Monday, October 6, 2014

Tough Love, Buddhist-style. A Review of Buddha Takes No Prisoners: A Meditator’s Survival Manual by Patrick (William) Ophuls

Reading this book, I sometimes wonder, “Is it worth it? All of this time spent on meditation, all of this concern? After all, I’m pretty old, and I’m never going to escape samsara in this lifetime. I’m a householder, and even after years of mediation and having spent 10 days living and meditating like a Buddhist monk, I’m not sure that I’ve made a dent in taming my monkey mind. My prospects are bleak. And if that isn’t bad enough, I live in society that is perhaps the worst of all possible worlds for hoping to achieve nirvana.”

If you pick up this book and read it in the hope of finding words of praise and encouragement, you’ve chosen the wrong book. Buddha takes no prisoners and neither does Ophuls. Whether he’s talking about meditation or the social world, he isn’t sparing in his assessments. Yet for all his bluntness, he encourages by throwing down the gauntlet of an impossible quest. For every time you read something that suggests your situation or your efforts are hopeless, Ophuls seems to acknowledge the quandary and say “do it anyway”. And why not? If we don’t try, we fade off into oblivion without having attempted the noble quest. As a practical matter, life can be bad. And life can be worse. We can’t escape old age, sickness, and death, but we can experience the “The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks That Flesh is heir to” with greater or lesser equanimity and therefore greater or lesser suffering.

Another reason to continue this book (and the path it recommends) comes from Ophuls’s pithy writing. As Ophuls notes in his beginning remarks:

So Buddha Takes No Prisoners is a different kind of meditation book— one that is quite idiosyncratic, not to say iconoclastic, by traditional standards, because it has no pretensions to orthodoxy . It also tries to inject a note of playful irreverence into what is usually taken to be A VERY SERIOUS MATTER. I want to emphasize the word playful: my aim was to produce something that would be fun to read and, above all, fun to write, while still being instructive. Otherwise, why bother?

Id. “Not another meditation book!”

In fact, Ophuls does provide fresh and engaging ways to consider meditation and the aims of the Buddhist tradition. I came away with some memorable insights, such as this one about the realization of what it’s all about:

[M]any years of intensive spiritual practice had succeeded in clearing [Buddha’s] mind, and one day an early childhood memory bubbled up. Left to himself under a tree by the side of a field in which his father was supervising the ritual plowing, Siddhartha had relaxed into a state of pure presence— a condition of open, amplified awareness in which he saw everything perfectly, just as it was. Feeling with his whole body and mind the clarity, grace, and power of that remembered state, Siddhartha knew he had found the way forward at last.

Id. (p. 8)

We all probably have some like memory of pure presence, of open, unencumbered awareness with which we can identify Buddha’s experience. So this is what it’s all about! This insight alone is worth the price of the book. It gives one a sense of the grace that we seek through meditation, not simply relaxation or some trance state, but an experience of an ineffable relationship with the world.

Another key insight is that meditation is all about purification. We all have a Buddha mind, it’s just covered in dross. Ophuls recounts the ways in which meditators have often described the mind and then he adds an even better metaphor of his own:

[M]editation is like taming a wild beast— traditionally, a spooky horse, a mad monkey, a drunken elephant , or a bewildered ox . But the real beast is, of course, you, so think of it as housebreaking your inner hyena.
Id. (p. 14)

Your “inner hyena”? Ophuls later refers to us humans as the “two-legged hyenas” and notes that “[o]ur hyena nature is always scheming, conniving, and chiseling, always maneuvering for advantage. Only the saints refrain—on their better days.” Id. (p. 45). This isn’t your garden variety, soft-soap, self-help book. 

Ophuls emphasizes that meditation is a matter of purification, which is in turn mostly a matter of renunciation. Now how welcome are those words in our culture and in our minds? Nice in theory, but do I really have to give up [cherished pleasures and junk of your choice]? This is where Ophuls pulls no punches (or takes no prisoners). Yup, that’s what it’s about: purging the dross of the mind. It ain’t easy. Meditation may be seem like the ex-lax of purging, but sooner or later, you’re going to have some uncomfortable episodes. For this aspect of meditation, you need endurance and toughness to work through it. Indeed, it’s not just the mind; oh, no, it includes the body as whole, which is the home of the mind. (The mind is not located exclusively in the brain.) Ophuls explains: 

To free your mind, you must dissolve these physical blockages (and, of course, vice versa: to free your body, you must untie your mental knots). The fireworks generated by the collision between healing energy and coagulated defilement will take different forms— and can be more or less intense depending on individual karma—but physical purification and transformation are always an intrinsic and integral part of the meditation process.

Id. (p. 32)

For instance, following a mediation retreat that I attended, a guy that I thought could have been an American pro-football player told me that he balled like a baby during one period of mediation as a damn of physical and emotional pain broke in him. This is not the stuff of wimps. 

Ophuls, like about every other meditation teacher, tells us that we’ll fail in our efforts, especially at the beginning. But he writes: 

Of course, you will fail pitifully when you try to carry out this simple program. Everybody does. But it doesn’t matter. You simply do the best you can, and you keep doing it over and over, not being attached to how well you are doing or to what results you obtain. Even a few brief moments of metta and equanimity are enough to begin the ripening process .

Id. (p. 28)

“I’m a failure.” Big deal. Get over it. “Small, small catch monkey” as they say in Cameroon. 

In what can seem like a stream of discouraging words (which rightly taken are challenging words), Ophuls offers this point of encouragement: 

But meditation is not like art, where a hundred years of practice will not turn a dabbler into Degas. It is more like Edison’s formula for genius: ninety-nine parts perspiration to one part inspiration. So practice is everything . Whatever your talent for meditation, you cannot succeed without practicing ; whatever your lack of talent, you can succeed by practicing. If you produce the perspiration, the inspiration will come— 

Id. (p. 50)

Toward the end of the book, Ophuls includes a chapter “Return to the Marketplace” along with four appendices that deal with these issues more directly in the realm of daily life, including the marketplace and the public square. This is a value-added aspect of Ophuls’s work that I don’t find in other fine works on meditation. How does it fit with the lives we live? (Assuming you’re not a monk or nun.) On one hand, he simplifies the message for us: 

Enlightenment shows us that all the world’s a church, and all of life’s a pilgrimage, so we must live accordingly: with wisdom and compassion. In a nutshell, wisdom is practicing nonclinging, and compassion is practicing kindness.

Id. (p. 131)

But while we’re living the spiritual life, we mustn’t get ourselves lost in our personalized versions of a spiritual trip. He writes: 

The corollary is not to be rule bound— that is, enslaved by some image of holiness that you (and everybody else) have to live up to. Making a big deal out of spirituality or identifying it with political correctness and your personal preferences is delusion, not enlightenment. Spiritual trips are just as obnoxious as worldly trips, if not more so (especially when the two get all jumbled up together). As hard as it might be for some in the spiritual scene to accept, vegetarianism is not obligatory, and a glass of wine with dinner is not anathema. Nor is voting Democratic any more enlightened than voting Republican . And social workers are no holier than sailors.

Id. (pp. 131-132)

For some, this might come like a cold bucket of water in the face. (N.B. Voting Democratic is (nowadays) almost always smarter and wiser than voting Republican, but it’s not a sign of spiritual enlightenment.) Indeed, lest we all go off to live in monasteries, we must deal with the world, and deal with it in worldly-wise ways. Ophuls notes: 

[A]s long as we are living as householders rather than as renunciates, it is entirely appropriate to create and enjoy fortunate circumstances. Fortune fosters joy, and joy fosters generosity and other positive, skillful qualities of mind. So we need to find the middle way between self-abnegation and self-indulgence. We need, in other words, to create a way of living that is simple, beautiful, and life-affirming: a squalid hovel is a blight, and a trophy mansion an extravagance, but a well-designed, well-built, and well-furnished home is a blessing. To mention beauty is to come to the heart of the matter. Beauty is not an option or a luxury, but a necessity. We need beauty in our personal lives, because beauty uplifts the mind and reconnects it to the power and wonder of creation. And we desperately need beauty in our collective life (perhaps even more than we need political, social, and economic reform).

Id. (pp. 132-133)

The “perhaps” in the last sentence is noteworthy; let’s agree that we can use both.

Just as you may think that Buddha and Ophuls are going soft, Ophuls writes that we in the West want to have “healing” and enlightenment; we want the pleasures of life and the benefits of renunciation. No way, he says. Freud sought to compromise with reality, to whittle away the suffering of our neuroses into ordinary unhappiness. Buddha wasn’t willing to take this path. Buddha goes all the way, and team Buddha isn’t going to boost everyone’s self-esteem by letting everyone make the cut and get a letter. No. “You’re going to have to earn it.” (Cue John Houseman’s sneering voice for full effect.)

In the four appendices, Ophuls situates Buddhist thought within contexts of modern science, Western political thought, Western psychology, and contemporary culture. As with the rest of the book, the tone alternates between it’s all FUBAR (for younger readers:  “fouled-up beyond all recourse” or something like that) and “Okay, it’s FUBAR, let’s get to work on it”. (I wrote earlier about the appendix on politics.) 

Ophuls is like a great teacher or coach, at once demanding a level of performance that one can never hope to obtain while providing a pat on the back indicating that you’re getting there. Challenge and encouragement. With this, Ophuls's book goes on my shelf (electronic shelf in this case) as one of the best guides to meditation and what life is really about: living it with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity.   

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