Unsplash photo by Benjamin Child
The latest piece we are all reading as part of are ongoing reading group reads both like an essay which is deeply engaged with Buddhism, and one that takes on the "Buddhism industry," at least as it's practiced in the West.
I've taken instruction in mindfulness meditation, and there's a lot of emphasis on technique: How to sit, ow to focus upon the breath, how to perform the walking meditations. (Mindfulness meditation basically comes out of the Theravada Buddhist tradition in south Asia; RAW seems more familiar with the Zen Buddhism that is prevalent in more northern areas of Asia, such as China and Japan). RAW's essay seems to offer a critique of such instruction:
There is probably nothing funnier than the attempts of an Occidental adult to learn contemplation. He generally sits tensely (in the full lotus position, of course), screws up his face as if he were doing a problem in triple integral calculus, and slowly turns purple.
If you ask him what he is doing, he says he is trying to "force" his "mind" to stop thinking. A dog has more sense. He simply sits down, or more often lies down, and contemplates. He often does not think he's doing anything special, and he is not trying to become a Buddha. He simply contemplates.
This is pretty amusing and also maybe a little unfair; in mindfulness instruction, the instructors usually tell their students not to worry about whether they are sitting in the correct position, and they usually students to relax and not to judge themselves over whether they are "doing it right;" when your mind wanders, you are supposed to calmly focus upon your breath.
But perhaps RAW has a point; it's easy to get caught up on the awareness of breath technique. Perhaps the instructors should emphasize alertness and paying attention, and then simply say that watching your breath in one possible technique. RAW argues here that focusing on the techniques of meditation practice means that you wind up focusing on the "road map" rather than the journey.
I've had trouble maintaining a meditation practice. I know that other people say they get great results; I eventually get bored and feel like I'm not getting enough out of it.
The discussion that "In the highest contemplation, there is no consciousness of 'I'" toward the end of the essay sounds like a reformulation of the Buddhist doctrine of no-self.
I guess I am curious what other folks who have tried studying how to meditate will think of this essay.
This is another early piece, published in The Realist back in 1959. Next week, we take on "Don't Be Afraid of Black Magick," which was published in 1977.