Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Various Thoughts on Meditation Reading

Something that struck me from this reading was the actual changes in the structure and style of the writing: the piece alternates between simple directions and more complicated thoughts on, for example, the nature of thoughts or the emptiness of the mind. I was also able to read the work relatively quickly because the language was simple, but after forcing myself to slow down I gained a lot more depth in understanding and even pondered some of the interesting questions posed by the work. My favorite question was, "Regarding the empty quality, does that mean being empty like nothingness or empty like space?" (28). The entire highlighted section surrounding that question, in my opinion, was beautifully written (translated?)

I think that a lot of the directions can be applied personally in my life, without engaging in full meditation. I consider myself more of an introvert than extrovert, so as a result I often will find myself deep in thought, furiously overthinking even the smallest of issues or thoughts. So the parts from the first section of the reading that told one to neither ignore nor address (not the exact words, but general idea) thoughts that arise in the mind could definitely help me out. The same idea even could apply to trying to keep focus while studying or reading. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this reading because I think it differed greatly from most of the texts we have looked at over the course of this semester, considering both traditions. Sometimes it can be easy to get bogged down or confused by the intricacies of each tradition's, and their branch-offs, philosophies, so this was a nice, relaxing, fun change.

Serenity and Simplicity-The Rhetoric of "Clarifying the Natural State"

When have we before been privileged to read such a simultaneously accessible and soothing text in this class? It was such a surprise and a delight to start reading and realize--hey, this book is written in a conversational and encouraging tone. I don't feel lost or confused. I actually feel hopeful! Hopeful about understanding the reading, but also a little hopeful about life.

This reading is constructed with the sort of list-like organization I have come to expect from Buddhist texts, but the lists are at the head of the sections, as organizational pieces, rather than interrupting the flow of the text. It reads very much like an instruction manual, or a self-help book. Follow this step, then that step. Take breaks. Really, it's advice for any kind of learning of a skill. And specific pointers! If you are drowsy, be cooler--if you are antsy, be warmed. I also enjoy that the reading seems to be as help to the lama, the teacher. It has sort of behind the scenes hints for how to help an initiate, cautions against teaching by telling, "pointing-out", series of steps to follow.

The text is both eminently practical and deeply thoughtful, two bedfellows that rarely meet, and a pleasure to read. Quite a difference from Tantra!

Counterintuitive? - Mind and Body

Before I get into some of my questions that are concerned with nondualism during meditation, here are some quotes from the reading that help contextualize what I’m discussing:

On the consciousness of the mind: “Likewise, is your mind an entity that can be identified as empty or as aware? Regarding the empty quality, does that mean being empty like nothingness or empty space? Is the lucidly aware quality radiant like .the light of the sun and moon, or the flame of a butter lamp? Examine what this lucidity is Investigate this until it is settled with complete and conclusive certainty. (28)

On the nature of the mind and stillness: “It is easy to resolve that (this conscious mind) does not consist of any shape, color, location, support or material substance. However, if you take it to be a definable entity that is aware and empty and you remain quietly in that state, you are still unresolved, since that is the meditative mood of stillness.” (28)

On the mind and nonarising: “You must experience the actual mode of this mind: a self knowing emptiness that from the very first cannot be pinpointed as arising, dwelling or ceasing.”  (37)

What is the nature of the mind -- is the mind separate from the body, or is it a body part? In the same way that our hands are? Thoughts and the mind are indivisible, perceptions and the mind are indivisible (as during meditation, “the mind has not turned into anything other than mind itself” 36 ish) but what about the mind and the body? Before Namgyal establishes the “identity of the mind,” he outlines instructions for meditation in terms of our bodily reality and function. He stresses the importance of posture and breathing, and doing these meditative practices to “capture the uncaught mind” (20). If in fact there is no division within a nondualist context, is it not counterintuitive that during meditation one distinguishes between bodily movements and movements of the mind? Or, working off this quote---“No matter what of thought occurs, its experience is, in itself, something unidentifiable - it is unobstructedly aware and yet not conceptualizing. As for perceptions, they are a mere impression of unobstructed presence, which is insubstantial and not a clinging to a solid reality. They are hard to describe as being such-and-such, and when you understand them to be this way you have reached personal experience.” (31) -- would Namgyal classify our bodies as perceptions? Also, it seems as if consciousness and the mind are used interchangeably, yet in what circumstance would their division aid in one’s training? If the mind and consciousness are not divisible, is it incorrect to describe the mind in terms of what is conscious and unconscious, ie, the conscious mind? Moreover, I am questioning the interesting relationship between the body and the mind during meditation and its practice in a nondual context.

Bliss in Kaula Ritual

I may be off a bit in my interpretation and may even be understanding this in the wrong context, but I was thoroughly intrigued by the idea of liberation through bliss in Kaula ritual while reading Sanderson’s “Meaning in Tantric Ritual”. Sanderson elaborates on page 87 of the text explaining the use of bliss in ritual and how the senses are nothing but the ‘instruments of the state of bondage’  and how the senses are divine avenues of the blissful. Interestingly he added how the egoless, unconstrained consciousness, that which is the ‘underlying identity of all awareness’ (87) can be achieved through a state of bliss. Bliss in a way is a tool to liberate consciousness into the realization of its all encompassing radiance and transparency. It’s really one thing to excite the senses with the underlying motivation of desire, but its another to think that possibly once can overexcite the senses to such a state where the objectivity alters and the bonds of desire are even almost free, connecting one to this sort of egoless consciousness. Sort of like running a marathon, the physical sense is so attuned and so overstimulated in a way, that once you get to mile 18 (or at least how I felt the first time I ran a marathon) that sense just disintegrates into this physically exhaustive state and instead of being submitted to this extreme pain I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of physical energy and became so attuned to my ‘inner self’ that I actually reversed lost time and accelerated faster than any point in the race. Or maybe with eating a really delicious piece of chocolate- boy I forget all world drama every. single. time. I may be off totally here with my example but I kind of understood this correlation with the bliss in ritual when Sanderson talked about bliss in Kaula ritual as a kind of uninhibited, unconstrained exercise in which one can reach liberation and position oneself in a nondualistic state. “The greater the intensity of this bliss the greater the self-realization in one who experiences it.” (88)

Some reflections on Buddhism

The reading, Clarifying the Natural State, really made me take a step back and think about what I've learned about Buddhism this semester. This kind of text, a very thorough explanation of Buddhist meditation practice, is kind of what I was expecting to learn about when I originally signed up for this class. I think that before taking this class, I had a very Westernized view of Buddhism, in which meditation seemed to me to be the most important aspect of the religion. Of course, this is not meant to downplay the presence of meditation in Buddhism, as meditation and the emphasis on mindfulness is certainly a huge part of the religion. However, I feel like this semester I've also learned so much about the philosophy and history of Buddhism, as well as the interplay between Buddhism and the various cultures it has come into contact with. So, when I read this text, I found it fascinating and calming, but I also found myself looking back on what I've learned so far and thinking about how much more there is still to learn as well. As an unrelated sidenote, I also think I'll be saving this text so I can read the rest of it on some later date, as it was a very relaxing (and potentially very helpful) read.

Right vs. Left

Growing up, I've noticed the stigma that people have about the left. My parents have always enforced the rule of giving and accepting things, eating, etc. with the right hand, and now, using my left hand for most things feels weird. I remember that when I asked my dad why our right hands are so important, years ago, he said it is because the left hand is dirty. That didn't really make sense to me, but I just went with it anyway. I had no idea that there were even people who were "pro-left." Yesterday, we talked about the difference between the right and the left in the context of Tantric ritual, like how for Hindus, the right symbolizes equality with Shiva, and the left symbolizes being the same as Shiva, and how with the right there is still a base impurity and the left embodies a liberated reality. For some reason, I fail to see how the right could be considered better than the left (or vice versa, for that matter) and how such a stigma could exist.

Sorry for such a short post. This was just something I had been thinking about since yesterday's lecture. 

Understanding the Nature of the Mind

I especially loved this reading, Clarifying the Natural State. It was beautiful to read and also, being someone who attends yoga classes weekly and tries to meditate in multiple situations, I found this read especially useful as instruction to a more correct and accurate meditation. When I personally use meditation, it is as a means to calm down my mind if I am ever stressed, busy or just want to relax. It was interesting to learn more about the natural of the mind as understood in this reading. I tend to get frustrated when my mind wanders during meditation because I have been told to stop that from happening. I have always believed in shaping the mind through experience, education, etc., but one quote specifically stuck out to me here. 

“At the beginning, this mind was not produced from any causes or conditions, and did not arise from any basis, not in any way whatsoever; rather it is rootless since the be- ginning. Presently, it does not remain as any shape or form at all, but is unidentifiable. In the end, without being stopped by anyone, it is self-dissolving, self-clearing and self-liberated.”
I have never thought of the mind in this way. It reminded me of in class when we talked about Buddhist meditation as a means of searching for some sense of self and ideally not finding it. Our hand is not the self, our heartbeat is not the self and now it is reinforced that the mind is not the self either.
“…a self-knowing emptiness that from the very first cannot be pinpointed as arising, dwelling or ceasing.”
In this way, the mind is what it is. There is no reason for us to be upset with how it is and try to change things about it because it will not change.
“…cannot be improved by anything good or worsened by anything bad.”
Understanding that the mind is self-clearing, self-knowing and self-liberating is a comforting thought. Because of this nature of the mind, we must accept how we are and not expect change. Acceptance is a challenging idea for many people, especially when it comes to acceptance of oneself but the “clarification” of this “natural state” gives much comfort to me.

“…resolve that it is a self-clearing, self-knowing, self-liberated state that does not need to be fine-tuned or corrected.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In the readings on Tantric Buddhism, the term "untouchables" appeared quite a few times. The word untouchables refers to the lowest caste in Indian society, characterized with "dirty" jobs, extreme poverty, and even dark skin. Recently an academic from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Dr. Sukhdeo Thorat, visited Emory and delivered his paper entitled "Growing up as an Untouchable." The paper was part research, facts and theories about stigmatized identity, for example, and part real-life experience. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend the presentation, but I was able to read a copy of the paper. I can only imagine the profound impact hearing the paper read aloud by its original author, who himself lived life among one of the most looked down categories in a vast nation, would have had. Regardless, seeing untouchables in the reading made me recall this paper so I thought I would discuss it here. 

As an Indian Hindu, I primarily only associate India with Hinduism, and slightly with Islam because of all the religious tensions. Because of this, I wouldn't say I necessarily forget that Buddhism began in India, but Buddhism and India are not strongly associated in my brain. Seeing untouchables, part of the caste system so distinctly Indian, in relation to Buddhism also grabbed my attention. I found the suggestion that Tantric Buddhism was the end of Indian Buddhism interesting as well.

The part of the paper I found most heartbreaking was when Thorat discussed how he slowly began to learn what it meant to be an untouchable as a young curious child who merely wanted to play like all the other children. In his village, he was not allowed in certain areas and was often hit by people he did not even know for something as small as touching a water well. 

Kind of a tangent, but it deals with Indian culture, and religion and culture are almost always linked.


I find Wedemeyer's claim that tantric ritual cannot be interpreted through the notion of “transgressive sacrality” --“the ritual inversion of social taboos, as a way of laying claim to psychological and physical powers repressed by social convention”-- very interesting. That to do so would be to read “the semiology of contemporary “spirituality” into late-millennium Indian religion, making sense of it through psychologization” (131). Rituals instead are specifically grounded in the cultural context in which they were formed, and are a medium for thinking about nondual gnosis, ritual purity, and freedom. (Connotative semiotics plays into this, the idea of intentional speech, that is ultimately ambiguous mythical speech and that makes signification appear as a “notification as like a statement of fact” 116). A question of interpretation in general: when discussing non dual actions or the idea of nondualism as a path to enlightenment, how does distinguishing between modes of interpretation, in terms of language, further this nondualist thought? To interpret something erroneously is a prominent theme throughout Buddhist text, as well as in tantric tradition (to use contemporary spirituality to make sense of it, or to distinguish between that which is purification and that which is defilement), however, if the world exists as non dual, how does non dualist thought manifest in the distinction between the correct logic and incorrect logic of interpretation? Is interpretation itself dualistic?

Insidious metaphors

I found the section on narratives used in history, specifically the narrative of "organic stages of life", in Chapter 2 of Wedemeyer's Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism as very revealing. Wedemeyer states that the metaphor of organic development has been one of the most common narratives used by Western scholars when describing the history (or more accurately the historiography) of Buddhism. Because early 19th century scholars primarily focused on classical Buddhist texts, they saw the traditions and practices that had developed from these texts as less pure, and as steps toward the degeneration of Buddhism as a whole. This idea of practiced Buddhism (i.e. Buddhism as practiced by actual Buddhists) as being less legitimate than the textual or classical Buddhism (i.e. the Buddhism that early scholars brought back to Europe when coming back from Asia) is not only steeped in racism and Orientalism, but also reinforces the "self" vs "other" way of thinking that was so prevalent during European colonialism. What I found so revealing while reading this section was that, even though I would obviously never ascribe to such a way of thinking about Buddhism, I have nevertheless still found myself drawn to the narrative of organic development and have never really realized this general inclination of mine until now. I'm not necessarily surprised that I have this inclination (as its not only a very orderly metaphor, but an extremely universal metaphor as well), but I am surprised that it has shaped so many of the "stories" of history for me without my realizing. Wedemeyer's decision to fully explain this metaphor and how it affects peoples' views of Tantric Buddhism was a very thoughtful and helpful one, as I could definitely see myself getting sucked into one of the familiar narratives that so many have surrounded the tradition with.

Detachment and Tantric Buddhism

Our most recent readings on Tantric Buddhism delved into some of the precise details of ritual worship, and focused on a major thesis. The five "meats" and "nectars"--substances of profound and repulsive ritual impurity, are used, as the author argues, as something of a challenge in the tradition. True detachment from the world and true understanding of nonduality means losing the desire to differentiate between impure and pure, right and wrong, good and evil, lust and revulsion. Therefore the veneration and use in Tantric Buddhism of places, implements, and actions of ritual impurity are real or symbolic tests of enlightenment. The truly enlightened, or those that aspire to it, should be untroubled by anything worldly. I wonder however if the scriptures mention actually enjoying such practices. Would not someone truly enlightened feel as equally unaffected by an orgy as meditation in a temple? Participation in both would merely be proof of ultimate equanimity. That makes the label of moral degeneracy even more shaky, if such actions (even those which may be dubiously pleasurable) are fulfilled without emotion.

Interpretation: Literal or Figurative?

In my studies of different religions over the years, the aspect of religious studies that I find the most interesting is hermeneutics. Digging deeper until my shovel hits the treasure chest I have been looking for his a rewarding action. This is how I think of hermeneutics. Interpreting texts and practices respectfully can give us insight and understanding, which is crucial to the study of religion. You may see then why I found it interesting that there is a section in Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism called “The Literal and The Figurative in Tantric Hermeneutics. This section opened my eyes to different forms of hermeneutics. At this point, I have had the na├»ve view that all hermeneutics is more or less figurative. I personally practice interpretation by reading a section of text, for example, and finding alternative meanings and reading it solely figuratively. Seeing that there are literalists and on the other side, people who interpret figuratively, teaches me a powerful lesson about interpretation in all religions world-wide… some things mean exactly what they say. Some of the texts that I read and interpret to mean something that might be incredibly broad and vague might just be meant to take literally. Especially when it comes to a complicated idea such as tantric, this will be important to keep in mind. I am curious, now, to see if I continue to view things in a figurative sense or if I begin to interpret more literally. 

            Wedemeyer perfectly explains the literal and figurative by saying, “Many assert that the Tantras-being the secretive, esoteric scriptures they claim-express themselves via a kind of special code (twilight language or intentional language), which must be broken in order to understand what the real meaning is behind what seem, taken literally, to be antinomian statements or references to exotic meats or revolting bodily fluids. Others (currently among the most vocal) claim that the Tantras say exactly what they mean and this question of interpretation is ultimately an artificial one born of naively giving credence to the later, "bowdlerizing," "sanitizing," and/or "semanticizing" tendencies found in the commentarial literature” (Wedemeyer 107).

Errors of Interpretation

In discussing histography, the attempt to successfully recycle original narratives with authenticity in tact could prove to be the biggest problem in scholarly interpretation. In regards to the origins of Tantric Buddhism for example, how did those original ideas translate and keep their true form? Even more, how can we best identify and prevent blanketed interpretations from the authenticated source? Bengali scholar Benoytosh in “Making Sense” expressed the same sentiment when he said, “it is very doubtful whether we will ever be in a position to trace the origin of the Tantra in the most precise manner possible”. Historical narratives thread cultures, providing a means to understand origins and beginnings. What’s interesting to think about is the relevance in errors of interpretation and how bare origins of a document, a text, an event say can be pieced, conflated, quieted, ignored; subject to selectivity and plagued with faulty reference. The histography of Buddhism and Hinduism sheds light on this and how Westerners come to understand Buddhism and define its traditions and beliefs. The west has a history of imperialist motivations and I immediately began thinking about this during the beginning of the course when we read the piece by Nicholson on “Unifying Hinduism” which highlighted the tendency of scholars toward creating a new tradition. He argued the problem of scholarly confiscation and it’s effect on the authenticity of origins. On page 2 of the text, Nicholson hit the arrow on the bullseye when he explained how British imperialist scholarship was a ahistorical fabrication of classical traditions and texts noting how the selective reading of ancient texts ignored the depth and scope of variety of beliefs and practices and the complete disregard of a “Hindu unity” that existed prior to British arrival in India. 
  Additionally, the question that Claire brought up of defining beginnings and how they’re perceived both internally and externally engaged my thoughts towards the problem of racism in America and particularly its problem of prevalence during Hurricane Katrina.  Racism in our country held significant weight and prevalence in light of internal events that precipitated days after the storm. In historic Algiers Point, african american men were shot passing through the neighborhood  by white residents, who committed acts of violent white vigilantism. A number of  incidents surrounding the violence, profiling and deaths of unarmed African Americans and the internal cover up and corruption by the New Orleans police department illustrates further the attitudes toward race and the continuous problem of police brutality and racial violence. People outside of New Orleans probably have never heard of the incidents and therefore see no problem, identifying racism with the past. Ask residents of the city and perhaps many can conclude that the problem never ended, that it continues with no end in sight. Living in a modern, post- civil rights era, any one person can assume or think overall and quite generally that the problem of race is behind us. Immediately though, error of reference comes in to play. Ask an older middle class white American and a young, low-income black African American the same question, and the answer most likely will be different. With such parallels of narrative, who’s answer is right and which one will be included in the history of racism? Ultimately the big question is: What definable traces of original fact, dialogue, thought and events transmit untouched among influence, interpretation, reference and narrative, especially in a globalized, technologically driven world today?