Think Free



Hartwig HKD – Bonsai Moon via Flickr

In Zen Buddhism, satori is the idea and belief that one can experience a sudden flash of enlightenment in which all the conventional dualities of ‘love and hate,’ ‘good and bad,’ ‘beautiful and ugly’ are apparently transcended.

Those claiming to have experienced satori talk about the importance of living in the present—hence popular spin-off catchphrases like “Be Here Now” (cleverly satirized in the otherwise vulgar film, The Love Guru).

There are different understandings about what satori really means. Some say that a greater kind of love and compassion follows the destruction of smaller ideas about love and compassion.¹ But satori usually is a somewhat cooler idea about surpassing the discriminating intellect.

One can’t help but wonder if some enlightened masters would, perhaps just as quickly as they gained enlightenment, lose their cool if their followers suddenly stopped funding them.

The Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki champions Zen while casting aspersions on core Christian beliefs about Jesus dying on a cross. For Suzuki, religion is largely about aesthetics. And he says it’s distasteful to the Japanese mind to think of God dying in such a gruesome way. He also writes extensively on satori but admits to never having experienced it.²

Related » Koan

¹ This should not be confused with the Christian ideas of eros and agape because the latter involves a selfless service to God. And the entire idea of an absolute God is absent or seen as unimportant in Zen. See D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism and D. T. Suzuki in C. A. Moore, The Japanese Mind.

² Suzuki, himself, says that the idea of satori differs from Christian mysticism. The latter, he claims, is disconnected from everyday life. This demonstrates how Suzuki misunderstands the subtle workings of Christian mysticism, which reaches out to others through intercessionIbid.

On the Web:

  • Mel Van Dusen presents the talks of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.”

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Alan Watts

Emptiness by Miss Gong via Flickr

No one really knows just who the British-born Alan Watts (1915-1973) really was. Scholar, writer, Tantric yogi, ex-Catholic synthesizer of Eastern and Western beliefs—all would apply.

He had such a powerful presence when I was an undergraduate student that he seemed alive when I read his books in the 1980s. We didn’t have the internet back then, so I didn’t know he’d passed.¹

Although I don’t agree with everything he says, Watts was an innovate teacher who mastered the art of spontaneity. And his wit and enthusiasm made him one of the leading advocates of mystical introspection.

Now that I’ve had more time to assess his work, it seems that his abundant charms may have arisen at the expense of rigorous thought. For example, one of his arguments about the West “not getting it” rests on simplistic assumptions and stereotypes. And some proponents of alleged Asian wisdom continue to perpetuate these assumptions and stereotypes today, which I find really boring and sometimes bordering on racism or national discrimination.

In the video, Time: The More it Changes, Watts says that Western psychologists used to explain human behavior in terms of instinct, and now – 1972 – people tend to speak of “drives.” He then gives counterexamples to suggest the opposite. Watts is not driven to eat or have sex, but rather chooses to identify with these activities.

English: Group photo in front of Clark Univers...

Group photo in front of Clark University Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung; Back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi. Photo taken for Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts publication. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, not all psychologists see human behavior as entirely motivated by drives. Even Sigmund Freud, whose idea of the libido is often taken as excessively instinctual, recognized the importance of social forces in regulating biological drives.

Moreover, 20th century existentialists say that what makes us truly human (and free) is a “gap of nothingness” that stands between drives and actions (or inaction). And many Christians speak of “grace” that can override instinctual drives.

So Watts wasn’t perfect. But he did popularize and provoke. And he spoke to an individualistic inner life for those who didn’t feel comfortable with organized religion.

How did he get there?

In 1968 Watts admitted to taking five different types of psychedelic drugs to learn about mysticism.

I myself have experimented with five of the principal psychedelics: LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT), and cannabis. I have done so, as William James tried nitrous oxide, to see if they could help me in identifying what might be called the “essential” or “active” ingredients of the mystical experience.²

Nordstrom and Pilgrim take an extremely dim view of Watts’ ideas.

Watts’ mysticism is deviant because it seeks perversely to undo mystical experience. This is done by inferring from the fact that mystical experience is not ineffable, that there is no separation between the spiritual and the physical, which eventually is transformed into the view that the spiritual and the physical are virtually the same thing, which Watts calls his “spiritual materialism”…[this] both precludes the possibility and obviates the necessity of mystical experience. What is perverse about Watts’ mysticism, in a word, is that it is antimystical.
This would not be so perverse were it not for the fact that Watts considered himself to be a mystic, as remarks like “I am a shameless mystic” and “a mystic in spite of myself” make clear.
Watts is a strange and confusing combination of a man-of-letters and a mystic, who used his extraordinary articulateness and literary ability to undermine mystical experience by rejecting the sense in which such experience is ineffable. What one is left with, unfortunately, is, as Zen master Rinzai once put it, “words and phrases, however excellent.”³

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

This image was selected as a picture of the week on the Malay Wikipedia for the 51st week, 2010. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Love him or hate him, according to legend Watts predicted a flash of lightning that accompanied his death. And when he died, a local Druid’s bell apparently rang out in town, off schedule. Later, a lightning flash hit the cable leading to the bell.

Similar paranormal phenomena apparently accompanied the death of Carl Jung, another prominent innovator and advocate of an East-West synthesis. And when Hollywood actor Rock Hudson died of AIDS, a rainbow appeared. So if these stories are true, it seems that God has his ways of letting us know who the real movers and shakers are.

¹ Watts lives on as a computer program who helps to lure Samantha (an OS) away from the protagonist in the film Her. See my audio review

² Alan Watts, “Psychedelics and Religious Experience,” California Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1968:74-85), p. 75.

³ Louis Nordstrom and Richard Pilgrim, “The Wayward Mysticism of Alan Watts,” Philosophy East and West, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Jul., 1980: 381-401), pp. 381-382.

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When someone seems to know through insight, intuition and experience how best to act or how things will likely work out, we say they’re wiser than those who make superficial, snap or conventional judgments.

Wisdom may or may not involve academic, specialized, scientific or factual knowledge. The intuitive aspects of wisdom may involve revealed, infused, illuminated, transpersonal or transcendent knowledge—that is, knowledge that saints, mystics and seers from many different religions say extends beyond the usual understanding of space and time.

name lost in internet. Seems to be Mystic Marr...

Name lost in internet. Seems to be Mystic Marriage of Christ and the Church (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The idea of wisdom has been debated among religious traditions. Hindus, for example, might see Christians as slaves to externally imposed dogmas and rituals that seal them in ignorance, while some Christians may see the works of the devil binding Hindus to false or incomplete beliefs that deny or ‘water down’ the belief that Christ is the only Messiah.

Even within a given religion, opposing viewpoints can be found about the nature of wisdom. Fundamentalist Christians, for instance, often react strongly against the deeper aspects of Christian mysticism. In fact, some Fundamentalists go as far to say that all mysticism is Satanic.

drifts ...item 1.. Grand Jury's indictment add...

Photo credit: marsmet53 via Flickr

The Protestant Josh McDowell seems to lean in this direction. In his book The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, McDowell notes that there are many types of mysticism but only discusses the alleged errors of the “pantheistic mysticism of the East.”¹ More importantly, his discussion equates the term ‘mysticism’ as if it only applied to Eastern mysticism, particularly that of Zen Buddhism.

McDowell’s argument overlooks the plain fact that a mature discussion on mysticism applies to a wide variety of religious experiences, along with the key question concerning their transcendent origin and ethical orientation. In fact, Catholics and some Protestants take great pains to differentiate interior experiences that are from God and those that are not. Moreover, mystics can variously describe God as being wholly other or as some kind of natural or pantheistic consciousness.

¹ Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999: 643-658.

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Eisai, founder of the Rinzai School of Zen, 12...

Eisai, founder of the Rinzai School of Zen, 12th century. 13:02, 29 January 2005 PHG 281×398 (90634 bytes) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Zen is a Japanese form of Buddhism, introduced to Japan by the monk Eisai (1141-1215 CE).

Dissatisfied with formalistic Buddhism, Esai traveled to China and returned to Japan, bringing home this new form of an older religious practice. Accordingly, the word Zen is derived from the Chinese Ch’an (Ch’an Buddhism), which itself comes from the Sanskrit Dhyāna or Jhāna (advanced contemplative states).¹

Ch’an was apparently introduced to China by the Indian Buddhist missionary Bodhidharma (c. 500 CE).

Zen emphasizes “being here now” in a tranquil state of mind, supposedly untouched by the desires and concerns of worldly life.² The Zen peak experience is called satori, an apparently sudden ego-less flash of illumination. Zen masters use various techniques to try to instill this frame of mind in disciples or, perhaps better put, to dispense with ‘frames of mind.’

The most fundamental method is zazen (Japanese = sitting + absorption). This involves sitting upright in a quiet room, regulating one’s breathing and watching desires and distractions come and go. Another Zen method is the koan. A koan is a seemingly illogical, nonsense verse said to facilitate satori. The koan is said to take a disciple’s awareness beyond the dualistic world of subject and object.

Français : Zazen au dojo

Français : Zazen au dojo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Archery and elaborate tea ceremonies are also used as vehicles leading to the ultimate achievement of ‘no-mind.’

To my mind, the idea of utterly dispensing with ‘frames of mind’ and achieving ‘no-mind’ is a questionable idea. Almost every practicing Buddhist I’ve talked to is so invested in their religious assumptions that to suggest anything otherwise is usually met with a kind of patronizing dismissal. And if pressed, a barrage of ancient Asian concepts and theories usually follows, apparently supporting their particular “truth.”

It seems that folks who believe the fairly common Buddhist claim that individuality and God are both illusory don’t realize that they’ve merely embraced a particular set of all-too-human beliefs. For them, their theories are the simple truth. And some seem to have lost the reflective quality of the mind that arguably contributes to our uniqueness as human beings—not unlike victims of a cult. This, of course, isn’t just an issue with Zen Buddhism. Religious believers of all types may shut out healthy doubt if for some reason it’s too uncomfortable to question further.

Bible science

Bible science (Photo credit: joeflintham)

Over the years of doing | and volunteering at, I’ve met a lot of different types of people thru the web. And whenever some authoritarian (not authority) figure says “This is the truth,” be it a Buddhist monk, a Christian Fundamentalist or a New Age Life Coach, all I see is a big question mark.

¹ It should be stressed that these mental states are considered “advanced” within the traditions from which they sprang. Not everyone sees them as advanced. In fact, some see them as hindrances to “genuine” spirituality.

² I say “supposedly” because oft overlooked by enthusiasts is the fact that many Buddhist monks, not unlike their Catholic counterparts, get money from somewhere, and don’t really have to face the challenges that ordinary people do. And I personally think that, in some cases, this can hinder spiritual development.

Related Posts » Eightfold Path, Heart Sutra, Mantra, Satori

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Ch’an Buddhism

Deutsch: Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ch’an Buddhism is the Chinese equivalent of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Based on the Sanskrit word dhyana, Ch’an apparently was brought to China in the early 6th century by the Buddhist Missionary Bodhidharma (also said to be the first to develop the koan).

Ch’an essentially is a meditation school. While interpretations differ as to the character of its ultimate goal (i.e. Buddha-mind), generally it can be described as a stillness where no distinctions exist between subject and object, good and evil and where emotion is brought to a place of quiescence or indifference. In other words, Ch’an claims to offer a path that leads beyond duality.

These lines sum up Bodhidharma’s teaching:

A special transmission outside the scripture
No dependence upon words or letter
Direct pointing to the soul of man
Seeing into nature and attainment of Buddhahood

It should be noted, however, that Ch’an doesn’t scorn conceptual knowledge. Instead, it tries to avoid excessive intellectualization. This is an important distinction that many Buddhists and, perhaps, Gnostics seem to miss. There’s nothing wrong with thinking and forming concepts, Ch’an says. As human beings we simply must do. And healthy thinking can even extend to trying to map out ultimate concerns—that is, to develop a cosmology. The problem, as Ch’an sees it, is when we cling to intellectual ideas without enough spiritual experience to justify doing so.

Calligraphy of Bodhidharma, “Zen points direct...

Calligraphy of Bodhidharma, “Zen points directly to the human heart, see into your nature and become Buddha”, Hakuin Ekaku, 17th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We find this kind of excessive intellectualization not just in Asian religions, but in any immature fundamentalism where people “think” about what’s right and what is, without any truly elevated experience behind their ideas. These people latch onto or proclaim a pet theory because doing so gives them social comfort and, perhaps, pays the bills (as in fundamentalist organizations that demand or pressure workers to believe in a particular interpretation of sacred scripture).²

Another interesting feature of Ch’an is that its insights do not rely on seated meditation. Instead, a great deal of creative physical activity goes hand in hand with the inner quest.

As D. Howard Smith puts it:

The search for direct communication with the inner nature of things and the vision of a world beyond all opposites led to a great outpouring of creative art in China and Japan.³

So with Ch’an we don’t always find navel gazing meditators who artificially try to remove themselves from all that the world has to offer. Instead, there seems to be more of a creative integration between the contemplative and creative aspects of the human self. This path arguably comes closer to the Hindu ideal of karma-yoga (the yoga of action).

¹ Cited in S. G. F. Brandon, ed., Dictionary of Comparative Religion (1970), p. 186.

² Whether or not these workers actually believe in and privately follow what they outwardly display through their sugar-coated, squeaky clean work personas is another matter altogether.

³ D. Howard Smith in S. G. F. Brandon (1970), p. 187.

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Heart Sutra

Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by Yuan Dynas...

Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by Yuan Dynasty artist and calligrapher Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322 CE) via Wikipedia

The Heart Sutra is the shortest of 40 texts which make up the Prajnaparamitra-sutra, important to Mahayana and Zen Buddhism. It is recited by monks and nuns throughout China, Japan and beyond.

The Heart Sutra contains the famous assertion, “emptiness is form, form is emptiness,” which is often cited in New Age circles and probably taught in just about every undergraduate Oriental philosophy course.

Although this may seem a simplistic, unsophisticated claim, it’s arguably relevant to recent discoveries in sub-atomic physics where matter and energy are observed as two different forms of one mysterious underlying reality.

But this idea cannot account for spiritual experiences (and possible realms) that extend beyond and above that somewhat basic level of cosmic – not heavenly – mystery.

Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra, in the Siddh...

Sanskrit text of the Heart Sutra, in the Siddhaṃ script. Replica of a palm-leaf manuscript dated to 609 CE via Wikipedia

Quite different from Jewish, Islamic and Christian heavens, Buddhist heavens are not taken as everlasting abodes. Buddhist heavens are just so many stops on a road towards the ‘nothingness/fullness’ of Nirvana.

So the oft-overlooked question remains: Are all of the heavens mentioned in different world traditions the same in character and quality?

Some find this simple, straightforward question troubling, preferring to focus on the apparent commonalities among world religions. While this is an admirable approach, one arguably shouldn’t turn a blind eye to religious differences.

Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by scholar an...

Chinese text of the Heart Sutra, by scholar and calligrapher Ouyang Xun, dated 635 CE via Wikipedia

Meanwhile, some tend to embrace politically correct beliefs about religious homogeneity instead of really thinking carefully about religion.

Additionally, we have those who conflate national pride with absolute truth. The semiologist Roland Barthes asked several decades ago, for instance, whether the ‘Holy Spirit’ and the ‘American Spirit’ connote the same thing. Along these lines history reveals that personal imaginings, political correctness and zeal for one’s nation rarely make good bedfellows with the sincere pursuit of truth, not only in religion but in just about any discipline.

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Bodhidharma, woodblock print by Yoshitoshi, 1887.

Bodhidharma, woodblock print by Yoshitoshi, 1887 via Wikipedia

What is the sound of one hand clapping? What is the color of the wind?

These apparently nonsensical questions exemplify the Zen Buddhist koan. Designed to tease the brain, koans push the disciple to reply to a questioning master through intuition instead of conventional logic or accumulated experience.

If the disciple doesn’t get the ‘right’ answer (according to the master’s alleged wisdom) in some Buddhist schools they may be struck by a bamboo rod.

A Freudian thinker might view this as an institutionalized form of sadism and/or masochism that activates a complex which stems from an abusive scene (from childhood or otherwise). Spiritually-minded believers, however, would see that as a simplistic and culturally biased interpretation.

For believers, the koan comes from a legitimate historical and legendary tradition, traceable to the sage Bodhidharma. And its use (and perhaps physical scolding for ‘wrong’ answers) apparently helps the aspirant to achieve satori, which believers say is an ultimate experience that’s difficult to describe.

¹ “Kōans originate in the sayings and events in the lives of sages and legendary figures, usually those authorized to teach in a lineage that regards Bodhidharma (c. 5th–6th century) as its ancestor. Kōans reflect the enlightened or awakened state of such persons and sometimes confound the habit of discursive thought or shock the mind into awareness.” (See

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