Thursday, June 6, 2013

Gold, Mud, And A High Pressure Waterhose

Ciaran (who runs wrote me a guest post in reply of my original post Polishing the Mirror

My comments and thoughts on his guest post:

I think Ciaran has made some good observations there. However, as Buddhism is so wide and vast, what's said here may apply for some and not others. I think the main problem is with the people who expound Buddhism these days, not the core doctrines of Buddhism or with Buddha himself. Because people usually 'get the message' from the messenger rather than the source, if the messenger (the dharma teachers) are able to see the essence and core of the Dharma, and are deeply enlightened, then their expressions of the teachings will be extreme clear. The 'students' will be led to clarity instead of confusion.

If not, then they are simply teaching a kind of watered down Buddhism that leads to good psychological benefits but doesn't really lead to liberation, so the benefits are actually just 'surface benefits', they may go around the Dharma in circles but don't strike the heart of it. It doesn't lead to deep clarity. And unfortunately there are many of such watered-down dharma teachings out there these days. But not all are like that.

Personally I've seen Buddhist teachers/teachings that are IMO extremely clear and some who are not as clear. I am very glad that in this life I'm able to meet some of the extremely clear teachers of Dharma. Because of this I am able to discern what the view is, what the path is, what the realization is, what the experience is, what the result is.

If you, as a reader, are interested in learning and practicing Dharma, I hope that you will find a teacher with deep clarity.

Ciaran's article:

Gold, Mud, And A High Pressure Waterhose

First things first – thank you for taking the time to respond to the article I wrote, and also for allowing me this space to respond to it on your blog.  I am always very happy to get responses from people, and although the comments section of my site is only for paid subscribers, I do read everything that gets posted through.

Trying to think how to respond to this, and I suppose the best way would probably be to step back from everything and give you a bit of an overview of what it is I'm doing, and why it's perhaps a little different to more normal approaches to all this stuff.

I am not a sage, nor a holy man.  I'm a philosopher.  My work developed directly from Western philosophy, but from a quite poorly known and relatively hidden part of it.

Most people (especially from an Eastern thought background) when they think of Western philosophy, think of an obsession with logic and labels, with system building and, well, let's be blunt, mental masturbation.

Largely speaking, they are right.  This is, in fact, what has happened (in my opinion, of course), to the overwhelming bulk of modern Western philosophy.  There's no putting a brave face on it – in very large part it is dross. 

The worst part is, it's really, really complicated dross that looks really clever from the outside.  If I were being even less charitable than I'm already not being, I would probably describe most modern Western philosophy as an exercise in intellectual intimidation.

Basically, if you have a problem with the Western approach to philosophy, odds are you're probably either right, or even more right than you realise.  It is a mess.


The Western tradition is a very big tradition.  It's coming from a very, very different angle than Eastern thought – obviously – but think about this.  Honesty converges. 

It doesn't really matter what your starting point is, if you get a compass and head North, you will eventually end up at the North Pole.  The same thing is true when following truth.  

And there is a small, neglected, unseen and hidden part of the Western tradition that does exactly this.  I could go into more detail about it, but there's no real need – the standard book on it is a piece called Confessions Of A Philosopher by Bryan Magee.  Buy it, read it.  Just do it, take the hit, it's an amazing piece.

What makes it so good is that Magee is an amazing distiller of thought.  He goes through all the notoriously difficult-to-understand work of the West, and just distils it into this incredibly clear stream of insight.

But that's not why I (and I alone) rate that man as the best Western philosopher of the 20th Century.  I rate him so highly because of two conclusions he comes to.  One is that the distinction between reality and appearance – core to the work of Schopenhauer – is the 'high-watermark' of Western thought.

That this is the place, this is the area.  This is as far as we've gotten in the West, and everything since then has been a step sideways or a step backward. 

The other thing is this – that there is a new method.  Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, was able to strip the scientific process down to such a simplicity that you could, in principle, use it to chart the contour and core of human irrationality itself.

This isn't something Popper ever actually did, the idea to take Popper's work on science, and focus it into human madness – that was Magee's insight, and a hell of an insight, if you don't mind me saying.

This is what I do.  If you can understand what I've written here, you can understand exactly what I do.  And where Eastern thought (including Buddha's work, Hui Neng's work, Lao Tze's work, the Upanishads, etc) comes in is that when you get past all the strange words they use (prajna, samadhi, satori, etc) there is a stunning level of what I can only really describe as forensic charting of the absolute core of delusion, pain, suffering and joy.

I'm not a Buddhist – I'm a philosopher.  But when I look at Buddha's work, I rate that as some of the best philosophy that's ever been written, by anyone, ever.  I see Hui Neng as taking that, and making it even more simple, even clearer.

This movement away from complexity, toward simplicity.  This is what philosophy must do to be worth anything.  There's a great quote that I think is from Einstein that really nails this:

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex... It takes a touch of genius - and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

Now, there's something you should really understand when I write things like “this is the big problem with Buddhism.”

It's not an insult that I do that.  It's the biggest compliment I can give.  It means that I take that line of thought seriously, I think there is real and serious content in what that man said.  Serious enough that we can drop all the reverence, take off the kid gloves, put on the knuckle-dusters and beat it senseless... and there's something in it that we cannot ever destroy.

This is a very different approach to what is normal – I realise that.  The ideas from Popper and Magee work like this – if you think a thing is true, don't protect it.  Don't revere it.  If it's true, it doesn't need reverence.  And moreover...

If it's true, and you hit it, and work it, and keep striking it, you'll 'knock off' all the bits that aren't really relevant.  All the complexities that have built up over the ages.

And this is quite a good way to understand why it is I believe, as I do, that this new approach, fusing the best of East and West, has more potential than either alone.

Eastern thought has been knocking around for some time now, Mr Anderson.

3000+ years for the Upanishads, 2500+ years for Buddism, 1300+ for Zen. 

Now think about this.  Strip it right down and ask yourself – all those hundreds of generations.  Were they all free of delusion? 

And I'm not talking about the few people who got it – and there were people who did, of course, there's no point in denying that.  Eastern thought isn't just deep – it's about as deep as deep goes.


If you think of every mind that it has had to pass through to get to you – for instance, all the people who recited the Diamond Sutra for many decades, perhaps even centuries, before it was ever written down – do you think that the insights are going to come through that process completely clean?

I would say, no.  They're not magic.  None of this is.  It's reality, and the contour of reality, or it's worth nothing, and has no value.

So what have we got?

Mud.  If I could sum it up in a single word, it would be that.  If I needed to sum it up in two words, it would be 'muddy gold.'

No malice, no evil – it's not that wicked people decided to make a fudge of things.  It's that normal people decided to do the best they could to keep this stuff alive – but the best they could do was insufficient to keep that original brilliance clean of dogma, assumption and magical thinking.  Mud, basically.

And there is one thing I'd raise about what you say.  I don't think there was something present 2500 years ago that made Buddhism work better than it does today.

I'd say there's something here today that wasn't there 2500 years ago.  Specifically, 2500 years worth of reverence, dogma, and the collected teachings of well-intentioned, and very profound people who did not see it with the level of clarity Buddha did.

That's what's present that's making it less effective.  And how effective can it be?

I remember sections from the Platform Sutra where Hui Neng is talking to collected crowds of hundreds of people.  And he just frees them all.  The audience.  The whole audience.  In one go.

Maybe it's just myth – but maybe not.  Perhaps if we can strip this right down to the bone, there'll be something that won't just help a few, but can change the very terms of life on Earth.  And not in a thousand lifetimes.  In our lifetime.  Today.

Now of course, you're absolutely right when you say that the Buddhist canon contains every single insight anyone could possibly ever need to make this happen.

But it's very, very big.  And all these insights have the hallowed sheen of reverence upon them, and there are thousands of them.  Thousands upon thousands of commentaries, gurus, sages – many of whom are amazing people with incredible depth.

But then, depth isn't what Eastern thought lacks, is it?  It's clarity.

The pure crystal clarity on all this stuff.  Not 1000 different insights that you need to hold up like 1000 spinning plates.  Just one insight, just one, just one that works.

You can of course say – I didn't say that!  And no, you didn't.  But if you want to get people free, it's not about you.  It's not about how innocent you are.  It's not enough to point to this guy or that in all the many thousands of people who have spoken well on all this, and say “Ah, but this guy said this here.”

I'm sure he did.  But he also said a bunch of other stuff.  As did a lot of other people.

Less is more.

People don't need the Encyclopaedia Buddhica.  They need very clear, very straight instructions that speak directly to the core in crystal clear language.

The deep simplicity that underlies all situations.

We are all the same distance from eternity.

You need to have faith that there's enough reality in Buddhism that it can stand a bit of a knock.  That it won't collapse, that it won't fall apart.  It's tougher than it's serene smile might lead you to believe.  That you can look at it with an absolutely baleful eye, as critical as you like, and as long as you remain honest, you will not find it unworthy of looking at.

And may I speak plainly?  Buddhism is amazing.  But it's a mess.  I love you, I love Buddha, I think the guy was one of the most significant people who has ever lived, I'm not lying, I really do.

But you have 2500 years worth of mud caked on this.  It doesn't need more caveats.  It doesn't need more sophistication.  It doesn't need more depth, and it doesn't need defending.  It is tough enough to defend itself.

What it needs a high-pressure waterhose.  That's what the West can bring to the East.  And that's all it needs to bring, I believe, to create something far more potent than has ever existed before.

This is what I try to do.  It can look very disrespectful, but once you understand it, you realise that in that, at least, it is a topsy-turvy thing. 

The more I hit something, the more you can be assured that I believe there is something in it that cannot break.

I thank you for your indulgence in letting me write this guest post, and I wish you all the best.  We are brothers, you and I, and I hope that when we jostle up against each other, we both understand that what we are trying to do is by far the most insane, ridiculous, and (in my opinion at least) worthwhile thing that can be done.

God help us.

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