Sunday, March 18, 2012

Berkhin & Hartelius - Why Altered States Are Not Enough: A Perspective from Buddhism

In the world of integral theory, there tends to be an assumption that Buddhist nondual experience is the same as Taoist nondual experience, which is the same as Christian nondual experience. I have generally accepted this assumption without question - until I read this article from the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies.

This piece argues that, from a Buddhist perspective, to use Buddhist language in describing non-Buddhist experience, including nirvana, is to confuse and muddle everything. They make a good argument in some respects (especially in the use of the term "nondual") - and there seems to me to be places where language fails the experience and that getting stuck in semantics reveals more about the people (and their worldview) than it does about the confusion in trying to equate experiences/terms from separate traditions.

Igor Berkhin: International Dzogchen Community; Donetsk, Ukraine
Glenn Hartelius: Institute of Transpersonal Psychology; Palo Alto, CA, USA

Transpersonal psychology has at times employed Buddhist terminology in ways that do not reflect distinctions that underlie these tightly defined terms. From a Buddhist perspective, attempts to equate Buddhist terms with language from other traditions are misdirected, and produce results that no longer represent Buddhism. For example, it is an error to translate certain Buddhist terms as referring to a shared universal consciousness; Buddhism explicitly rejects this idea. Nor is it appropriate to assume that the generic, cross-traditional altered state of nondual awareness postulated in some transpersonally-related circles is in any way related to nirvana or other advanced states described within Buddhism. Buddhist practices are focused on the achievement of particular knowledge and capacities, not the attainment of altered states.

Berkhin, I. and Hartelius, G. (2011). Why Altered States Are Not Enough: A Perspective from Buddhism. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 30(1-2): 63-68.

Here is an example from the article of the ethnocentric perspective being advocated for in some parts of the article - or maybe religio-centric is the better word. In the West we tend to think of Buddhism as a spiritual psychology that is very open-minded and accepting, but that is because we are seeing it through our own cultural lens.
From within Buddhism, it is the first author’s view that traditions cannot be reconciled, and that attempts to do so create results that can no longer be considered traditional. Such efforts at homogenizing spiritual paths must be clearly distinguished from what His Holiness the Dalai Lama is doing: he is not working to reconcile different traditions, but to turn the followers of different religions toward the common human experience of compassion, thus pacifying the aggressive tendencies of human minds. Nor can different spiritual traditions be equated. Starting with Buddha Shakyamuni himself, most important Buddhist teachers have said that Buddhadharma has very special and highly important wisdom that other traditions do not have (a number of Buddhist teachers have also acknowledged that some realizations in other traditions are not that radically different). (p. 64)

In this passage, the authors assert that Buddhism is the one true religion (Buddhadharma has very special and highly important wisdom that other traditions do not have), which is what one does when the belief system is being defended from a concrete level of cognitive development. At this stage, there tends to be only black/white, no grays, no shades of difference, only extremes.

Having made the "one true faith" argument, the very next paragraph demonstrates how a transpersonal idea can be made personal (or even pre-personal) when filtered through the lens of a lower developmental stage. 
One of the most distinctive errors within the transpersonal world is the effort to interpret the idea of universal consciousness in Buddhist terms. The idea that there is some subconscious or unconscious mind or spirit common to all beings, or at least all humans, is never found in Buddhist texts of any tradition, except in the context where such an idea is explicitly refuted. Such a concept contradicts the Buddhist principle of karma, because if humans all share the same consciousness then each time any individual performed an action, every person in the world would experience the exact same results from that action, just as if they themselves had acted in that way. (p. 64)
It's interesting to me, at least (and maybe no one else), how the idea of a universal consciousness gets reduced to an individual consciousness as soon by invoking the idea of karma. Karma is uniquely individual, but the concept of universal consciousness is transpersonal, beyond the personal, and therefore is not something experienced or even acknowledged by most human beings. The argument is false on many levels - but the absence of any Buddhist teachings on universal consciousness is important and should have been argued more cleanly.

I am agnostic about such notions as universal consciousness - I am more likely to buy into a collective unconscious that is largely pre-personal and personal - I just wanted to point out that arguing against the notion of a collective or universal consciousness by invoking the concept of karma is like arguing against the idea of a planet by invoking a tree. 

In my opinion, the authors are on much more solid ground when they reject the idea of nondaulity as a universally accepted experience, no matter one's tradition.
Along the same line of thought is the recently flourishing transpersonal term nonduality (Blackstone, 2006, 2007; Prendergast, Fenner, & Krystal, 2003). However, here again Buddhist thought demands careful distinctions that appear to be largely absent from transpersonal thought. There are many different kinds of meditative and cognitive non-dual experiences—that is, experiences that do not explicitly involve feeling that subject and object are separate entities—and in Buddhism these various kinds of experience are delineated in careful and articulate terms. Some of these are no more than transient states of what Buddhism would classify as a deluded mind. Others, though of value, are far from the realization of nirvana. For example, an emptiness where the separation between subject and object is neither felt nor thought is not yet the non-duality of dharmakaya. Similarly, the non-duality of absolute truth and relative truth as explained in sutras must be wholly distinguished from the non-duality of five wisdoms and eight consciousnesses that is explained in higher tantras, and both of these are distinct from the non-duality of calm state and movement taught in Dzogchen. Light for the Eyes of Contemplation (Tibetan, bSam-gtan Mig-sgron) is an encyclopedic work from the 9th century CE by Sangye Yeshi that presented the major Buddhist traditions practiced in Tibet at that time; within this work is a profound treatise on different kinds of non-duality in both Indian and Chinese mahayana, in vajrayana higher tantras, and in Dzogchen atiyoga.

Thus, for Buddhism, the term non-duality is used in a considerable number of discrete and precise ways, each of which must be understood within its own context. By contrast, some transpersonal uses of the term seem to take the concept of non-duality as license to eschew careful distinctions, to uncritically meld together concepts that deserve precise definition and differentiation, and to conflate within a single theoretical ultimate a variety of states that may well include certain transitory experiences of a deluded mind (e.g., Blackstone, 2006, 2007; Krystal, 2003; Wilber, 2000). (p. 65)
I did know that some Buddhist schools have remarkably subtle distinctions in the various states of  consciousness, but it had not occurred to me that this was true as well with nondual states.

Finally, it is very appropriate that they name Wilber as a reference several times in this paper, since he is the primary or most public offender in the realm of transpersonal studies.

Be sure to read the whole paper.

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