the road to the one and the road to the other lie miles apart

I’m going through Jamgon Kongtrul and Norman Fischer’s guides to Lojong at the same time, to illustrate my religious disagreements with the group I guess you could call “the people who thought Steve Jobs exemplified Zen.” Earlier posts in the series are here and here.

The Root Text of the Seven Points of Training the Mind introduces Tonglen. Here are some instructions to demystify what I’m going to be talking about:


To me, this looks like a legacy of earlier shamanic practices, where the person actually believed they were magically removing suffering and spreading healing energy. It reminds me of a shaman sucking the evil spirits out of someone.

Then it got psychologized into a meditation practice to build compassion. Now it’s considered to be mental imagery instead of something supernatural. I see its value, as an exercise. It helps to keep your mind and intentions in “the right place” while meditating.

It superficially resembles prayer or sorcery, so those are the likely reference points for Western people encountering it. Something starts to go wrong when Fischer talks about it:

When we breathe out, something miraculous happens. It turns out that our bodies are transformation machines. They transform the goo [you’re visualizing the suffering you inhale as a kind of sludge], the suffering, the pain, into lightness, ease, peacefulness that comes out of our nostrils and all the pores of our body as a light sweet mist (or if you are not visually oriented, as a more imaginative and vague sense of lightness and ease, maybe even joy).

No. You’re supposed to actively vow to help all sentient beings. He’s keeping a Western disconnection from the body: your body is a “transformation machine” separate from your (Judaeo-Christian) soul. You don’t have to do anything, because we’re back to thinking of it as magic!

He notes that Zen is usually skeptical of techniques, and this is exactly the reason. He added something extra to watching his breathing, and now he’s escaping into fantasy.

This is someone you really care about and would like to help, and now you can: you breathe in the person’s suffering. You take it from him or her into your body with the breath. And thanks to the spiritual power inherent in your body, you can do this without being harmed, and now you can breathe out the suffering as peaceful, healing, soothing relief. It’s not suffering anymore; the suffering has been transformed.

For him, the exercise magically protects him from the pain of actually taking in someone else’s suffering. He’s worried that the very exercise could bring him harm (but luckily it doesn’t!). Instead of engaging with the suffering, he’s compartmentalizing it into a magical place in his body that he doesn’t have to understand. He feels he has the option to ignore the suffering, if he wasn’t being so holy and pious.

He further distances himself by letting the reader know that he doesn’t mean this stuff enough that they’re supposed to be uncomfortable or anything. This actually encourages heartlessness by validating it:

Sending and receiving practice might seem daunting when you first hear about it. It might seem impossible. But keep in mind that the point is not to be able to do all of this perfectly, exactly as described, but simply to try your best to do whatever you can. When you try the practice, you will probably notice a strong resistance to the first step: breathing in your own suffering. You might find this nearly impossible to do. And it might bring up fear, anger, resentment, even terror. If so, relax and return to openness of mind. You can try again later…

If breathing in your own suffering is this difficult, it might seem completely impossible to breathe in the suffering of the whole world.

This is after he already second-guessed the idea of putting fundamental philosophical ideas at the beginning. Now he’s saying it’s unbearable to face reality and you don’t really have to. It’s like he’s instructing the other white people on how to stay in their bubble, which creates massive suffering for everyone else.

Now let’s look at the traditional commentary:

First do the preliminary practice of guru yoga as it was described above. Then you should meditate on love and compassion. They form the basis for taking and sending. Start by imagining that your own mother is present in front of you. Think about her carefully with such reflections on compassion as these:

This person, my mother, has looked after me with great effort right from the moment I was conceived in her womb. Because she endured all the hardships of illness, cold, hunger, and others, because she gave me food and clothing and wiped away my filth, and because she taught me what is good and steered me away from evil, I met the teachings of Buddha and am now practicing the dharma. What tremendous kindness! Not only in this life but in an infinite series of lives she has done exactly the same thing. While she has worked for my welfare, she herself wanders in samsara and experiences many different forms of suffering.

Then, when some real compassion, not just lip service, has been developed and instilled, learn to extend it step by step:

From time without beginning, each sentient being has been a mother to me in just the same way as my present mother. Each and every one has helped me.

Then you expand the circle of compassion out to friends, enemies, etc. The section ends with, “Train in this way until the feeling of compassion is intolerably intense.” For Fischer, the the act of extending compassion to self or others at all is what’s intolerably intense. He’s not taking seriously the premise that we already have buddha-nature, and know how to be compassionate. The training is there to make you see what’s already there. Or hopefully already there.

It’s actually more traditional for teachers to hit students with sticks for being lazy dumbasses than it is to tell them it’s OK to hide from reality. If you read Lin-Ji (Rinzai), Huang Po, or the Platform Sutra, they’re a lot about telling the assembled monks that they’re doing it all wrong.

The point of Lojong is that it’s supposed to be a fundamental thing, practiced every day or even continuously. Tonglen is supposed to replace, or become a part of, something like a daily zazen practice. I think this is the reason Zen is anti-technique. If you tell someone to just sit, and refocus on their breathing when they notice they’re distracted, they’re stuck on the cushion with their thoughts until they get up. If you give these instructions with elaborate visualizations and give people dualistic ideas about “doing it wrong,” how will they learn that the techniques are just a raft for crossing the river and they won’t need them when they get there?

Fischer’s way is teaching people to compartmentalize suffering, disavowing it and putting it somewhere magical in the body, where they don’t need any agency. It calls this “compassion” and hints that the visualizations are effecting change in the real world through magic forces. OMFG just sit! This is training in being present to reality.

Fischer’s method is an invitation to start evaluating who you want to be compassionate towards and whether it’s hurting too much and whether you’re doing it right.

Obviously, we meditate to improve control over thoughts and feelings. Over-control is a problem, though. If you really aren’t feeling compassionate right now, maybe you should work on that. Or maybe now isn’t compassion time, and you should work with whatever’s going on. What to do with your mind, in that moment? Just sit. Then you’ll probably feel something different 45 seconds later.

Ultimately, both practices are cultivating the same attitude, when done sincerely: “bodhicitta.” Tonglen’s instructions are full of things for the ego to grab hold of. It’s easier to start believing in magic or self-congratulating. I do think it’s good to remind ourselves of pain and cultivate benevolence towards others. Adding them as things to contemplate while breathing keeps the mind in a good place. However, our minds already have images and feelings of our own suffering and other people’s suffering. We can also accept those and learn not to fight them when they appear. If I saw something disturbing in a photograph and the memory appears, I don’t think I’m improving my compassion for the photo subject by mentally transforming their situation into imaginary tar that I’m transforming into healing rays to calm myself down. The idea is to not impose conceptual thinking that distances you from reality and other people.

What alienates me from a lot of “spiritual but not religious” people is that they haven’t really tried to overcome their Christianity, their consumerism, etc. They’re taking the Christian experience to be religious experience, so it’s neat for them to stay the same, but with more colorful and exotic stuff to go with it.

For me, it was important that Buddhism was not-Christianity. I read Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ after the middle school martial arts phase and before the drugs and Buddhism phase. In between was The Continental Philosophy Years, starting with Nietzsche at my dad’s encouragement. So around 9th grade, I was reading this (in a different translation, but whatever):

In my condemnation of Christianity I surely hope I do no injustice to a related religion with an even larger number of believers: I allude to Buddhism. Both are to be reckoned among the nihilistic religions—they are both décadence religions—but they are separated from each other in a very remarkable way. For the fact that he is able to compare them at all the critic of Christianity is indebted to the scholars of India.—Buddhism is a hundred times as realistic as Christianity—it is part of its living heritage that it is able to face problems objectively and coolly; it is the product of long centuries of philosophical speculation. The concept, “god,” was already disposed of before it appeared. Buddhism is the only genuinely positive religion to be encountered in history, and this applies even to its epistemology (which is a strict phenomenalism). It does not speak of a “struggle with sin,” but, yielding to reality, of the “struggle with suffering.” Sharply differentiating itself from Christianity, it puts the self-deception that lies in moral concepts behind it; it is, in my phrase, beyond good and evil.The two physiological facts upon which it grounds itself and upon which it bestows its chief attention are: first, an excessive sensitiveness to sensation, which manifests itself as a refined susceptibility to pain, and secondly, an extraordinary spirituality, a too protracted concern with concepts and logical procedures, under the influence of which the instinct of personality has yielded to a notion of the “impersonal.” (—Both of these states will be familiar to a few of my readers, the objectivists, by experience, as they are to me). These physiological states produced a depression, and Buddha tried to combat it by hygienic measures. Against it he prescribed a life in the open, a life of travel; moderation in eating and a careful selection of foods; caution in the use of intoxicants; the same caution in arousing any of the passions that foster a bilious habit and heat the blood; finally, no worry, either on one’s own account or on account of others. He encourages ideas that make for either quiet contentment or good cheer—he finds means to combat ideas of other sorts. He understands good, the state of goodness, as something which promotes health. Prayer is not included, and neither is asceticism. There is no categorical imperative nor any disciplines, even within the walls of a monastery (—it is always possible to leave—). These things would have been simply means of increasing the excessive sensitiveness above mentioned. For the same reason he does not advocate any conflict with unbelievers; his teaching is antagonistic to nothing so much as to revenge, aversion, ressentiment (—“enmity never brings an end to enmity”: the moving refrain of all Buddhism….) And in all this he was right, for it is precisely these passions which, in view of his main regiminal purpose, are unhealthful. The mental fatigue that he observes, already plainly displayed in too much “objectivity” (that is, in the individual’s loss of interest in himself, in loss of balance and of “egoism”), he combats by strong efforts to lead even the spiritual interests back to the ego. In Buddha’s teaching egoism is a duty. The “one thing needful,” the question “how can you be delivered from suffering,” regulates and determines the whole spiritual diet. (—Perhaps one will here recall that Athenian who also declared war upon pure “scientificality,” to wit, Socrates, who also elevated egoism to the estate of a morality).

LOL “In Buddha’s teaching egoism is a duty.” Nietzsche continues:

The things necessary to Buddhism are a very mild climate, customs of great gentleness and liberality, and no militarism; moreover, it must get its start among the higher and better educated classes. Cheerfulness, quiet and the absence of desire are the chief desiderata, and they are attained. Buddhism is not a religion in which perfection is merely an object of aspiration: perfection is actually normal.

Under Christianity the instincts of the subjugated and the oppressed come to the fore: it is only those who are at the bottom who seek their salvation in it. Here the prevailing pastime, the favourite remedy for boredom is the discussion of sin, self-criticism, the inquisition of conscience; here the emotion produced by power (called “God”) is pumped up (by prayer); here the highest good is regarded as unattainable, as a gift, as “grace.” Here, too, open dealing is lacking; concealment and the darkened room are Christian. Here body is despised and hygiene is denounced as sensual; the church even ranges itself against cleanliness (—the first Christian order after the banishment of the Moors closed the public baths, of which there were 270 in Cordova alone). Christian, too, is a certain cruelty toward one’s self and toward others; hatred of unbelievers; the will to persecute. Sombre and disquieting ideas are in the foreground; the most esteemed states of mind, bearing the most respectable names, are epileptoid; the diet is so regulated as to engender morbid symptoms and over-stimulate the nerves. Christian, again, is all deadly enmity to the rulers of the earth, to the “aristocratic”—along with a sort of secret rivalry with them (—one resigns one’s “body” to them; one wants only one’s “soul”…). And Christian is all hatred of the intellect, of pride, of courage, of freedom, of intellectual libertinage; Christian is all hatred of the senses, of joy in the senses, of joy in general….

When Christianity departed from its native soil, that of the lowest orders, the underworld of the ancient world, and began seeking power among barbarian peoples, it no longer had to deal with exhausted men, but with men still inwardly savage and capable of self-torture—in brief, strong men, but bungled men. Here, unlike in the case of the Buddhists, the cause of discontent with self, suffering through self, is not merely a general sensitiveness and susceptibility to pain, but, on the contrary, an inordinate thirst for inflicting pain on others, a tendency
to obtain subjective satisfaction in hostile deeds and ideas. Christianity had to embrace barbaric concepts and valuations in order to obtain mastery over barbarians: of such sort, for example, are the sacrifices of the first-born, the drinking of blood as a sacrament, the disdain of the intellect and of culture; torture in all its forms, whether bodily or not; the whole pomp of the cult. Buddhism is a religion for peoples in a further state of development, for races that have become kind, gentle and over-spiritualized (—Europe is not yet ripe for it—): it is a summons that takes them back to peace and cheerfulness, to a careful rationing of the spirit, to a certain hardening of the body. Christianity aims at mastering beasts of prey; its modus operandi is to make them ill—to make feeble is the Christian recipe for taming, for “civilizing.” Buddhism is a religion for the closing, over-wearied stages of civilization. Christianity appears before civilization has so much as begun—under certain circumstances it lays the very foundations thereof.

Buddhism, I repeat, is a hundred times more austere, more honest, more objective. It no longer has to justify its pains, its susceptibility to suffering, by interpreting these things in terms of sin—it simply says, as it simply thinks, “I suffer.” To the barbarian, however, suffering in itself is scarcely understandable: what he needs, first of all, is an explanation as to why he suffers. (His mere instinct prompts him to deny his suffering altogether, or to endure it in silence.) Here the word “devil” was a blessing: man had to have an omnipotent and terrible enemy—there was no need to be ashamed of suffering at the hands of such an enemy.

At the bottom of Christianity there are several subtleties that belong to the Orient. In the first place, it knows that it is of very little consequence whether a thing be true or not, so long as it is believed to be true. Truth and faith: here we have two wholly distinct worlds of ideas, almost two diametrically opposite worlds—the road to the one and the road to the other lie miles apart. To understand that fact thoroughly—this is almost enough, in the Orient, to make one a sage. The Brahmins knew it, Plato knew it, every student of the esoteric knows it. When, for example, a man gets any pleasure out of the notion that he has been saved from sin, it is not necessary for him to be actually sinful, but merely to feel sinful. But when faith is thus exalted above everything else, it necessarily follows that reason, knowledge and patient inquiry have to be discredited: the road to the truth becomes a forbidden road.—Hope, in its stronger forms, is a great deal more powerful stimulant to life than any sort of realized joy can ever be. Man must be sustained in suffering by a hope so high that no conflict with actuality can dash it—so high, indeed, that no fulfilment can satisfy it: a hope reaching out beyond this world. (Precisely because of this power that hope has of making the suffering hold out, the Greeks regarded it as the evil of evils, as the most malign of evils; it remained behind at the source of all evil.)—In order that love may be possible, God must become a person; in order that the lower instincts may take a hand in the matter God must be young. To satisfy the ardor of the woman a beautiful saint must appear on the scene, and to satisfy that of the men there must be a virgin. These things are necessary if Christianity is to assume lordship over a soil on which some aphrodisiacal or Adonis cult has already established a notion as to what a cult ought to be. To insist upon chastity greatly strengthens the vehemence and subjectivity of the religious instinct—it makes the cult warmer, more enthusiastic, more soulful.Love is the state in which man sees things most decidedly as they are not. The force of illusion reaches its highest here, and so does the capacity for sweetening, for transfiguring. When a man is in love he endures more than at any other time; he submits to anything. The problem was to devise a religion which would allow one to love: by this means the worst that life has to offer is overcome—it is scarcely even noticed.—So much for the three Christian virtues: faith, hope and charity: I call them the three Christian ingenuities.—Buddhism is in too late a stage of development, too full of positivism, to be shrewd in any such way.

I already tried Christianity. I tried it really hard, harder than most people. I suffered for my Christianity. It was a very counterproductive way to be. Buddhism is working for me. They’re not the same.

I understand how Buddhism is compatible with science. I don’t understand how Buddhism is compatible with Christianity. It seems like in Asia, when Buddhism came somewhere and blended with the local religion, the deities became Buddhist. They were dharma protectors, wisdom dakinis, etc. Here, I don’t think it’s unusual for a churchgoing to have a Zen practice and see them as compatible. I don’t buy it, just like Christianity and science aren’t actually compatible.

It seems like when Christianity blends with local religions, the local gods become saints. At any rate, here in this country, it seems that people interested in Buddhism stuff aren’t really internalizing the Buddhism to the point of having inner conflicts because it’s incompatible with the surrounding culture. “McMindfulness.”

Norman Fischer thinks it’s magical prayer. Hippie chicks think it’s primarily about fucking. People like reincarnation because they don’t really believe in the First Noble Truth. There’s an insincerity to it, ironically described by Norman Fischer:

It is as if these people, though they clearly mean well and their offers are touching, are not capable of really receiving your pain. They want to make you feel better, help you somehow by offering remedies and recommendations or cheerful words or distracting gifts, but they seem unable or unwilling to do what you need them to do: to simply feel and acknowledge your pain, and so their presence makes you feel more lonely and isolated in your misfortune. This is because they are actually terrified of their own pain. And you can feel that they are also terrified of your pain, even though, of course, they would never say so and may not even realize they are feeling this. But you, the person ill in a hospital bed or depressed or grieving, can see this all too clearly.

This is a hard thing to navigate as an autistic person. For me, Buddhism is an effective system for making decisions in my life. It suggests a way of acting that, it seems like, makes you get along with people better and lowers your stress. So if someone is doing the opposite of Buddhism, we have a lot of disagreements.

Part of my divorce was conflict over the importance of dramatic, intense experiences to happiness. I thought of it as reflecting the Soto/Rinzai schism. It’s a real disagreement with real implications for how to spend time.

How do people blend Buddhism and Hinduism, which disagree on whether the self even exists or not? Does your soul go to some afterlife and spend an eternity there, or is there no such thing as eternity, except in the sense of subjective time distortions? Do you want to “get ahead” and have an expensive lifestyle, or do you believe attachment causes suffering?

Those questions are about very basic aspects of the religions they’re comparing. The religious experience is universal, but the world’s religions can be very different. I don’t think it helps that, when Christians think of “other religions,” the most obvious examples are probably Islam and Judaism, which share the same god.

Basically, Buddhism demands what’s necessary to get over white fragility and other forms of privilege: empathy and honesty about reality. It would actually be a really great indicator that I’d want to be around somebody, if only people really meant it. Once you get it, you just try to be decent and thoughtful. I don’t know what I’m dealing with, if someone is spending their time meditating on who they are and are not capable of empathizing with at the moment.

If someone tells me Steve Jobs is Buddhist, it’s a red flag that someone has dehumanizing attitudes towards child slaves.

This is a frustrating social dynamic for me because it creates the feeling of a near miss, so close yet so far away. I would just like to meet people on the basis of having the same religious values, like a normal person. If you don’t understand what my problem is, I’d explain it like this: It’s like Chuck Norris pretending to be my friend and then going on a rant about illegal immigrants.

All is one, y’know. All that mystical stuff nobody cares about. I skimmed through the Amazon preview of the Chuck Norris Zen book, and guess what his introduction to Zen was? A bunch of guided visualizations on ki, which is a Taoist concept. How to harness the energy of the universe to become a fucking badass we’re #1 oohrah! There’s a lot of that in martial arts, another logical place to find Buddhist people.