Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Articles on Buddhism in the Guardian UK

There has been an interesting set of articles on Buddhism in the Guardian UK over the past few months by Ed Halliwell, a practitioner in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, including:
  • Between the rational and the mystical - What is agnosticism? We neither need an external, creator God, nor to close ourselves off from the spectacular majesty of existence
  • Buddhism and the brain - The Mind and Life conference brings together two powerful ways of understanding mind and its place in the world
  • A sense of self - Could science abolish personalities along with God?:Personality may be an illusion, but not the kind described by materialists like Colin Blakemore
  • Is it always about belief? - The Buddha emphasised that we should not trust the teachings of any faith based on – among other things – scripture, religious authorities, or logical and philosophical reasoning

Rahula Chapter 8 - Buddhism in Today's World

A recording of today's teachings and discussion (from 24th May) of Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught" (second part of chapter 7 on meditation and chapter 8) can be downloaded here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Erosion of Buddhism in the West

The UK Guardian newspaper published an article by Mark Vernon on how buddhism risks erosion in the West because of a pick'n'mix culture, the New Age syncretism that Rinpoche is also very concerned about. That's one of the main reasons we need to study Madhyamika. As Rinpoche says, studying the view allows us to become dharmapalas (dharma protectors), who can ensure that the dharma doesn't fall into the pervasive extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Unless the dharma remains the middle way, it is no longer a path to enlightenment.

Unfortunately, it appears that Vernon has quite an agenda of his own (see So it's perhaps not surprising he's anti-Matthieu Ricard (who, despite Vernon's criticisms, has an authentic lineage as a close student of HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche) and pro-Stephen Batchelor (who, like many "Western buddhists", doesn't believe in karma, reincarnation, etc).

I agree with the argument that you can't pick and choose elements of a path, but that's exactly what Batchelor does, and Vernon seems to be quite happy to overlook this - whereas Ricard presents the whole dharma without leaving anything out. Since karma is the very mechanism of causality and interdependence, a path without karma becomes a nihilist, materialist path. Leaving out karma is a sign that you simply don't understand what it means and its central significance to the path. While you might end up creating something that's attractive and perhaps soothing for the incense-and-self-help crowd, and possibly even sell a lot of books along the way, that's not what authentic dharma is about.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


In the latest issue of The Atlantic, there's a lovely piece by Joshua Wolf Shenk on "What Makes Us Happy?" (hint: money has nothing to do with it!), which is also covered in an article by David Brooks in the New York Times.

It's a remarkable longitudinal study of 268 "promising young men" who entered Harvard College in the late 1930s, including John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee. As Brooks reports:
By any normal measure, they had it made. They tended to be bright, polished, affluent and ambitious. They had the benefit of the world’s most prestigious university. They had been selected even from among Harvard students as the most well adjusted.
And yet
Their lives played out in ways that would defy any imagination save Dostoyevsky’s. A third of the men would suffer at least one bout of mental illness. Alcoholism would be a running plague. The most mundane personalities often produced the most solid success. One man couldn’t admit to himself that he was gay until he was in his late 70s.
So what, if anything, can we learn about happiness? This in-depth, long-term examination explodes most of the simplistic truisms of the current so-called "happiness research" in positive psychology. Instead, it provides a series of remarkable stories of impermanence, change, unpredictability and the sheer impossibility of making predictions about how causes and conditions yield results over the course of a human life. Rinpoche has often said that only MaƱjushri or the Buddha himself can understand the play of karma, and this article provides a welcome relief from the certainties and prescriptions of those who would believe in a predictable, controllable, mechanical world - a "clockwork universe". How much better to embrace the Four Noble Truths and the realisation that samsara is essenceless, and to do one's practice!

Buddhism at Google?

Google is at the forefront of many management, organisational and HR innovations (including developing a remarkable quantitative approach to recruitment), so any leadership development initiative at Google is usually worth paying attention to.

It's therefore noteworthy that Google University now has a "school of personal growth" as one of its four main faculties (the others focus on workplace essentials, leadership development, and Google life and culture). It's run by Chade-Meng Tan, a software engineer who is also a Buddhist, and includes instruction in mindfulness meditation from Norman Fischer, a zen priest and one of the Dharma Heirs of Suzuki Roshi (author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind). Tan said
The school's ethos could be a blueprint for workplace education, as "Google wants to help Googlers grow as human beings on all levels - emotional, mental, physical and 'beyond the self'."
Tan's predecessor, Monika Broeker, notes that - like most things in Google - this program has been subjected to intense quantitative scrutiny to assess its impact:

“If you want executive management support, you better back it up with data,” Broecker said. “We did a lot of research as to the effectiveness of our programs. One of the questions [we researched] was whether we could show that people who had gone through our programs were happier in Google than people who had not gone through our programs. And we definitely had data that showed that this was the case.”

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rahula Chapter 6 - Anatta: The Doctrine of No-Self (part 3) & Chapter 7 - Bhavana (Meditation)

A recording of today's teachings and discussion (from 10th May) of Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught" (part 3 on Chapter 6 and chapter 7) can be downloaded here. Among the topics we covered today:

  • The purpose of meditation and its benefits in cultivating mental health
  • Meditation techniques
  • The two forms of meditation, shamatha and vipashyana, and their relationship to each other and to the view (including "form is emptiness, emptiness is form")
  • Deconstruction and dis-identification from form, feeling, thoughts, references and self - how meditation allows to cultivate egolessness
  • Living in the present moment, losing yourself in your action, flow and positive psychology, creativity and performance

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Is Twitter a path to happiness?

Rinpoche has noted that in the absence of an understanding of the view, many so-called "Western buddhists" seem to rely on rather confused paths. So perhaps it's not entirely surprising that many people seek to justify indulging their everyday samsaric habits as somehow being equivalent to a path to enlightenment. And not, I might add, in the manner of the dzogchen yogi who is happy in any activity. As a rather amusing and ridiculous example of this tendency, here's a blog posting entitled Buddhist Monks Say Twitter Can Lead To Happiness. Needless to say, there's no attempt to back up this rather remarkable claim. In the Madhyamakavatara, Chandrakirti says that relative truth is nothing but "the rumours of cowherds." He'd probably be smiling if he were with us today.

Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness

Rinpoche has often emphasised that view is primary in Buddhism, and ethics and morality are always secondary. They are embraced on the path only to the extent that they support our journey towards realising the view of emptiness. And one of the downfalls of theistic paths is that ethics and discipline can turn into extremism, and then it's no longer helpful but instead descends into self-righteousness, hubris and critical judgment of others. From the article "Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness" in the New York Times:

In recent years, social psychologists have begun to study what they call the holier-than-thou effect. They have long known that people tend to be overly optimistic about their own abilities and fortunes — to overestimate their standing in class, their discipline, their sincerity.

But this self-inflating bias may be even stronger when it comes to moral judgment, and it can greatly influence how people judge others’ actions, and ultimately their own. Culture, religious belief and experience all help shape a person’s sense of moral standing in relation to others.

Religion appears to amplify the instinct to feel like a moral beacon. The study also found that the most strictly fundamentalist of the students were at the highest end of the scale. "It reminds me of one of my favorite bumper stickers,” said Dr. Epley, of Chicago. “ ‘Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.’

Multitasking is a Myth

From an article on "The Science of Concentration" in the New York Times:
The psychologist William James wrote: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” You can lead a miserable life by obsessing on problems. You can drive yourself crazy trying to multitask and answer every e-mail message instantly.

“Multitasking is a myth,” Ms. Gallagher (author of "Rapt") said. “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.” She points to calculations that the typical person’s brain can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime. “People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.”

Ms. Gallagher advocates meditation to increase your focus.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Rahula Chapter 6 - Anatta: The Doctrine of No-Self (part 2)

A recording of the part 2 of the teachings and discussion on Chapter 6 of Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught" (from 3rd May) can be downloaded here.