Death By Buddhism Part 2: In Which Brad Admits He Was Definitely Wrong About One Thing and Possibly Wrong About Some Others

MJ Gibbs said:
“Here is something I will throw out there. What if Brad had a close public Zen relationship with a student and that student suddenly went bonkers during a retreat? How responsible is Brad for such a thing happening? Should he be criticized or should the student be criticized or both? Plus, what if that student used to be Brad’s lover and left him for another student, that would make their teacher/student relationship even stranger.

I’ve been thinking along these lines myself and thinking that perhaps I was a little too harsh on Michael Roach. I know so little about him I actually had to go back and look at my previous blog posting just now to be sure I was remembering his name correctly. I feel like I might have been overly influenced by the NY Times’ portrayal of events.

It still appears to me that something pretty odd was happening at this retreat. People don’t usually wind up dead at Buddhist retreats. They’re generally not that dangerous. And that deal with Roach and his now ex-wife never being more than 15 feet apart? That’s just weird. That speaks to a whole level of generalized weirdness that I’m not sure I even want to know about. Just the mere fact that he did that and then decided to make a big PR event out of it. There’s something strange afoot.

On the other hand, every Buddhist teacher I’ve ever known (including me) has had to deal with mentally unstable people who are attracted to our practice. I think we all try to do our best with those people. We don’t want to just simply send them away. Some of us think we can help more than we actually can, and we go further than we really should. Sometimes it takes a big incident to make it very clear that we can’t handle certain people.

In Crooked Cucumber, David Chadwick’s magnificent biography of Shunryu Suzuki, there’s a story about how Suzuki’s first wife was murdered by a monk who was studying with Suzuki. This happened in Japan long before Suzuki came to America, by the way. Suzuki knew this monk was nutty. But he thought he could help and he really didn’t understand just how nutty the guy was. The end was tragic and Suzuki never really forgave himself for it.

Given that, it’s perhaps too much to simply blame Mr. Roach for the death of his ex-wife’s new husband. It is conceivable that something like this could happen even at a very standard Buddhist retreat. It’s difficult to know just how weird things were getting on this retreat simply by reading what the NY Times has to say and what Mr. Roach has to say in his defense. Both sources of information are less than ideal, to say the least. And I’m not interested enough to launch a thorough investigation into the matter. I’m sure that will be done by someone much more qualified anyway.

Furthermore, I was wrong in saying that three year retreats were unorthodox. I did not know until after I posted the article that such retreats are normal in the Tibetan tradition. Yet I still find the word “retreat” problematic. Because, to me, a retreat implies a rather intensive practice and I continue to believe that it’s better to limit the amount of time one does such intensive practices. From what I’m hearing, though, the usual practice on such three year retreats in mainstream Tibetan Buddhism isn’t all that intensive. It’s not like a three year sesshin (3, 5, or 7 day Zen intensives where one does zazen pretty much all day every day). They sound more like what is usually called a training period in Zen, where one lives in a monastery and devotes oneself to practice and study often for three years, but there are opportunities for more normal sorts of socialization and suchlike.

It appeared to me that what was being described in Mr. Roach’s case was a three year meditation intensive, which would be enough to make anyone go kind of buggy. Perhaps I was wrong about that. Though I still feel like something just doesn’t smell right here. The language Mr. Roach uses to describe the object of the retreat as a “laboratory of solitary retreat (where participants hope to) realize the final goal taught by Lord Buddha” still sounds way off base. This, to me, implies a rather macho, go-getter attitude that I think can only lead to trouble.

On the other hand, I still feel that the bigger problem remains. Buddhism is becoming increasingly trendy in the West. As this happens, more and more people will jump on the bandwagon with their own oddball variations. I’ve been accused of doing so myself, though I’m also often accused of being too stodgy and conservative in my approach.

I’m not so sure anymore that Mr. Roach really does teach a kind of “prosperity theology” Buddhism. Although I do know for a fact that the prosperity theology philosophy is already being applied to Buddhism as well as other Eastern religions with a great degree of financial success. My friend Blake said, “Middle class white people who talk about ‘abundance’ and ‘prosperity’ make me want to laugh at and punch them at the same time.” I feel that way sometimes too. And if you hang out with the “I’m into Eastern spirituality” crowd for more than ten minutes you’ll hear those words a whole lot.

Anyway, the upshot of this post is to say that perhaps (perhaps) I spoke too soon about Mr. Roach. But I’m too busy packing for my cross country move on Friday to devote the amount of time and energy required to investigate it thoroughly.

Jeez. I really have to go pack.

96 Responses

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  1. blake
    blake June 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm |

    It’s about time I get recognized for my brilliance! *cough*

  2. Harry
    Harry June 11, 2012 at 3:54 pm |

    At least the Right Wing knows to an extent what the Wrong Wing is doing.



  3. tera dactil
    tera dactil June 11, 2012 at 4:45 pm |

    Some additional background: before this bizarre tragedy, Mr Roach’s unconventional marriage to the now-widowed woman was emulated by Slate staff writers David Plotz and Hannah Rosin. Coincidental that this came out roughly the same time.

    Everything about Roach seems, well, odd. I’ll just say that.

  4. Justin
    Justin June 11, 2012 at 5:34 pm |

    I’ve had a few experiences with people who were probably not entirely stable. I’ve learnt to temper my desire to help them. I had a former student who wanted to learn the particular contemplative practice I teach in order to help with depression, but the student neglected to mention that they stopped seeing a therapist and taking prescribed medications after starting to learn with me.

    I try to tell people who ask me if meditation can help with depression or other issues that the answer is maybe.

  5. Seagal Rinpoche
    Seagal Rinpoche June 11, 2012 at 5:47 pm |

    Master your words.
    Master your thoughts.
    Never allow your body to do harm.
    Follow these three roads with purity
    And you will find yourself upon the one way,
    The way of wisdom

  6. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi June 11, 2012 at 6:07 pm |

    Having defended Roach somewhat in the last post, I have to criticize him here. While he’s not directly responsible for this guy’s death (it didn’t even happen during the retreat, or on their property), Roach is definitely responsible for a kind of extreme sports approach to Buddhism that seems to have both attracted and infected his followers.

    It’s an American problem overall, in that people have got the idea these days that taking things to the extreme is the way to make them authentic and real. Roach’s followers were probably thinking that hum-drum ordinary Buddhism isn’t “authentic” enough for them, and that if you want to be a “real Buddhist”, you have to go all-in, take it to the full extreme, and if you burn out, well, that’s the price you pay for having tried to be authentic. Ordinary mainstream Buddhism, the thinking goes, is fine if you just want to be a conventional religious guy, but if you want real enlightenment, you need to go the extra mile and become an extremist. So a three year silent meditation retreat sounds perfectly reasonable and even necessary to demonstrate one’s authenticity. And not the ordinary three year retreat like they do in Vajrayana, but an extreme three year retreat has to be done, to get authentic results.

    I think you can see this pattern in a lot of Roach’s teachings over the years. He was trained in the traditional manner, but he seems to have increasingly left that behind in favor of more extreme methods and views. Out of dissatisfaction, I gather, with “ordinary” Buddhism. He seems to have forgotten the first noble truth – that life (and that includes spiritual life) is unsatisfying – and it isn’t made satisfying by craving satisfaction from it. It also seems to forget the whole principle of “the middle way” that eschews extremes of all kinds.

  7. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs June 11, 2012 at 6:15 pm |

    Glad to hear (actually read) your views on my theoretical question, Brad. I never heard that story about Suzuki Roshi before, that’s crazy. I have Crooked Cucumber. It’s probably time for me to break it open and read it.

    Still interested in hearing your thoughts on my question about Karma and Buddhist Morality being a a sort of “prosperity” practice? I’ll post it again in case you want to take a stab at it.


    I’m really interested in what the difference is between prosperity theology and karma in relation to Buddhist morality.

    Brad — would you agree that the Buddhist view of Karma is that unmoral actions have negative effects and moral actions have positive effects. For instance, in Sex, Sin, and Zen, you say “The karma of sex also comes from your past. A lot of people stress out big-time over how to find true romance or at least how to find some quick nookie. They do all kinds of things to try and make it happen. But your past actions determine to a large degree whether or not that will be possible.”

    So are you saying that because the way you behaved in the past effects your ability to currently find romance or nookie and if so, are you also implying you can create the right karmic actions to receive more romance or nookie in the future?

    Aren’t Buddhist acting moral based on karma, so they will suffer less and be more happy in the future? Could you explain your view of karma in more detail?

    I also feel this relates to the no goal topic? Though Zazen has no goal and one may just sit with no goal during Zazen. There is still something motivating someone to sit their ass on the cushion and stare at the wall everyday with no goal. Whether that motivation is to maintain balance or balance the atomic nervous system, the motivation to sit with no goal is still based on a goal?

    If I recall correctly, Shohaku Okumura said something like you may be trying to get somewhere, but you can’t get there just by thinking about where you are trying to go and actually get there. You have to take one step after another. You need to concentrate on each step to get there. I might have butchered what he said, but that is how I remember it. Daily Zazen is concentrating on each step as you take it. It does no good to fantasize what it would be like when you get there, and I will add, because what it will be like when you get there will probably look nothing like what you thought it would look like.

    So it seems to me Zazen is a goalless practice that will lead to balance, but you can’t have balance as a goal to be balanced, and the more balanced you are the more you will understand karma and morality, and the better you understand karma and morality, the better you can do the right action in the present moment to have a life of less suffering and be more happy.

    Isn’t there still a hint of prosperity in that?

    Why does Buddhist philosophy have to be so damned complicated? lol.

  8. Fred
    Fred June 11, 2012 at 6:29 pm |,110112

    “Not every rupture in Roach’s world is political or theological. McNally separated herself from Roach in 2008 or 2009, who was shortly thereafter seen swanked up in Armani and hitting the Manhattan clubs with Russian models. McNally soon partnered with Thorson, and began making charismatic inroads into the New York yoga scene, teaming up to teach wholly fictional “ancient Tibetan asana practices for reaching spiritual goals using a partner.”

    I remember Ian Thorson from perhaps two hundred classes and lectures across America, Europe, and India between 1998 and 2000. He was thin and wispy, underfed and protein deficient, perhaps anemic, with impeccable lotus posture, and distant, unfocussed, entranced eyes. He’d sit right up at the front of any teaching, his eyes rolled back, clothes unwashed, hair tousled, by turns elated and catatonic in his trance. I ate rice and dal with him at the same table at Sera Mey monastery in Bylakuppe for a month in 1999. We talked philosophy and the esoteric for the short spurts in which he could hold conversational attention. He complained that his family could never understand him. I had the impression he came from wealth—he graduated Stanford—but he was always bumming money and rides. I don’t remember him asking me a single question about my life, or lifting a finger to help any of the hordes of women devotees setting up the lecture halls or tea or whatnot. Altogether he seemed tragically self-absorbed. He had a girlfriend named Beatrice in those days. By the end of the India trip she was pregnant. I don’t know what happened to her. I think she ended up returning to Germany with the baby. Baby must be about twelve now, and I wonder if he or she has substantial knowledge of daddy, and whether and how his death will be known to them.

    There was something strange going on with Ian. During every teaching he displayed severe and rattling kriyas—spontaneous bursts of internal energy that jagged up his spine, snapped his head back sharply, and made him gasp or hiccup or yelp or bark. At the time I took these tremors to be signs of kundalini openness, but now I see them as bursts of neurological misfiring induced by zealous meditative abstraction and cognitive self-referentiality. There were always a bunch of kriya-kids at Roach’s feet, with Ian at the centre. Roach seemed to pay them no mind, which normalized their jitterbugging to the rest of us, who I believe felt vaguely insecure that our own evolutionary prowess failed to bestow such outward signs. The kriya-kids all sat up front, and Roach looked over them to the more mundane sea of the hoi polloi, as if to say: Do you see the power I have over those who truly surrender to me? I occasionally felt my own mirror neurology shudder in Ian’s presence. But I put a lid on it, preferring to enjoy the conductivity of my inner body alone in the forests of Vermont, where I lived in between Manhattan or California or Galway intensives.”

  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 12, 2012 at 1:21 am |

    Good luck with the packing and moving, Brad.

    Fred, that was an interesting read. I liked Michael Roach’s story about the person who thought they were hearing an angel and it turned out to be Ian Thorson singing in a tent in the desert.

    I guess I surmised on the last comment thread that the reason they practice so much zazen at Antaiji might be connected with a need to prove themselves to the Japanese public as legitimate heirs of Dogen (in keeping with Dogen’s recollection of his teacher’s remarks in “Zanmei o zanmei”). Or maybe when you cut out the chanting and the ceremonies, the names of the buddhas and the repentances, there’s not that much left to do besides zazen?

    This statement caught my eye on Michael Roach’s open letter:

    “And we are determined that our University will be a place of refuge and enlightenment for many more generations of students to come.”

    Other folks have written about how people are attracted to Zen centers and other centers of Eastern spiritual practice because they don’t get along that well in society, and they hope they can find a refuge and pursue a higher goal behind the walls of the retreat center. I owe a debt to those who preserved the texts of the Pali Canon, and the texts of the Zen masters of China and Japan, and who continued the practice of sitting cross-legged on the roots of trees or on a zafu. My own attempts to find refuge and work on enlightenment left me right back on the street looking for work, and I always figured that was for the best.

    It’s funny that Kobun would say something like “take your time with the lotus”. Was that because he could see there was nothing he could teach us in that regard, even though he was regarded by everyone who met him as a master of Zen meditation?

  10. Andrew
    Andrew June 12, 2012 at 2:05 am |

    lol comments by the sane

    now for the mad ; o )

    a good  interview  with shunryu suzuki, he really has a different view, perhaps some of the bullshit artists on this blog (ed. hcz) can see where they are going wrong by comparision>

    not flowery, flakey or ornate but a practical discursion of his life yet all most all the commenters here on hcz do nothing put spew forth specious bullshit and totally conceal any aspect of who they are or how they live

    what is brad warners appeal? he is not afraid to be himself and write about it, but commenters here take the opposite tack, but being a hermit crab won’t  save  you from the mantis  shrimp !

    brad may come across as weak but one thing i have learnt about him is he can tolerate levels of criticism that would fell a a platoon of marines and that’s not weak !

  11. lcrane1
    lcrane1 June 12, 2012 at 8:56 am |

    I think it can be very difficult, and often contrary to my precious fantasies, to separate the thesis of a a teach from the culture from which it emerges. Even Dogen spoke of Gods. There is a huge mystique (in my experience) in Asian culture for the uber-monk. And yet I do not see it supported in the arch of Buddha’s teachings. Sitting for long periods in isolation, is not, after all, one of the four noble truths.

    Indeed, since we carry the world we perceive in our minds, I don’t wonder if isolation with a potentionaly harmful mind view, unintruded by the mundane regularities of more moderate life like knocks at the door, a job, and paying bills, would not contribute to a mind-knot getting tighter rather than relaxing. (probably to many negatives in that sentence but I can’t sort them out).

    I often wonder if the benefit to Buddha or Bhodhidharma in their reputed long periods of sitting came from their decision to give it up as non-productive. Each thought “wow, this has been a collossal waste of my time. What am I really doing this for”, and bam, they realized something important.

    After reading “Eat, Sit, Sleep” I’m convinced they are chasing Buddhist machismo at Eihei Ji. It certainly ain’t no middle way, and it doesn’t seem much use to run of the mill sentient beings everyone keeps vowing to save.

  12. lcrane1
    lcrane1 June 12, 2012 at 8:58 am |

    *of a teaching

  13. DysfunctionJunktion
    DysfunctionJunktion June 12, 2012 at 10:32 am |

    Funny that Mr Warner was teaching here about 3 year retreats without ever having heard that they are a common practice in Tibetan Buddhism. Better take a history book at hand than eating hamburgers

  14. tera dactil
    tera dactil June 12, 2012 at 10:56 am |

    Brad: I’m glad you got the photo/avatar thing to work on here. Really. Because that pic is badass.

  15. Jazz
    Jazz June 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm |

    From the Perspective of the Mentally Unstable:
    Been reading for quite a while, but with the new site and all, thought I’d finally comment.

    I struggle with Bi-polar (rapid cycle and ultra-rapid cycle) and major anxiety disorder. I would certainly consider myself… crazier than some. Yet I’m fortunant to remain sane enough to constantly be on alert. I know that I COULD snap, and I know when I’m more likely to and when it’s less of an issue.

    Any responsible, unstable person knows what situations to put themselves in and what to avoid. Would I ever consider a 3-year retreat? Hell no. That’s a recipe for disaster. It would be irresponsible to endanger myself, and others in that way.

    Of course, without looking into it, I assume this person was much farther gone and incapable of such realizations. But from the point of teacher/student responsibility when it comes to unstable minds, there is shared weight.

    I’d like to join the military one day. Will I? Probably not. I’m not the type of person who should be given a gun. One day, I might be. And one day, I’ll hopefully be to the point where I believe myself stable enough to begin attending weekend long, and week long retreats. Maybe even month long ones.

    I suppose the point of this is that there’s shared responsibility, but the student is the only one who knows their own situation. A responsible person assesses themselves. And a responsible teacher should look for that trait in a person, especially those who admit to mental difficulties.

  16. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 12, 2012 at 12:51 pm |

    Gautama the Buddha, so far as I know, taught that willful action results in karma. He further taught that willful activity of speech, of body, and of mind ceases gradually as the meditative states unfold.

    Here is a declension that is mostly ignored, I suppose because most folks can’t conceive of deeds or actions without the exercise of will (except in those instances where Bela Lugosi has made them a zombie):

    “Where there have been deeds… personal weal and woe arise in consequence of the will there was in the deeds. Where there has been speech, where there has been thought, personal weal and woe arise in consequence of the will there was in the speech, in the thought.

    Either we ourselves… plan those planned deeds conditioned by ignorance, whence so caused arises personal weal and woe, or others plan those planned deeds that we do conditioned by ignorance, whence so conditioned arises personal weal and woe. Either they are done deliberately, or we do them unwittingly. Thence both ways arises personal weal and woe. So also is it where there has been speech, where there has been thought. Either we plan, speaking, thinking deliberately, or others plan, so that we speak, think unwittingly. Thence arises personal weal and woe. In these six cases ignorance is followed after.

    But from the utter fading away and cessation of ignorance… those deeds are not, whence so conditioned arises personal weal and woe. Neither is that speech, nor that thought. As field they are not, as base they are not; as wherewithal they are not; as occasion they are not, that so conditioned might arise personal weal and woe.” (SN II 40-41, Pali Text Society vol 2 pg 31-32).

    To recap, “personal weal and woe arise in consequence of the will there was in the deeds.”

    And this is the trick all along, how do I act in the absence of will, and if I discover the witness of my action in the absence of volition, how do I live in our society? Is my life ruined? Will I become a homeless monk, drifting here and there according to the dictates of some subconscious Bela Lugosi (comb hair, go!)? Or will I become a punk rocker, able to spin a tune in the absence of willful direction as I enter a Houdini-like state of absorption?

    Meanwhile, since I’m not necessarily in a meditative state all the time, I’m still engaged in willful activity of body, speech and mind, still creating karma. Maybe if we give things up until we die in the desert, we will arrive at a place where “there are no latent conceits that ‘I am the doer, mine is the doer with regard to this consciousness-informed body” (MN III 18-19, PTS vol 3 pg 68), but it doesn’t seem like it’s a sure thing to me.

    Besides, do we not owe it to the other sentient beings on this planet to get our act together as a society? Should we not aim toward a kind of fun that anyone can partake in at any time, as opposed to refuge and enlightenment? Thanks.

  17. Fred
    Fred June 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm |

    “Gautama the Buddha, so far as I know, taught that willful action results in karma. He further taught that willful activity of speech, of body, and of mind ceases gradually as the meditative states unfold”

    I wrote yesterday, that there is no karma because there is no ” you “. It did not
    appear here.

    These people speak of prosperity, but they live in huts in the desert with
    scorpions, rattlers, drug runners and desperate illegals, not speaking for
    months, and avoiding each other.

  18. Fred
    Fred June 12, 2012 at 1:27 pm |

    “Should we not aim toward a kind of fun that anyone can partake in at any time, as opposed to refuge and enlightenment?”

    Two as one = ” the self as no self upon the absolute “

  19. Darrin
    Darrin June 12, 2012 at 3:07 pm |

    “On the other hand, every Buddhist teacher I’ve ever known (including me) has had to deal with mentally unstable people who are attracted to our practice. I think we all try to do our best with those people. We don’t want to just simply send them away. Some of us think we can help more than we actually can, and we go further than we really should. Sometimes it takes a big incident to make it very clear that we can’t handle certain people.” Quote from Brad

    I just wanted to point out that the mentally unstable person we’re talking about here was a senior teacher with these folks. I would think that someone would have figured this out way before any of this happened.

  20. Darrin
    Darrin June 12, 2012 at 3:16 pm |

    You know I thought I was wrong once, but then I realized I was mistaken. 🙂

  21. Ted
    Ted June 12, 2012 at 6:48 pm |

    Ian was sweet, willful, and not very considerate. He was extremely intelligent. He refused to wear glasses, even though he was nearsighted, so he tended to have a very unfocused look about him. He never respected boundaries, and made a habit of crashing Dharma teachings when people tried to charge for teachings. He was exasperating, and also a joy. The way he died was very consistent with his character: when told not to do something, he did it anyway, without considering the consequences, because he considered what he was doing more important than the rules.

    Is he someone we ought to emulate? I don’t think so, or I’d be emulating him. But I am very sad that he is gone. And I don’t feel qualified to criticize the choices he made, other than that there were definitely times when I wished he’d help out more at the Dharma center. But he wasn’t the only student who I felt didn’t help out enough, and anyway, who am I to judge? I would happily have him back and sitting around smiling and not helping out, than gone from my life.

    FWIW, the retreaters are in permitted, inspected houses with toilets, kitchens, running water, and in many case solar panels to run lights. Refrigerators operate off of natural gas, for the most part, although at least two of the retreat houses have electric refrigerators. A lot of the retreaters have iPads that they keep their libraries on. They are not living in primitive huts in the desert.

    The mud hut you see in the picture in the New York Times story is a demo hut that’s outside of the retreat boundaries. It was built to test earth bag construction techniques. Nobody lives there, but one of the retreaters, who built it, likes to paint things in vibrant colors and decorate them, and that’s why it looks the way it does.

    Different retreaters do different practices, but in general I would expect that most of them are doing on the order of two hours of zazen-style meditation practice daily, as well as additional visualization practices, yoga, and just sitting around. The main purpose of the daily activities (IMHO, I’m not saying this as a Dharma teacher) is to keep the mind from getting completely loopy from lack of activity, while at the same time avoiding external stimulus, so that when one sits, one can get very deeply into meditation without a lot of the mental noise that’s generated from daily activity coming up.

    The reason to meditate for so long is that you start to forget your life. I don’t mean you can’t think back and recall it, but that it falls out of your working set—the stuff that you think about spontaneously. So if there are things that routinely piss you off, you lose that routine. If there are self-destructive modes of thinking, you stop thinking that way, because there’s nothing to reinforce them. Ideally, you don’t look in a mirror, so you lose track of what you look like, and in doing so, stop that kind of self-criticism.

    This isn’t a practice that I would expect everyone to be excited about doing, but it’s a real practice, done deliberately to get real results that people do actually experience when they do it, just like you get real results when you have a steady zazen practice, or do a Zen retreat.

    The experience of sitting in silence for extended periods can be incredibly sweet, or if your mind is in a really bad place, it can also be extremely difficult and stressful. So it’s definitely not for everyone. But you can say that about just about anything you might spend three years doing. I have no desire to go on active military duty and be in a war zone for years, but people choose to do it, and want to do it.

    It’s all part of life’s rich pageant.

  22. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 12, 2012 at 7:12 pm |


    You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s painfully obvious that you’re just “winging it.”

    1. Jazz
      Jazz June 12, 2012 at 8:55 pm |

      Please do not use quotes for emphasis. All it does is contribute to the decline of our language and highlight the fact that you troll as an Anon.

  23. Rich
    Rich June 12, 2012 at 8:36 pm |

    Ted, thanks for sharing your experience. While diamond university is not my style its not as extreme as I thought. Can you shed any light on his teacher/wife?

  24. Jazz
    Jazz June 12, 2012 at 8:53 pm |

    Yes, thank you for your input. Ignore Anonymous. Anons are just haters.

  25. Jazz
    Jazz June 12, 2012 at 8:54 pm |

    Haters and trolls.

  26. Fred
    Fred June 12, 2012 at 8:57 pm |

    If you do mindfulness 16 hours a day, is it extreme?

    Dogen said that you study the self to forget the self.

    The problem with immersion in in a practice that has no substance, that is
    mere words without substance, is that you come to believe the nonsense
    being spouted. And calling the material a university course borders on insanity.

  27. Jinzang
    Jinzang June 12, 2012 at 9:00 pm |

    But this phenomenon of making Buddhism harder so as to be more authentic is pretty pervasive in America.

    I think taht’s more a Zen thing than a general Buddhist thing. In Tibetan Buddhism people tend to whine and complain about difficult practice: “Oh, ecery time I do ten prostrations my back gives out.” And I think it’s a self-reinforcing cycle: Zen is macho because it’s mostly male and it’s mostly male because it’s macho.

  28. Ted
    Ted June 12, 2012 at 10:58 pm |

    I haven’t seen Christie and Ian since before the retreat started, at their wedding. They were radiant and sweet. It was a blustery day out at Montauk point, but despite the weather the ceremony was lovely.

    My experience of Christie is of a very smart person, a serious student, very strong-willed and stubborn, with an open and compassionate heart. I’ve been to teachings she’s given, and she knows her stuff and teaches it well. She can be spellbinding—if someone wants to put her on a pedestal, the raw material is there to make it easy. I wouldn’t characterize her relationship with Ian that way, though—they both started with Geshe Michael at the same time, and I always got the sense that there was a strong connection between them, even before the first three year retreat.

    I think when you look at the letter she sent out of retreat, there’s an strong tendency to see it as pure insanity. This isn’t surprising, considering the events she describes in the letter, and the fact that it happened in a deep retreat the purpose of which is to alter one’s view of reality. Presumably that’s why the DM board decided that they had to ask Christie and Ian to leave the retreat—the mere fact that someone in retreat says that the scary stuff that happened isn’t a problem doesn’t mean that the people at Mission Control can just say “okay, carry on.”

    So at this point my main concern with Christie is that she has lost someone dear to her, and the press is either painting her as a victim or screaming for her blood. So she gets to mourn the death of her new husband while the world scorns her. Plus she gets to wish, over and over again, that she and he had done something differently.

    Unfortunately, the time for that is in the past. Now Christie has to come to terms with what happened, and we have to either support her as a sister upon whom something terrible has befallen, or scorn her. For me it’s an easy decision: she is still a dear friend, and I am glad to know her, and I wish her the best, and hope to see her again.

  29. Ted
    Ted June 12, 2012 at 11:02 pm |

    Jinzang, I never got the impression that Zen practitioners were hardass, and there seem to be plenty of women at the SFZC, some of whom teach. It seems like a very sweet place. The impression we get of other sanghas as outsiders are usually not very accurate—the only reason I have the impression I do of the SFZC is that I try to stay there when I’m in San Francisco on business. So even though I haven’t talked much with anyone there, I feel like I have gotten to know them a bit. It was pretty overwhelming the first time I stayed there.

  30. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 13, 2012 at 2:26 am |

    Ted, thanks for your comments.

    Where you said, “a deep retreat the purpose of which is to alter one’s view of reality”- that’s an interesting take. Me, my longest sesshin so far was three days, so maybe I’m not qualified to comment on what happens at “a deep retreat”, but I can say that my own aim is to alter everyone’s view of reality, not just my own. I’m the fool that believes everyone already has everything they need, and I already have everything I need, just in waking up and falling asleep. I’m not sure a person can get any closer to that than they already are, every day, but I guess I’m learning some kind of application of waking up and falling asleep when I sit the lotus.

    I guess I’m trying to say that I’m not looking to alter my view of reality, I’m just looking to be where I am from moment to moment, as I think that is the practice of waking up and falling asleep. That we are not always between our ears or behind our eyes is something almost everybody knows, just from falling asleep; that the same is true in the daytime, can be easily experienced. What it has to do with doing nothing, the lotus can teach, even the half-lotus or burmese posture can teach I’m sure.

  31. Fred
    Fred June 13, 2012 at 5:44 am |

    “it happened in a deep retreat the purpose of which is to alter one’s view of reality”

    Ted, a view of reality, is just a view, a clinging to the way a prism bends the light.
    It isn’t emptiness, the ineffable, the unborn and the undead.

    When I watch these videos I see egos in a trance, not the dropping of the

    I can induce a Kundalini state, but it isn’t It. I can induce euphoria, but it isn’t It.
    The mind has been dulled by the promise of freedom, but it hasn’t experienced
    that freedom.

  32. anon 108
    anon 108 June 13, 2012 at 6:07 am |


    You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s painfully obvious that you’re just “winging it.”

    Jazz objects. But I read anonymous’ comment as a clever piece of sarcasm – including the quotes. It’s pretty obvious that Ted does know what he’s talking about and is not “winging” it. Anonymous has crafted an amusing satire of those who would dismiss the views even of people with personal knowledge of a situation.

    Who’s been suckered? What does it all mean? Trolls have their uses.

  33. Fred
    Fred June 13, 2012 at 6:14 am |

    “But this phenomenon of making Buddhism harder so as to be more authentic is pretty pervasive in America.”

    The ego is looking for a way out of its current status, and imagines that an
    altered state is authentic.

    Really, you can change the props and the actors on the stage to give a more
    convincing portrayal, but it is still make believe.

    Trungpa should have written Cutting Through Spiritual Bullshit, and then
    resigned his position before he began the endless fornication and drinking.

  34. Rich
    Rich June 13, 2012 at 7:28 am |

    Ted, thanks for commenting and sharing about Christie. Nobody really knows what happened between Christie and Ian. Her story about not even being aware of stabbing him is incredulous. But regardless of what she did or didn’t do she has suffered two of the biggest losses in life – that of her husband and being banned/exiled/rejected by the group that her entire identity is with. I hope she recovers from this and with support and her true practice she can.

  35. Ted
    Ted June 13, 2012 at 9:40 am |

    Rich, to be clear, nobody has rejected Christie, and she’s still welcome in our group. The board says that they asked her and Ian to leave because they were worried about ongoing domestic violence, not because they were rejecting her. I really hope that she doesn’t feel banned, exiled or rejected, but you may be right that she does.

    Mark, you’ve probably heard people say “you’re already enlightened, you have the Buddha nature.” I generally roll my eyes when I hear this—if I were enlightened, wouldn’t I know it? But the point is that we identify strongly with the way we are right now; letting go of that self-identification frees our mind of its very strong tendency to deny that change is possible. Identifying with enlightenment is impossible in the sense that we do not know what it feels like to be enlightened, but in a way that very fact can keep the mind in the state of non-attachment, because we keep seeking for what we are trying to identify with and not finding it.

    I really admire the Zen practice of not saying what is to be reached, because you can’t say what is to be reached. But sometimes new Zen students seem to identify strongly with *that*, and then we get into these weird conversations where one participant asserts that there isn’t anything change in the mind that one might wish for. I think it’s worth reading the very sweet introduction to Zen Mind, Beginner Mind if you find yourself having conversations like this. You don’t have to read the whole book—the introduction will tell you everything that you need to know.

  36. Ted
    Ted June 13, 2012 at 9:42 am |

    Proofreading fail. s/anything change in the mind/any change in the mind/

  37. anon 108
    anon 108 June 13, 2012 at 11:08 am |

    Ted referred to the introduction of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and said “the introduction will tell you everything that you need to know [about enlightenment].”

    Assuming that Ted does mean the Introduction and not the Preface, I’d like to suggest that this, from Huston’s Smith’s preface, tells you everything you need to know (about enlightenment):

    “In Shunryu Suzuki’s book the words satori and kensho, its near equivalent, never appear. When, four months before his death, I had the opportunity to ask him [SS] why satori didn’t figure in his book, his wife leaned toward me and whispered impishly, “It’s becasue he hasn’t had it”; wherupon the Roshi batted his fan at her in mock consternation and with finger to his lips hissed, “Shhhh! Don’t tell him!” When our laughter had subsided, he said simply, “It’s not that satori is unimportant, but it’s not the part of Zen that needs to be stressed.”

    I read Brad’s comments on the activities of the folks at Mr Roach’s retreat as a general criticism of any approach that sees enlightenment/satori/kensho – with or without material rewards – as the thing that needs to be stressed.

  38. Ted
    Ted June 13, 2012 at 11:51 am |

    I was referring to the Introduction, by Richard Baker, actually. I don’t mean to belittle the book—you should read it too. But I think the stories that are told in the introduction are very reflective of Suzuki-Roshi’s lineage and the skill of his teaching. The story you quote from the preface is equally sweet.

    As to the general criticism of an approach that sees enlightenment as needing, or not needing, to be stressed, I think that you are presuming that all students are the same, and require the same approach. If this were so, there would be no Buddhist sects. The Buddha would have taught only one turning of the wheel (some Buddhist make the claim that he did, and how are we to know if they are right or wrong?).

    For my own part, I was always very attracted to Zen, and when I decided to get serious about Buddhism, I wanted to be a Zen Buddhist. But I never found a sangha that worked for me. I might have done well at SFZC if I’d been living in San Francisco, but I wasn’t. I read Zen Mind, Beginner Mind, and found it very intriguing, but couldn’t get any farther than that. Then I started dating one of Geshe Michael’s students, and she brought me to his teaching on the death meditation in North Carolina, and everything he said made sense and fit. It’s been that way for me ever since.

    The reason I find Richard Baker’s preface sweet is because I can hear the same feeling in him that I get from my relationship with my teacher. We never really know whether our teacher is an enlightened being or an ordinary person, and we can’t know, unless we decide that enlightenment is impossible. But we persist in going to teachings, because they suit us. Students who have not yet found a teacher wander, sometimes for years or a whole lifetime, never finding what they are looking for. To hear that relationship reflected in the voice of a student is always sweet, and we shouldn’t doubt it simply because that teacher’s way of teaching doesn’t suit us.

  39. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 13, 2012 at 11:59 am |

    Anon 108 is 100% correct with his comment on my comment.

  40. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 13, 2012 at 12:26 pm |

    I’d like to thank our host, Mr. Brad Warner, for inspiring the open dialogue about practice that so often graces these pages. In my experience, it’s rare, even among old friends or with experienced teachers.

    That’s interesting info, anon 108, thanks for the reminder.

    So, Ted- “…then we get into these weird conversations where one participant asserts that there isn’t anything change in the mind that one might wish for.” And the correction, “any change in the mind”.

    Ok. My contention would be that the mind moves right before we fall asleep, if we are able to hold to consciousness long enough to observe it. That’s a big “if”; I personally played with hypnosis a lot in high school, I starved myself as a vegan for awhile which I believe affects consciousness of the in-between state, and I slept sitting up for six months and worked the grave shift for years. Even so when I noticed that staying with the shifts in my consciousness led to waking up or falling asleep, I was surprised. So easy and something everybody has experienced.

    I have written about this, and three other people have now succeeded in using something in my description to catch sight of their consciousness shifting around before sleep, and to likewise experience a connection between staying with the sense of location and falling asleep (one of the three was able to catch sight in the daytime as well, not sure about the others).

    The technical description would be that consciousness takes place because of contact between a sense organ and a sense object, and that the continuity of consciousness is an illusion; that’s the classical teaching of Gautama the Buddha. Gautama also taught that there is an impact associated with the occurrence of consciousness, and there is feeling. Here is his summation of staying with this kind of experience as it occurs:

    ‘(Anyone)…knowing and seeing eye as it really is, knowing and seeing material shapes… visual consciousness… impact on the eye as it really is, and knowing, seeing as it really is the experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye, is not attached to the eye nor to material shapes nor to visual consciousness nor to impact on the eye; and that experience, whether pleasant, painful, or neither painful nor pleasant, that arises conditioned by impact on the eye—neither to that is (such a one) attached. …(Such a one’s) physical anxieties decrease, and mental anxieties decrease, and bodily torments… and mental torments… and bodily fevers decrease, and mental fevers decrease. (Such a one) experiences happiness of body and happiness of mind. (repeated for ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind).

    Whatever is the view of what really is, that for (such a one) is right view; whatever is aspiration for what really is, that for (such a one) is right aspiration; whatever is endeavour for what really is, that is for (such a one) right endeavour; whatever is mindfulness of what really is, that is for (such a one) right mindfulness; whatever is concentration on what really is, that is for (such a one) right concentration. And (such a one’s) past acts of body, acts of speech, and mode of livelihood have been well purified.’

    (Majjhima-Nikaya, Pali Text Society volume 3 pg 337-338, ©Pali Text Society)

    I’m only saying that this is a description of something that most people experience as they are drifting off to sleep, except that it’s more like shifting than drifting because there really is no continuity. The mind is now here, now there.

    Oddly enough, this freedom of mind with the associated impact and feeling is sufficient to sit, and the knowledge I need from one moment to the next seems to be intimately associated with the free occurrence of consciousness. Attachment the end of the hypnogogia, the place of mind in attachment a beginning.

    The bottom falls out of the bucket, god help us.

  41. Fred
    Fred June 13, 2012 at 12:28 pm |

    Ted, the Richard Baker that was using his position as abbott to have sex with
    all the young women in the flock, or another Richard Baker?

  42. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm |

    Same guy, Fred.

    Whatever you choose to make of his treatment of those women, the man did and does have something of worth to say/write.

  43. Ted
    Ted June 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm |

    The guy who wrote the preface.

  44. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 13, 2012 at 1:07 pm |

    Fred, I finally got to the link you posted for two as one yoga, break my heart, man!

  45. anon 108
    anon 108 June 13, 2012 at 1:30 pm |

    Ted wrote: “As to the general criticism of an approach that sees enlightenment as needing, or not needing, to be stressed, I think that you are presuming that all students are the same, and require the same approach.”

    I couldn’t agree more that people are different, Ted. As one such, I’m happy to do my bit trying to articulate the approach that makes sense to me, which sometimes means critiquing and dissuading those who believe that the pursuit of enlightenment/satori is what’s needed. But sure, people are different. People will see things differently and do things differently. I wish them well.

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