Phenomenological Psychology

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Thich Nhat Hanh at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium

September 20th, 2009 by David Kronemyer · 8 Comments

My son Andrew and I went to see Thich Nhat Hanh last night at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California. We attended not as devotees or practitioners of Zen, Buddhism or the discipline of mindfulness but rather as critics interested primarily in Brother Thay as a pop culture phenomenon. We also paid close attention to the composition, nature and responses of the audience.

Brother Thay evidently is on some kind of a tour. His organization (“The Order of Interbeing”) (not sure what it is, from a corporate standpoint) sold tickets. It has its own website. The tickets were not inexpensive, particularly with Ticketmaster service charges, parking and other miscellaneous fees. The atmosphere inside the theater was reminiscent of a traveling medicine show. The first thing one noticed when entering the lobby was a proliferation of booths vending trinkets, books and DVDs, the proceeds of which presumably finance Brother Thay’s various ventures. This form of spiritual materialism struck me as being anomalous, akin to the money-changers in the temple. [Ironically it was an ethnic Buddhist, Chogyam Trungpa, who coined the term “spiritual materialism” to describe what he was seeing among caucasoid converts. Not particularly a paradigm case of his own teachings, he later died of chronic alcoholism at the age of 48. Perhaps he was depressed at the lack of mindfulness among his devotees.] When John Paul II visited Los Angeles he spoke for free. Andrew and I were engaged in conversation about the incidence of Muslims in Japan. A monk in a wheelchair who had been eavesdropping on our conversation rolled himself over to weigh in with his views.

A large banner across the stage proclaimed “U.S. Tour 2009” in the manner of a 1980s band such as Styx, Foreigner, Journey, Aerosmith or R.E.O. Speedwagon. Cursive script atop the banner proclaimed: “Our True Agenda.” An accompanying brochure clarified: “Tending to the Space Inside.” “Our True Agenda” is an infelicitous expression because of its similarities to right-wing (and left-wing) political rhetoric. It implies Brother Thay has some other kind of agenda that has been misapprehended or misconceived, which he must rebuke or have set aside before his “true” agenda can be revealed. He might have said, for example: “Our Objective …” or “Our Goal …”

The proceedings began when two grey-robed monks lead the group in a sing-along. The lyrics of the song was stupidly simple in the manner of Joni Mitchell circa 1968: “I am a cloud,” “I am the blue sky,” “I am the sunlight,” “I am a flower,” “I am a bird,” etc. One of the monks made elaborate hand gestures emphasizing the words, e.g. flapping her arms to simulate a bird. Following this warm-up act approximately 50 monks of mixed gender took their places on the stage, as did Brother Thay. They began intoning a monotonous chant, accompanied by pre-recorded music. During this performance Brother Thay made various ritual gestures known as “mudra.” It was difficult to tell the difference between these and the complex hand movements and finger signs of street gangs such as the L.A. Crips.

Brother Thay then spoke for over an hour in a dulcet, mellifluous tone of voice. Sometimes he was difficult to follow and the audience became soporific. His message was one of peacefulness, tranquility and mindfulness. As described by Brother Thay, mindfulness is focusing on one’s breathing and concentrating intently on the “here and now.” In principle one has no other concerns; to the extent one does, one uses them as an active sort of membrane to carom off of like a billiard ball in order to redirect one’s attention back to breathing and the present moment.

In practice this is very difficult to do. The psychological life of most people is fraught with practical, terrestrial concerns. These include maintenance of basic personal needs such as food, clothing and shelter; together with more complex constructs such as family, one’s role in society, one’s goals and aspirations and the personal narrative through which one gives meaning to one’s life. It is hard to resist the compelling nature of these ideations and to focus solely on the moment of the “now.” The concerns of the Buddhist monk, on the other hand, may be no more complex than having a full bowl of rice. Perhaps they simply have a lesser bombardment of impressions and ideas, facilitating an easier transition to the contemplation of temporal instants.

The problem of focusing attention is illustrated by the phenomenology of expertise. An expert is somebody like Bruce Lee in karate movies, a downhill ski racer, a championship tennis player or even driving a stick-shift. The expert transparently interacts with her environment and nonconsciously deploys skill and ability in order to accomplish an objective. If an expert starts being “mindful” of what she is doing then it is likely her fluid performance will be disrupted. The whole point of being an expert is not to stop to think about what one’s doing. The expert must be on “automatic pilot.” The best way to characterize the mental state of the expert is being “mindless,” not “mindful.”

The fact of the matter is that mindfulness is pretty exotic stuff, most likely not suitable for mass consumption. In Vietnam, for example, there is a sharp distinction between monks and the laity. Only monks practice mindfulness. The laity makes occasional contributions to the monks with offerings for food, shelter, etc. In return the monks comprise a kind of guild of funeral directors, charged with blessing and burying those who have become deceased.

From an epistemological standpoint mindfulness is a complex technique which, to be done properly, takes years to master. The version of mindfulness practice Brother Thay imports to the United States is a dilute version of an ancient religious and cultural discipline. He has tried to make it explicable in the simplest possible terms. He has made it so simple that, as proffered, there is little difference between it and being a zombie (understood as a philosophical construct, that is, a non-conscious but sentient being with no cognitive access to anything but the “moment,” caught up in the mindless “present”). In accomplishing this result though Brother Thay has converted mindfulness into a new-agey pop-culture phenomenon with only tenuous links back to its place of origin. Instead of being a benign Buddhist monk, which I am sure is the role he would prefer to choose, Brother Thay instead presents as a clever evangelical proselytizer. [An example of the zombie thesis: during World War II, Buddhist “mindfulness” doctrine successfully converted Japanese soldiers into killing automatons, abdicating all sense of personal responsibility. This also happened in Germany though not as an outgrowth of Buddhism, rather, social psychology pressures to conform as illustrated by the famous Stanley Milgram experiments. Each was an appropriate mindfulness technique for their respective territorial milieus.]

Unfortunately I was unable to accept Brother Thay’s invitation to listen to him solely in the moment. Rather I became caught up in several other concerns, which are as follows.

1. People whose cultural background is the Judeo Christian Tradition should not be Zen Buddhists. Its objectives and concerns, and its conventions and protocols, essentially remain unintelligible to Western theology. In making this observation it is not my intention to single out Zen Buddhism. The converse, such as Asiatic cultures adopting Christianity, is equally implausible. People should stick with the religion of their culture, if only for that reason. Adopting other people’s theology is a form of reverse religious imperialism. [I make an exception here for people who have become thoroughly acclimated to the other culture, for example, permanent residents, second-generation, etc. They have acquired the requisite skills, techniques and cultural knowledge to overcome the unintelligibility barrier.]

While I could cite many examples of this a particularly poignant one was reported in the September 7, 2009 issue of the Los Angeles Times in an article by Duke Helfand, “In the Arizona desert, Buddhists will embark on a three-year silent retreat.” As in, not saying anything for three years. One of the attendees is Stéphane Dreyfus, son of Hubert Dreyfus, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley (and my college advisor when I attended that institution, which is why the story particularly interested me). Dreyfus is perhaps the world’s leading expert on that branch of philosophy that concerns itself with issues such as the meaning and purpose of life. In the article he is quoted as expressing his concern that his son was “wasting his talent.” He “can’t understand why anyone would leave loved ones behind to disappear in the desert – in this case, for 1,190 days.” “I’m just torn,” he said. Based on my knowledge of Bert’s teachings, one of the reasons why he is so torn is because the disciplines and protocols of Buddhism (as exemplified by a three-year silent retreat) are so antithetical to Western values of skepticism, questioning and inquiry, which Dreyfus himself exemplifies. Both comprise and disclose separate worlds, each incomprehensible to the other.

2. The doctrine of mindfulness as espoused by Brother Thay essentially is solipsistic, perhaps even selfish. Adherents are advised to engage in “sitting meditations” and “walking meditations,” where they concentrate on somatic issues such as body posture and carefully treading upon the earth. As useful as these practices may be for the acolyte they do little for example to alleviate human suffering or contribute to species welfare. Since Buddhists believe all life is suffering there doctrinally is no point to for them to implement social improvement such as eliminating poverty. Rather then concentrating on their own personal well-being, though, it would be far more socially useful for students of mindfulness to do something practical like volunteer to help the homeless, tutor at-risk inner-city students, work with cancer patients, or the like.

3. Benedict XVI has characterized Zen Buddhism as “autoerotic.” It purports to offer “transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations.” Here is what he means. Eastern religions entail an emptying of the self. Christianity on the other hand requires an active, vibrant self in order to believe and have faith. It’s not possible to believe or to have faith unless there is a self, doing the believing and having the faith. In this respect Christianity is orthodoxic. In comparison, Semitic religions such as Judaism and Islam place their primary focus on obeying rules, and in this sense are orthopraxic. Both have elaborate scaffolds of jurists to establish rules and interpret previously-issued rules. One need for example only compare the focus or thrust of the Ten Commandments (orthopraxic) with the Sermon on the Mount (orthodoxic). Under Judaism it doesn’t necessarily matter what one believes as long as one obeys the law. Christianity on the other hand demands belief from its adherents, even to the extent of rebuking the law, both civil and canonical.

Zen Buddhism entails emptying one’s mind of both orthopraxy and orthodoxy. It lacks the social utility of Christianity, Judaism and Islam (all of which express this utility differently). Would Judaism have been able to survive for thousands of years under some of the most adverse circumstances imaginable if everybody had been in a sitting meditation, concentrating on being mindful? Would Islam have been able to become the dominant religion of the Middle East if they were walking around with their heads facing the ground, performing a walking meditation? Would Catholicism have been able to repel the Ottoman Empire’s invasion of Vienna in 1529 under similar conditions? Had it not been for this singular event there is a significant possibility that Northern Europe (and the New World) all would have become Muslims. These only are a few examples. Buddhism on the other hand was implemented by conquerors in the ancient world to pacify newly-acquired territories into non-violent mindfulness to avoid causing foment.

4. Judaism and Christianity are “linear” religions. The Tanakh is the historical record of the ancient Israelites from the dawn of time, through Moses, through the Exile in Babylon. Its second-most-prominent feature, after compendiums of rules, is elaborate genealogies. This enables contemporary Judaism to situate itself in time. [It also situates itself in space, that is, the Levant, which God promised to Abraham, Moses and their successors.] Similarly, the New Testament is the historical record of the life and teaching of Jesus, followed by various letters written in real-time by Paul. Jesus summed up the events of his life at the Last Supper. This chronology continues through Revelation, which describes an end of time. People who die remain dead until this event occurs.

Zen Buddhism, on the other hand, is a “circular” religion. Its adherents believe in reincarnation. Although reincarnation may be cross-species, it occurs fairly quickly after one’s death. In this way the distinction between death and life is blurred. One might demise only to reinstantiate oneself on earth, albeit in slightly modified form. The discipline and practice of mindfulness makes far more sense in the context of circular religions as opposed to linear ones (as I have defined them). The reason why is because they are more holistic or chthonic (“I am the earth,” “I am the sun,” “I am the blue sky,” etc.). One does not require a durable self if one will succeed to a replacement self without too much delay. This facilitates meditations that are premised on, or that attempt to achieve, an absence of self.

At the end of his remarks Brother Thay left the stage. A venerable lady monk stood up and sang a song. It was pleasant but would have benefited from an edit. Annoyingly she then launched into an appeal for everybody to go out and buy more trinkets from the vendors in the lobby.

Hanh brochure


Hanh vendors

Lobby Vendors