An agnostic guided meditation

I have tried to make these instructions agnostic/tradition-neutral. I think that every human being is capable of exploring their own mind. These instructions are based on my experience(s).

I will give you the instructions all at once, because, if you do it correctly, my voice (or this text) should become harder and harder to hear (or read), the farther you go. Also, you would be going below the level of discursive thinking in your mind, and human language seems to be limited to the discursive level.

If you have any duties that require constant attention (e.g., young children, a serious health problem, etc.), make sure someone else is monitoring them, because you may not be available. Sit upright in a quiet place with dim lighting, which is neither too comfortable nor too uncomfortable, and close your eyes. Nothing else matters as much as what you are doing now. If the phone rings, if you hear someone speak, if a dog barks, if a car passes, if a lawnmower runs, if you feel a pain or an itch in your body… ignore them. Push the world away, and go into the darkness of your mind. It may take 15-30 minutes to adjust to that feeling. Just ignore the time and focus on going into your mind. If you have trouble ignoring the world, create the image, no matter how vague/blurry, of a pole, a line, or something else that is simple and stationary, in the middle of your mental field of vision, and focus on that to the exclusion of everything else.

Eventually, you should start seeing mental images, like a lucid dream. Watch them, but keep them at a distance. Don’t give them any encouragement or energy. Don’t get attached to them or emotional about them; if you do, you may have a hard time going any deeper into your mind. Notice how they come and go on their own, if you do not interfere with them. That is how the mind works: one momentary construction after another, in an endless series.

After a while of watching mental images, apply your mental focus/energy to push them away like you did ‘external’ sensations, and go deeper. Gradually, the mind should feel brighter and brighter, like someone is slowly raising the light level in the room. If you were to open your eyes at this point, the room might actually feel darker than your mind just felt. Continue applying your focus, as the mind feels brighter and brighter.

You might see a vision, at this point, such as that you are flying atop an infinite expanse of clouds. Whatever you see, you can explore it, but do not get attached to it or emotional about it, or you may not be able to go deeper. Wherever the light or brightness is in the vision, work on approaching that brightness, which usually requires steadily increasing focus and effort.

If you believe in a religious tradition, or perhaps even if you are just in a religious place (e.g., a church, mosque, temple, vihara, etc.), you might experience a religious vision at this point. You might see one or more religious figure(s) (e.g., a Buddha or Bodhisattva; Christ, Muhammad, or an angel; a Hindu deity; etc.), which might be more beautiful than anything you have ever seen in the world, and more and more mental focus might be required in order to approach them. You can choose either to work on approaching them or to work on going towards the light/brightness, which may be different/separate than approaching the religious figure(s). If it is too difficult, slow down and rest, or stop the meditation (see the next paragraph, for instructions on how to stop) and try again later. These beings/things are always there, available to you. If you are able to reach the religious figure(s), you might be able to have some interaction with them and maybe learn something from them.

To stop meditating, it is best to slowly return back up through the things you have been holding back through concentration. If you suddenly stop concentrating/focusing on holding them back, they might all come rushing back, like flood waters after a dam is broken, which can be unpleasant. Whether you stop slowly or quickly, you might feel unusually strong cravings for worldly things (entertainments, food, sex, etc.) as well as anxiety or depression about returning from a more heavenly place to our more stressful world. But you also should have a deeply peaceful feeling and memories about what you experienced while meditating. Finally, depending on how deeply you have gone into your mind, if you stop meditating suddenly, you might return to a sleeping state, instead of to a conscious state.

If you ignore any visions and continue towards the light/brightness, you should eventually begin to experience the Jhāna process, which progresses through a predictable series of signs and stages that are known to several Dharmic religions. The stages are characterized by the mental light becoming brighter and whiter, and the feelings at each stage becoming more and more refined/subtle forms of a peaceful happiness. Eventually, Theravada Buddhists think, one realizes that the mind’s nature/core is always brightly radiant and in a deep state of peaceful happiness, but that it becomes harder to see the brightness the farther away from the core one goes, the more involved in worldly constructions one becomes. At the last stage of Jhāna, according to early/Theravada Buddhism, one supposedly can see that there is a better, more stable/permanent state of being in which the mind can live (called nirvana/nibbana), and that it is possible to transition from our current state (called samsara) to that state. One who completes that transition is said to be Enlightened, an Arahant, one who will not be born again into any impermanent world.

Whatever path you choose, be patient with yourself and don’t give up. May you always meet with spiritual success.

Is life “good”?

Probably the biggest difference I see between Buddhism and the world’s other largest religions (i.e., Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam) is whether or not they consider worldly life to be “good.”

The other big religions usually say that worldly life (i.e., mass production and consumption, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, cultivating attachments to people and things, developing a sense of self, etc.) is good, is connected to an eternal creator God and is itself spiritually meaningful, is worth spending all of one’s time and energy exploring and pursuing, etc.

However, Buddhism says that we are in an unfortunate state of existence (involving constant struggle and inevitable loss), that the physical details of this life are ultimately meaningless because they are very fleeting, that the only God-like beings one can see from here are trapped in impermanent lives like we are (they only live longer than we do), and that one should spend as much time as possible trying to permanently (i.e., without rebirth) escape from this prison. From a Buddhist perspective, perhaps the only things in life that are really good are people’s capacities to help themselves and others understand and undo their predicament.

Defending Theravada regarding the Bodhisattva Vow

I often have heard Mahayana (and Mahayana-derived) Buddhists criticize Theravada for not having a Bodhisattva Vow — where one vows to be reborn again and again to teach sentient beings, until all sentient beings either have attained enlightenment or attain it together — accusing Theravadists of being selfish for trying to attain nirvana/nibbana quickly. Here are a few defenses of the Theravada view:

Westerners are often asked to take the Bodhisattva Vow shortly after they have attended a Mahayana meditation group for the first time, when they barely know anything about Buddhism, are nowhere close to enlightenment themselves (so probably could not control their rebirths), and are hardly in a position to make a long-term promise.

Like the Western elementary school lesson/game ‘telephone’ — where 20-30 kids sit in a circle, whisper the same message in each other’s ears going around the circle, and see how distorted the message becomes after it has gone around the circle — humans often misunderstand what they hear, and then they pass on that misinformation. Over time, the original message is lost. Buddhism has split many times, and later forms of Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren, Tientai, etc. have become very different from early Buddhism, even in just a few thousand years. How different might human Buddhism become in 1 million years, if it survives that long? Would it bear any resemblance to what the Buddha taught?

Pop culture religion also has a habit of incorporating legends and becoming more outlandish/fantastical over time. For example, some people have apparently arbitrarily made up large numbers for the sizes, distances from Earth, or lifespans of beings in certain heavens and hells. I have also heard South Asian people claim that there have always been Indo-Aryan peoples in South Asia, though the archaeological record says that they have been there for only about 5,000 years. Some people claim that Islam has always been in India, though Muhammad (peace be upon him) lived from 570-632 CE.

There also is the issue of how much karma Mahayanists must keep in their mindstreams, in order to remain in samsara. Some of them, especially Zen Buddhists, lead quite worldly, indulgent lives. It is unclear whether they are clear-headed enough to preserve and practice good-quality Buddhism.

If there are many, possibly infinite, fully enlightened Buddhas from the distant past living forever in Pure Lands, which they created for themselves and which samsaric beings can visit, why do ignorant humans, or even devas (long-lived, heavenly beings), need to take a bodhisattva vow? Won’t everyone encounter one of those Pure Lands, or beings who have visited those Pure Lands, eventually? If there is an infinite series of past Buddhas, why don’t they continuously come to Earth themselves, or create real-time projections of themselves on Earth with which people here could easily interact? If Buddhas gain Creator God-like power over Buddha Nature when they become enlightened, why are their powers to interact with humans apparently limited after their human body dies?

(For how long) Would a Mahayanist sit around waiting for solids, liquids, gases, etc. in the samsaric universe to possibly evolve into a sentient being that is complex enough to interact with and instruct on the path to nirvana? It has been about 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang, and there is a great deal of matter in this universe that is nowhere close to evolving into complex life, and may never be. Physicists’ predictions about the eventual fate of the universe (trillions of years from now) describe a great deal of matter either never evolving into sentient life or being destroyed in a Big Crunch. Upon what nearly-permanent bodymind medium do Mahayanists plan on surviving until the end of the universe, or across universes if there are multiple Big Bang – Big Crunch – Big Bang… cycles?

It is very rare and transient for sentient life to evolve in this universe, and it might happen on worlds separated by vast distances. How do Mahayanists plan on traveling to such worlds to teach the people there?

As Thanissaro Bhikkhu said in one of his recorded dhamma talks: “This body requires that we have to take food, clothing, shelter, medicine…. And it’s not only a burden for us in the searching, but it’s a burden for other people in their providing… other beings of all kinds: animals. This is why, when we stop samsara-ing, it’s a gift — not only to ourselves, but to the people around us. It’s not selfish to stop doing this. If you thought of samsara as a place where people are suffering, then it might seem heartless to want to get out. But, if you see it as a process — a process that’s causing yourself suffering, a process that’s causing other people suffering — the more people who stop doing the process, the better everybody’s going to be… the happier everyone’s going to be” (“Constellations of Stress,” 2004-09-07).

Another day, another jihadist attack

(In Nice)

In recent years, the West has finally taken notice of jihadism, and started wrestling with the issue, but this kind of thing has been happening around Asia and northern Africa since the mid-600s CE. As one of my Hindu friends from Mumbai said to me after the 26/11 attacks on that city in 2008, “we’ve been putting up with this bull**** for hundreds of years.”

Buddhist-majority lands have been conquered or invaded by Muslims many times throughout history, including to the present day. For example: the destruction of Bactria and Gandhara (in present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan; the word ‘Kandahar’ may be a modification of ‘Gandhara’), large-scale conquests in northern India, the Uighurs in northwestern China, a failed attack against Tibet, recent destruction of Buddhist artifacts in Afghanistan and Pakistan, recent attacks by Bangladeshi Muslims, recent attacks in southern Thailand, and the way that Buddhist and Hindu artifacts are hidden away from public view in Malaysia. India today averages about 14% Muslim, and Hindu-Muslim or India-Pakistan conflicts still are a common theme in Indian mass media.

However, to my knowledge, other than perhaps by Genghis Khan (who was a tengrist who was tolerant of many religions), there has never been a large-scale violent invasion/conversion by Buddhists of any land, including Muslim-majority lands. I am aware of a few domestic, nationalistic, radical movements within Buddhist countries (e.g., BBS in Sri Lanka and the 969 Movement in Myanmar), but not of any radical Buddhist groups that leave their home country to carry out attacks. Globally, Buddhism is relatively small, split into many traditions, and geographically marginalized (e.g., around the edges of mostly Hindu or Islamic India and communist China, or between China and Islamic countries like Malaysia and Indonesia), compared to Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, so Buddhists often seem to feel self-defensive.

I know that there are peaceful Muslims. I have several Muslim friends in/from West, Central, and South Asia who are very nice people. As Buddhists wish for all beings, I too wish all Muslims wellness, happiness, and peace. However, there certainly is a long history of some Muslims being violent towards Buddhists and Hindus on both small and large scales.

What distinguishes and unifies the US?

My family came to North America about 350 years ago, before the US existed; we were among the early British settlers/invaders of the continent (for which I am not proud); and we have participated in most of the milestones of the US’s history (for some of which, such as slavery, I also am not proud). I am nearly middle-aged now, and have spent most of my life in various places around the US. Though I have met a few political refugees here, and there are small enclaves of foreign diaspora communities mostly around large cities, still it seems to me that the only thing that really unifies most Americans is overworking to fund indulgent materialism and the world’s largest military expenditure. When I meet people from/in other countries, their impression of the US is usually that it’s where people go to make money. So, on this Independence Day weekend, I ask: what else distinguishes and unifies the US?

  • Economic hub? Though the NYSE is the world’s largest exchange by market capitalization, if foreign companies are going to be listed on a stock exchange outside their home country, they usually use the London or Luxembourg exchanges. The US’s high tax rates also often motivate US companies to keep large sums of money elsewhere.
  • Equality? Billionaires and large corporations, dynastic or life-long politicians, mass media, and the electoral college form an almost untouchable oligarchy / class system. The US is still struggling with age-old issues like gender, ethnic, and religious equality, as well as, after hundreds of years, what to do with the conquered indigenous peoples who it still grants only pitifully small reservations on undesirable lands (I’ve visited a few in the western US). US TV and film are still mostly dominated by people of northern European descent.
  • Freedoms? In terms of freedoms and “development,” the US consistently ranks 10-15th, or lower, in the world. The US military-intelligence establishment has created an immense police/surveillance state, the US has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and people often note that every little thing in the US is becoming more bureaucratic and litigious. The US TV and film industries are saturated with endless cop, courtroom, forensics, and spy shows. Even street cops these days often look like paramilitary commandos.
  • Healthcare? Other than the way that very poor people sometimes can go to emergency rooms for free, the US is one of the few wealthy countries that doesn’t provide any form of universal healthcare.
  • Infrastructure? The US is so large, its state, county, and city governments so numerous, and its large corporations so powerful that its mass-adoption of new technologies (e.g., fast/ubiquitous trains, broadband, etc.) often falls behind smaller countries.
  • Inventions? Most of the US’s inventions are either business-related or militaristic. The US’s main cultural inventions include: the materialistic “American Dream,” a fall harvest festival that often presents a false unity between Native Americans and European invaders as well as excludes vegetarians and non-theists (Thanksgiving), sports that either resemble cricket (baseball) or emphasize genetically unusual (large or tall) people (American football and basketball), deep-fried or refined-sugary foods that cause obesity and heart attacks, blues and rock music inspired by the oppression/legacy of slavery, arrogant/violent cowboys, and small and rather arbitrary modifications of British English words (e.g., travelled to traveled, colonisation to colonization, theatre to theater, etc.).
  • Language? The US’s official language came from England, it is slowly losing ground to Spanish, and many immigrant communities around big US cities avoid English if they can.
  • Laws? The US’s legal system has Roman and European roots.
  • Political leadership? US politics are so ideologically oppositional that most of the legislative time seems to be spent in stalemates or passing useless bills. There also are always quite large political parties (libertarians, environmentalists, etc.) with agendas that are poorly represented by the main two parties. For decades, the US public has gone back and forth about whether the president should be a functional statesman or a ceremonial celebrity (functions which countries with monarchies usually separate), and the president has gained such an incredible amount of power that the entire world nervously watches a year-long election pageant every four years. One of the current presidential candidates is a billionaire playboy reality TV show star, and the US has a history of electing to high offices celebrities who lack much political experience (e.g., Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenneger). During the Cold War, US and Russian leaders had the power to mostly destroy humanity within a few hours or days, among similarly vast telecommunication and economic powers. Yet, though the president’s power is much more immense than when the US was created in 1776, a single person still can hold office for a lengthy eight years.
  • Religion? The US’s main religions and holidays came from the Middle East and Europe, membership in them is steadily falling, and many immigrants from places other than the Middle East or Europe have different religions. In many US workplaces, saying anything about cultural, ethnic, gender, philosophical, political, religious, etc. things has become taboo, because somebody might take offence, and few Americans are broadly educated or acculturated enough to have intelligent discussions about such things. This adds to the general sense that Americans’ public lives must be purely secular and materialistic. The most notable American religious inventions that come to my mind are radical off-shoots of foreign mainstream religions, for example: Southern Baptists, Christian cults (the KKK, Charles Manson, Heaven’s Gate, etc.), and the Nation of Islam (Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, before they changed to mainstream Sunni Islam).
  • Responsible living? People in the US are highly materialistic/indulgent, wasteful, and apparently in denial about both life’s impermanence and the effects of their actions on the rest of the planet or on future generations. For example: they surround themselves with young people and new things, throw things away that are barely broken or simply out of style, live in giant houses and drive giant cars, eat mostly imported food and waste about 30-40% of their food, eat food and medications containing many synthetic chemicals which might cause cancer and environmental harm in the long-term, embalm their dead bodies with hazardous chemicals that can leach into the ground(water) after death, use electricity/fossil-fuels and non-recyclable plastics with reckless abandon, rely on heavy industry and nuclear fission power that release mercury and other toxins into the environment which accumulate over time and take thousands or millions of years to decay, make their appearances look more unnatural with every passing year, and on and on. Even many of the chemicals (e.g., heavy metals) used in 4th of July fireworks can be toxic to the environment, and often are released into lakes or rivers during municipal fireworks displays.
  • Standardization? The US is so isolated that it is often among the last to adopt international standards. For example, only the US, Liberia, and Myanmar (a closed anocracy) continue to use non-metric measurement systems; the US has idiosyncratic electricity voltages and frequencies; non-Unicode or non-ISO character encodings are still common in many US people’s computers; and, until 2009, the US had an unusual analog TV encoding system (NTSC).
  • Virtue and tolerance? The US’s love of graphic sex, intoxicants, and violence in media, sports, and sometimes life, as well as its habit of trying to influence and police the world, are highly reminiscent of ancient kingdoms or European colonialists.

People don’t just speak a language…

… they think in terms of a language. Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman ideas and histories are so intricately a part of the thought-world(s) of English speakers that it is usually imperceptible to them. Even atheistic scientists often unwittingly use such concepts and words when speaking and thinking in English. Societies form as internally coherent bubbles, based on old ideas and events, expanding over time to incorporate new things. To really understand a society, one must learn its history from its perspective and think/speak/live as an insider. For example…

Ancient Greek and Latin still are often taught in British and some American schools, because many English words and grammar constructions derive from them. “An entire mythology is stored within our language” (Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough). “If a lion [or even humans with different thought-worlds] could talk, we could not understand him” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations).

The notion that human thought (e.g., in mathematics) and experience are capable of accessing or fathoming absolute/universal reason, logic, truth, and reality may come from the Eleatic, Plotinan/Neo-platonic, and physicalist mainstreams of ancient Greece and post-Greco-Roman Christian civilizations. These ideas have been mainstream during most of Europe’s history, and continue to be a core part of many contemporary Western institutions (governments, laws, non-profits/NGOs, science, etc.).

The monistic and essentialistic views of those schools of philosophy often tend Western seekers/explorers of world religions towards other monistic and essentialistic traditions (e.g., Islam; Bahá’í; Vedanta, Vaishnava, and Tantra Hinduism; Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism; etc.).

Words like spirituality, animism, numinous, gaia, etc. usually suggest that people/things have spirits, souls, or essences and that non-mundane experiences must involve a soul/spirit/essence, though there are non-essentialist traditions around the world.

The word “creatures” appears often in science and science fiction to describe living beings in general, and it apparently implies that which was creat-ed (by God, presumably).

Judeo-Christians often refer to people of other “faiths.” Non-theistic traditions often emphasize personal development or experimentation (e.g., lifestyle modifications, meditation, or scientific experiments) over faith in divine mysteries and either do not have concepts of theos/God(s); limit those concepts to beings who are not all-powerful, omniscient, always loving, creators of everything, etc; or argue that people often invoke God(s) out of convenience, fear, or avoidance. For example, it’s easier to put a word on a complex and variable phenomenon (e.g., “depression”) and give the impression that one understands it than it is to actually explore and understand the phenomenon. Also, it can be easier to invoke God(s) in order to deny one’s own capabilities, or to defer responsibility, for solving hard problems (e.g., for controlling basic human instincts, or for living a quiet/secluded life and attaining a deep level of self-knowledge) than it is to make the effort necessary to solve the hard problems oneself.

Finally, Judeo-Christians often mistakenly assume that other traditions involve prayer or worship. In much of Asia, holding the palms of one’s hands together (anjali) means a greeting/salutation to the divine or enlightened aspects/potentials within a person, not necessarily prayer to God(s), and bowing/prostration can mean a deep respect or personal exercise of humility or selflessness, not necessarily worship (in the sense of devotion to, or dependence on, a deity). Jews can be Theravada Buddhists without giving up Judaism (see the Jewish Buddhist movement), because that tradition considers the Buddha to have been only a human who accomplished something great (i.e., who stopped karma/becoming and converted his mind from having an impermanent kind of matter as its base to having a permanent kind of matter as its base), and who is deeply revered but is not worshiped. Of course, there are people in Asia who are praying to God(s) when they hold their hands together, or who do worship the Buddha or monks as God(s) (especially Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists, and occasionally the pop-culture side of Theravada), but anjali and prostrations don’t necessarily have those meanings.