Sunday, February 24, 2008

Manipulation versus transformation

Yesterday I listened briefly to a talk by Pema Chodron available through Shambhala publications on the "use" of Buddhist practice in surmounting emotional deficits such as anger.

Generally speaking I like her approach and what she says; it appears to be of real value. Yet I fear that she, like many other teachers, helps to support and disseminate a fundamentally mistaken idea about inner work: that is, the idea that inner work somehow applies to the "correction" of what we confront in ordinary life, that it can "fix" what is wrong with us. I routinely encounter the same things in church when I listen to sermons.

Because every form presents its ideas in a tangible manner, interpretable by the ordinary mind, we presume that we are able to grasp the form. One of the fundamental ironies here, perhaps, is that of all the religious disciplines, Buddhism takes the lead in insiisting that form cannot be properly grasped with the mind--yet in this recording I listened to, Pema presents Buddhists ideas, within form, as graspable.

For myself (and I'll admit it just about sticks in my craw saying this) I think I prefer the worn-out old Gurdjieff adage that "we cannot know anything."

Even worse, as we present things within form and make them graspable, we actually begin to believe that they make life manipulable. This delusion that we can somehow manipulate life pervades everything that we do. To manipulate life is the same as the Buddhist "grasping-" the absolute opposite of acceptance, which has been the subject over the past few days. It ultimately reduces inner work to an exercise in psychology, an egregious error that makes itself comfortable in every spiritual discipline, and in every devotee, no matter how sincere. The mind invite this kind of interpretation, because it suits the mind is so well. Hence the famous line from The Cloud of Unknowing: "you cannot know God with the mind."

The ideas within Buddhism, as the ideas within Christianity, Sufism, Hinduism, and so on are all aimed not at the manipulation of ordinary life, but the establishment of inner unity. That is the primary objective; anything less than that puts the cart before the horse. The way that inner unity may affect life after it arrives is a different question, and one that does not need to be addressed by the seeker. In fact, it is better to leave ordinary life alone, in a certain sense, and apply oneself to the search without concern for how it affects ordinary life.

Using the ideas to fix what we are is pointless. That has been tried by organized formal religion for thousands of years, and it's conclusively obvious from the results that it never, never works.

As we are--and we are all "like this," that is, without inner unity (I suspect even Pema Chodron would admit that her practice falls short of "enlightenment")--we are fundamentally unable to conceive of what unity consists of.

Let's take a look at a quote from Dogen, taken from the Shobogenzo, Nishijima and Cross translation, Dogen Sangha press, volume 4, Chapter 91, found on page 189.

"The Buddha-Dharma cannot be known by people. For this reason, since ancient times, no common man has realized the Buddha-Dharma and no-one in the two vehicles has mastered the Buddha-Dharma. Because it is realized only by Buddhas, we say that "Buddhas alone, together with buddhas, are directly able to perfectly realize it." When we perfectly realize it, while still as we are, we would never have thought previously that realization would be like this. Even though we had imagined it, it is not a realization that is compatible with that imagining. Realization in itself is nothing like we imagined. That being so, to imagine it beforehand is not useful. When we have attained a realization, we do not know what the reasons were for our being in a state of realization. Let us reflect on this. To have thought, prior to realization, that it will be like this or like that, was not useful for realization."

This is a fancy way of saying that everything we think we know about enlightenment is wrong.
Conjecture that begins from here and tries to lead us there may be a false path.

We should consider this carefully as we carefully inspect the inner state and the state of our unity itself.

Gurdjieff made it clear: all inner work is about transformation, that is, the re-creation of the inner man in a new image. This involves, according to him, the creation of higher Being-bodies, that is, first, the nativity and growth of the astral body, which is a body connected to man's planetary nature.

This has to do with the growth of something within a man that comes from a different level -- that is, as I have said before, it is alien to what we are. It is as different as a butterfly is from a caterpillar. The metaphor may be overused, but a creature that crawls on leaves and eats them cannot be reasonably compared to a creature that flies through the air and drinks nectar. The caterpillar knows nothing about being a butterfly. In fact, it has to die to what it is in order to be something new.

Lest we think that Pema's Buddhism somehow aims at something different, let's return once again to Dogen (same chapter, page 191:)

"An eternal Buddha said:

The whole earth is the real human body,
The whole earth is the gate of liberation,
The whole earth is the one Vairocana,
The whole earth is our own Dharma body.

The point here is that the real is the real body. We should recognize that the whole earth is not our imaginations; it is the body which is real."

On page 193, he goes on to elaborate:

"How, then, are we to understand that this state of Buddha is the same as us? To begin with, we should understand the action of Buddha. The action of Buddha takes place in unison with the whole earth and takes place together with all living beings. If it does not include all, it is never the action of Buddha. Therefore, from the establishment of the mind until the attainment of realization, both realization and practice are inevitably done together with the whole earth and together with all living beings."

This fundamental call to an understanding of unity acquired through the growth of the astral body -- that is, the body connected to the welfare of the planet, rather than the welfare of the limited, ordinary self --is the fundamental point of esotericism. Once again, as in so many other instances, I think we see that Gurdjieff's practice and Dogen's practice display an unerring consistency at the heart of the matter.

That unerring consistency is a consistency in understanding the need for the cultivation and transformation of a man's inner qualities, not his outer ones.

May your roots find water, and your leaves know sun.


  1. << This fundamental call to an understanding of unity acquired through the growth of the astral body -- that is, the body connected to the welfare of the planet, rather than the welfare of the limited, ordinary self --is the fundamental point of esotericism. >>

    Lee and I have had many conversations on the nature of "chief fault" -- something largely left behind by many in the Gurdjieff field at this time; but essentially, it served the purpose of identifying the "form" of ego, the attachment, an emotional attachment, to the material world and the (as Lee says) the limited, ordinary self. From this form springs negative emotion, anger in particular, and I think that this is the nature of what Chodren is getting at.

    Unity, is not simply the self as realized... it is understanding, through setting aside the seeming individuation of the physical self, that "I am my brother" and that, going back to Pythagoras and establishing the triangle, "I and my Brother exist within the single ground of being" -- God if you will.

    Since anger exists only in separation and materiality, it is appropriate to meet that at the novice level and only an understanding of form (as void) will lead to a realization of void (as form).

    We are in physical existence to learn, to grow as the mind of god. Realization is only a shift in perception, while in the illusion, of what reality is. Full realization, the bodhi nature, is always possible -- this was the new being of christ -- and "greater things than this" we will do.


  2. ..and in further consideration, I would have to say, the butterfly is fully aware that it was once a caterpillar. It is the caterpillar that has only a vague notion of what lies ahead. Once transformed, the butterfly is the totality of its experience which has no limitations or forgetfulness but which still exists within the illusion. From this point Chuang Tzu can ask about who it is that is truly dreaming.



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