Last week, Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was shot down over the Ukraine. Most of the people who died on board were Dutch citizens headed for Amsterdam. I have a lot of Dutch friends these days. I’ve been doing talks in the Netherlands each year for the past four years and I’m going back again in October (the dates are below). My latest book is coming out in Dutch very soon. But thankfully no one I knew was on that flight. An event like this would be sad no matter who was killed. But it was somehow even sadder for me because of my connection with the Netherlands.
I started thinking how totally unnecessary the whole thing was, and how unnecessary most of the painful things we do to each other are. Life is bad enough, what with cancer and car crashes and American Idol, we don’t need to add to each other’s misery by firing missiles at commercial airliners. I’m sure whoever shot that plane down thought there was something that needed to be proved, but we’ll probably never know what.
Not long before I heard this news, a few people forwarded me an article called Why Eckhart Tolle’s Evolutionary Activism Won’t Save Us. The article talks about how the grand enlightenment experience Eckhart Tolle had when he was in his early twenties led him to believe, “The primary factor in creation is consciousness. No matter how active we are, how much effort we make, our state of consciousness creates our world, and if there is no change on the inner level, no amount of action will make any difference. We would only re-create modified versions of the same world again and again, a world that is an external reflection of the ego.” We need to become free of “egoic delusions,” (is “egoic” a real word?) he says. Only then can we change the world for the better.
The writer argues that this makes no sense. She says that lots of positive changes have been made by people who were hardly beyond “egoic delusion” and wonders if a simple enlightenment experience would really transform us all into people who could forever work in harmony with one another.
She says the following about Zen Buddhism in particular:
This was the case with Zen Buddhism in Japan during and before WWII, the cultivation of stillness, compassion and love can co-exist with the worst fascism and imperialism. The entire institution of Zen Buddhism – the masters, monks and professors supported the cruel and colonizing efforts of the state and emperor. They defended the “wars of compassion,” gorged themselves in killing and advocated merging the small self with the larger self of the state. This was all done within the monastical, academic and ethical systems of Zen Buddhism.
It’s a vast overstatement to say that “the entire institution of Zen Buddhism” was behind this. And she references Brian Victoria’s horrendous mistranslation of a statement by Kodo Sawaki (what Victoria translates as “we gorged ourselves on killing” actually means “we got fed up with killing”). Nor was all of this “done within the monastical, academic and ethical systems of Zen Buddhism.”
But she is correct in her general idea. Many Zen Buddhist institutions did support fascism and imperialism and the ideas found in Zen Buddhist literature were often twisted to sound like justifications for horrible actions. There were so-called “realized masters” who worked with the imperial government to promote some of the worst violations of the Buddhist precepts ever undertaken in history. So even the nice Zen Buddhists are not absolved.
Experiences like Tolle’s great enlightenment can be seductive and deceptive. This is one of the reasons legitimate Zen Buddhists as well as others working in the field of meditation instruction always caution that you need to have a teacher. You can certainly meditate on your own for quite a while before the need becomes urgent. But big problems happen if you go on for too long on your own. You might even become a millionaire self-realized guru if you’re not careful.
There is nothing in a so-called “enlightenment experience” that will automatically make you a better person. It won’t even destroy your ego. It can make you see what your ego really is. But we human beings are so clever that we can even twist the understanding that we have no self and turn it into a rationale to become more selfish and less compassionate.
The writer of the article says, “Teachings like those of Tolle are overly simplistic and irresponsible. To say that the global problems of the world will be solved if we all still the mind, connect with Being and live in joy, enthusiasm and acceptance is incredibly naive.” I completely agree.
And yet I have said that I think meditation can save the world. I stick by that. I think it’s necessary for human mental and physical health and for global transformation. But I think people like Tolle are actually damaging to the process of making the case for meditation because they make so many outrageous, unrealistic, magical sounding claims. The whole thing ends up sounding goofy to anyone with a bit of common sense.
We won’t end tragedies like the Malaysian Airlines disaster just by meditating until we all have our own glimpses of God. Nor should we stop making efforts at coming up with positive solutions until such time as we each have a Tolle-approved “transformed consciousness,” lest we just make matters worse with our egioic delusions. We need to work on these kinds of problems at multiple levels, starting right now exactly where we are. Accepting things as they are does not mean you need to be complacent about them. The ability to accept things as they allows you to become better able to make changes when change needs to happen.
My condolences to everyone affected by this terrible event.
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My on-line retreat at Tricycle.com is still on-going. Check it out!
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Here’s my upcoming touring schedule:
Aug. 2 9:30 AM – 3:00 PM Half Day Zazen at Dogen Sangha Los Angeles in the Veteran’s Memorial Building 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230
Aug. 16 9:30 AM – Noon at Dogen Sangha Los Angeles in the Veteran’s Memorial Building 4117 Overland Blvd. Culver City, CA 90230
Sept. 5-7 Houston Zen Center
Sept. 9 Austin Zen Center
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland all events to be determined
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 9-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near Würzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany
Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26: Lecture in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands
Oct 29: Lecture in Rotterdam, Netherlands
Oct 30: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Oct 31: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov 4-6 (or 3-5 possibly) Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 7-8 Something in Manchester, UK (to be determined)