stumbling over nothing

I have noted previously how confused (and confusing) the psychological interpretation of the terms “self” and “emptiness” are as presented in much of what is called “Buddhist psychology.” In her forthcoming work, Trust, Realization, and the Self in Sōtō Zen Practice, Rev. Dr. Daijaku Kinst makes what I take to be the same point. Her discussion clarified for me that these confusions are not simply problematic because they are misinterpretations of an idea central to a great deal of Buddhist thought, or in other words constitute an inaccurate representation of Buddhist conceptions of the relation between thought and its objects. Rather, when turned into prescriptions for practice, they are potentially dangerous.

For example, Kinst specifically addresses how authors such as Mark Epstein fail to adequately distinguish the Buddhist use of “emptiness” as an ontological category from the psychological use of the same term as a pathological state.

Kinst points out that in his Thoughts without a Thinker (pp. 28, 30, 31), Epstein

describes a state of severe deprivation and craving, an impossible hunger and a “desperate longing,” as a “terrible emptiness.” He continues by saying that these “inner feelings of emptiness and unworthiness” are paired with “compelling fantasies of reparation,” and asserts that “the Western student afflicted with such feelings must make the emptiness itself the object of his or her meditation.” (p. 138)

Here we see that Epstein is seemingly not only confused himself, but does his readers the disservice of confusing them. And to this he adds the dubious recommendation that one should meditate on feelings of worthlessness. In a therapeutic situation in which the therapist is available to assist the individual work through such feelings, such a focus on worthlessness and meaninglessness may well be the right course of action. However, while some practitioners may be able to sink down through such feelings and experience their contingency, it seems all too possible that many will not—but instead become stuck, seeing no way out, and that the sense of being stuck will become reinforced by the mistaken equation of this psychological use of “emptiness” with the Buddhist use, and even thereby given the (quite mistaken) sense of religious authority.

Much of what Kinst addresses in her work is the importance of establishing a context for practice, one that provides reason for the practitioner to trust his/her teacher or guide or facilitator. I would find it difficult to trust someone who not only misunderstood the meaning of śunyatā—equating it with feelings of meaninglessness, purposelessness, worthlessness—but advised me to focus my meditation practice on those feelings.

Such advice differs strikingly from the description given by Harvey Aronson:

The Mahayana sutra and commentarial tradition supports practice by nuns, monks, and laypeople. In the Tibetan presentation of the Mahayana sutra style of practice, practitioners use the understanding of emptiness—the profound realization that phenomena do not substantially exist in the solid manner in which they appear—to disempower attachment and anger. (Buddhist Practice on Western Ground: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology, 168)

This is quite different from focusing attention on “a painful state devoid of positive qualities” (Kinst, 138).

As has been repeatedly pointed out in Western literature on Madhyamaka thought, the absence of an essence (any permanent, eternal, absolute or unchanging aspect of being) is exactly what makes change possible. It is therefore the basis for creativity and growth. While some people may have the strength of ego (which is of course not the atman being denied in Buddhist thought) to meditate on feelings of worthlessness or meaninglessness and realize that these too are empty—that they are not permanent, eternal, absolute or unchanging—this would hardly seem a wise course of practice to advise without understanding the abilities of the person being instructed.


6 thoughts on “stumbling over nothing

  1. This is important stuff, thanks Richard. Can you tell us when and with what press Rev. Daijaku KInst’s book will be coming out? I’ll look forward to it.

    I thought it was amusing that you simply assert as obvious the point that “ego…is of course not the atman being denied in Buddhist thought.” In my experience, almost every American Buddhist I’ve ever enountered makes exactly this error, insisting that the “ego” in the sense you mean it does not exist at all, is a mere error, a delusion into which the “true consciousness” has fallen. They also tend to conflate ego in the sense you mean it, as a set of mental practices which enable interaction with the world, with the popular meaning of ego as being vain or narcissistic–then they belive becoming “humble” enough to believe they should never try to take any action in the world is enlightenment (of course, humility is often another ego defense, and one can be humble and completely deluded at the same time).

    Epstein has been very succesful at spreading this confused understanding, increasing delusion in the world, with an enormous potential to cause suffering; it is encouraging to see someone trying to clarify this error. I would like to read more of what Kinst has to say about providing reason for the practitioner to trust a teacher–one great difficulty in Buddhist practice, as in seeking a psychotherapist, is that the beginner rarely knows in advance how to judge the abilities and understanding of the teacher/therapist.

    • Dear Tom, Thank you for the encouragement. Yes, the task of addressing mistaken conceptions seems rather Quixotic at times. The difference between ego and atman would have been a long distraction here.
      The work is forthcoming in the Contemporary Issues in Buddhist Studies series, published jointly by the Institute of Buddhist Studies and BDK/America, and should be available in about three months from Univ. of Hawai’i Press which markets and distributes the series. I’ll post another announcement here when it is available. yours, Richard

  2. Thanks for this post. It seems to be a link or similarity between what you (and Daijaku Kinst) are talking about, and a certain masochistic tendency within much x-buddhism (and “mindfulness”) to happily – and non-judgmentally, of course – dwell in pain, confusion and depression. What is really a wallowing in one’s own misery is here seen as “being in touch with dukkha” and is more encouraged than the cultivation of clear thinking and productive action in the world. (Tom Pepper made this point somewhere, but I can’t seem to find his post at the moment.)

    • Dear Per, Thank you. Certainly one can spend an awful lot of time rummaging around in what Fritz Perls called “the garbage can,” all the while feeling like you’re doing something very important, and at the same time being narcissistic. What could possibly be more important than my problems? Certainly not yours! Besides, we don’t need to go looking for dukkha. It is our best friend, never leaving our side.

      • Hi Tom,

        This is a small Internet (I didn’t see your previous comment when I posted mine).
        Thanks for the link. I was actually thinking about another discussion (perhaps one involving the secularistas), but it doesn’t really matter. The Epstein-review is a good one, and the widespread idea that it’s somehow sufficient (virtuous, even) to simply experience pain and confusion, without inquiring into their causes and conditions, is mentioned there as well.

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