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Buddhadharma : Fall 2006
buddhadharma| 69 |fall 2006 Our tendency to idealize things colors our perceptions of both Buddhism and enlightenment and makes us think about them in naive, or childlike, ways. We all wish for a magic potion that could clear away our personality flaws, and if it is not the jewel in the heart of the lotus, then what could it be? Compounding the problem, Engler argues, is the fact that many, if not most, Buddhist teachers are not trained in (or particularly interested in) an exploration of the psychodynamics of their students’ experiences. In their focus on ultimate truth, they tend to disparage or ignore the relative reality of the self’s struggles. Engler tells one poignant story about the only visit of the Venerable Mahasi Say- adaw, one of the great Burmese medita- tion masters of the twentieth century, to the West, in which he was asked by Jack Kornfield, “What do you do when students bring psychological problems?” After a hurried consultation with his attendants, Sayadaw responded, “What psychological problems?” Upon leaving the country, he was heard to remark that he had uncovered a new form of dukkha in his visit, one that he called “psychologi- cal suffering.” Burmese meditators, we are left to assume, either leave their neuroses at the door, do not acknowledge them at all, refuse to discuss them with their medi- tation teachers, or are neurosis-free. The result of this collision between Westerners’ hope for immediate relief from psychological suffering and Bud- dhist teachers’ relative indifference to their students’ psychodynamics is a kind of guilt for many Western practitioners over the persistence, and continuing sub- jective importance, of their emotional lives. Engler’s article, and this volume in general, go a long way toward exposing that guilt and opening up emotional life as a legitimate subject, in itself, of medi- tation. As Engler puts it, “The Buddhist teaching that I neither have nor am an enduring self should not be taken to mean that I do not need to struggle to find out who I am, what my desires and aspira- tions are, what my needs are, what my capabilities and responsibilities are, how I am relating to others, and what I could or should do with my life. Ontological emptiness does not mean psychological emptiness.” One of the treats of this collection is the inclusion of the work of Middlebury College’s Buddhist scholar William S. Waldron, whose brand of essential aca- demic knowledge is often relegated to the shadows of such gatherings. While Engler’s discussion about the neglect of emotional life in Buddhist circles emphasizes the importance of working directly with conventional truth, Waldron addresses an equally pervasive problem: a misunderstanding of ultimate truth. In his paper, Waldron presents a beautiful argument, entitled “On Selves and Self- less Discourse,” in which he lays out the two different ways in which Buddhist discourses describe self. In one, in the language of conventional truth, persons are described in much the same way as in conventional psychoanalytic discourse. In the other, in the language of ultimate truth, impersonal processes of cause and effect are described in an attempt to answer the question, How is there expe- rience without an experiencer? In the course of his thesis, Waldron punctures one of the most cherished notions of the spiritual path, the belief in consciousness as an active, almost tran- scendent agent within the mind-body continuum, a kind of impersonal self that stands in when our grosser layers of self are exposed as dependently arisen. The reification of consciousness is one of the great misunderstandings of many Bud- dhists, Waldron explains, and he cites text after text from the usually impen- etrable Buddhist psychological texts to support his argument. Cognitive aware- ness, concludes Waldron, is itself depend- ently arisen. It is, he shows, a process of interaction, a “phenomenon that only arises at the interface, the concomitance, of a sense faculty and its correlative object.” Consciousness, like self, has no independent, autonomous existence, and the direct experience of this is one of the primary ways in which grasping can be reduced. Writing about very similar material, but from an entirely different angle, Brit- ish psychologist and longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioner Rob Preece has given us one of the most illuminat- ing unpackings of Tibetan tantra yet to emerge in the English language, in his recently published The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra. Tantra, shows Preece, using the psychological language of Carl Jung as an intermediary, exists in the liminal space, at the boundary between conventional and ultimate realities. It is a vehicle for negotiating the interface of the two, to help us see how the two truths of conventional and ultimate reality are really one. Picking up on Engler’s point, Preece makes clear from the start of his book that the practice of tantra is predi- cated upon a stable enough sense of self. He quotes the great Tibetan tantric prac- titioner Milarepa as saying, “It is easy to meditate upon the sky, but not so easy to meditate upon the clouds.” Interpret- ing this statement for us, Preece proposes that Milarepa means it is easy to under- stand the spacious quality of emptiness but difficult to work with emotions or to understand how conventional forms, like the ego, exist. Form and emptiness, according to the tantric teachings, are dynamically interrelated, like a couple locked in a sexual embrace. Tantra, explains Preece, is predicated upon an appreciation of emptiness but directed toward the expe- rience of form. The recognition of empti- ness allows the practitioner to, in effect, wipe his or her psychic slate clean and begin again, using the powers of creative visualization or imagination to rebuild the psychic world according to Buddhist principles. One of the primary means of recre- ating the psychic world is the use of a deity, another frequently misunderstood aspect of tantric Buddhism. The deity, Preece assures us, is not a god in the usual sense of the word; it is, rather, “a symbolic aspect of forces that arise on a threshold between two dimensions of reality, or two dimensions of awareness.” Having understood the insubstantiality of the conventional self, the tantric prac- titioner superimposes the deity, a new kind of transitional object, as an inter- mediary between the self and the world. The world is then experienced through the eyes of the deity, creating a channel for the practitioner’s own enlightened energies. Not just any deity will do: the one that is chosen for an individual’s tantric meditations must correspond, in some important way, to the practitioner’s own potential. An angry person will choose a wrathful deity, a jealous person a passion- ate one, and so on. “When the Tibetans say the Dalai Lama is an embodiment of Chenrezig, the Buddha of compassion,” says Preece, “they mean he has fully