and trees and rocks and statues. Something autism and objects…

Zen doesn’t emphasize interpersonal stuff too much. Compassion meditation isn’t a thing you do, specifically. Emptiness is empty. No-mind (or Big Mind). It’s not personified as the Great Mother or the Secret Dakini or yab-yum deities or what-have-you. For non-autistic people, I guess it really must help to personify these things, because they naturally relate to people instead of conceptual systems. They don’t sit around thinking about phenomenology, so things get externalized as energies or spirits.

People who think visualizing positive things will magically make positive things appear in their life deeply misunderstand the point. You’re repairing yourself on one level and letting go of yourself on another level.

In Zen, especially Rinzai, it’s emphasized that Great Doubt is just as important as Great Faith. I think that’s missing with Western New Age people. Hope and fear are things to be severed. That’s right. Hopelessness is a preliminary in Dzogchen Deity Practice:

Fourth, we reflect on the negative aspects of samsaric existence, especially in the three lower realms, where there is not even a hair-tip of happiness. Even in the higher realms, there is no true happiness to be found anywhere. These four contemplations are called the “general preliminaries.”

Now, it feels cool to have a better appreciation of a lot of the symbolism, and to get some ideas on improving my own meditation practice. I don’t think it would’ve helped me before to get bogged down with memorizing the 10,000 Lists of Things.

The problem is now how to relate to magical thinking people whose value systems are otherwise pretty close to mine.