Looking and the no-self

post by ChristianKl · 2018-03-13T19:39:15.016Z · score: 27 (7 votes) · LW · GW · 17 comments

(This post is a reply to Kaj's "My attempt to explain Looking" and Valentine's Kenshō. The target audience is people who feel like they have a good grasp on the underlying concepts but of course the post might also be interesting for other people)

I have the feeling that both you and Valentine mix the concept of Looking together with no-self even through they are independent for each other. In the Zen Buddhist theoretical landscape they are linked together but linking them together is a specific position of that tradition.

My main approach and the concept I have to think about this space comes from Danis Bois. He is an interesting Frenchman, who discovered mediation while learning to be an osteopath. The next ten years he spent 8 hours per day meditating, traveled to guru's in India and taught what he called at the time Fascia therapy. At a time where he was successful with his life in the spiritual community he thought they were too dogmatic and decided to go to university. He studied education as his major and become a professor in Portugal and recently retired from being a professor.

There's no renunciation of the self in Bois work. He grants that it often makes sense to think about having multiple 'I' but neither of  them is false. On the other hand having a strong feeling of existence is a key in his way.

David Chapman wrote a lot about the conflict between Consensus Buddhism and Tantra Buddhism. Zen Buddhism is part of what Chapman calls consensus Buddhism. One of the key differences is that consensus Buddhism seeks the renunciation of the self while Tantra doesn't.

While the path of renunciation exists, I consider it to be in conflict with the standard rational goals of having an impact on the world. Given the predominance of Zen in popular culture it might seem like it's the only valid path, but it's not the only spiritual path that enables the ability to Look.

Both Danis Bois paradigm and Tantra care a lot about relationships and consider relating to be important. Going deeply into what that means is a subject for another post but fortunately we have the shared concept of Circling. Circling is about exploring how we relate to each other.

Just like mindfulness meditation is a condensed version of Zen, Circling feels to me like a condensed version of a spiritual path of being in relation.

In my model of the world I can imagine a person who spends a lot of time Circling developing the ability to look in the process. At the same time I wouldn't expect them to renunciation their self.

17 comments

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comment by sarahconstantin · 2018-03-14T19:03:56.099Z · score: 15 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Can you clarify what you mean by "renunciation of the self"?

In David Chapman's writing, I think he makes the claim that selves do not exist, and he's a Tantra practitioner. (My perspective is that he has a different definition of "exist" than me, but that we're pointing at the same observations.) He doesn't believe in, and Tantra doesn't preach, a renunciate lifestyle -- they think it's okay to eat meat, have sex, earn money, and so on.

comment by David_Chapman · 2018-03-15T04:52:50.278Z · score: 13 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I would not say that selves don't exist (although it's possible that I have done so somewhere, sloppily).

Rather, that selves are both nebulous and patterned ("empty forms," in Tantric terminology).

Probably the clearest summary of that I've written so far is "Selfness," which is supposed to be the introduction to a chapter of the Meaningness book that does not yet otherwise exist.

Renouncing the self is characteristic of Sutrayana.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2018-03-13T21:41:10.202Z · score: 13 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Overall I enjoyed this, but two nits to pick:

Zen Buddhism is part of what Chapman calls consensus Buddhism. One of the key differences is that consensus Buddhism seeks the renunciation of the self while Tantra doesn't.

Zen is not necessarily part of consensus Buddhism as it tends to be more serious and closer to monastic practice than what I tend to think of as the "consensus" folks who are more often part of something like Shambhala, Pure Land, or various westernized versions of Theravada traditions. Unfortunately zen is not so monolithic that I can say for sure that no zen would meet Chapman's criteria for being part of the consensus.

Just like mindfulness meditation is a condensed version of Zen

My impression is that most mindfulness meditation draws more from yogacara and vipassana and the resemblance to zen practices is more coincidental than as a result of lineage. Of particular note is that there is little to no instruction provided for sitting zen--part of the practice is figuring out on your own how to sit--which seems quite different from what is often done in mindfulness practices.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-03-14T18:46:41.621Z · score: 10 (2 votes) · LW · GW

As far as lineage goes, Jon Kabat-Zinn was very important for the secular mindfulness that we have as he standardized mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and thus provided "science-backed" meditation and thus people who wanted to do science-based meditation oriented themselves on what Jon Kabat-Zinn standardized.

Wikipedia says about him:

"Kabat-Zinn was a student of Buddhist teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Zen Master Seung Sahn and a founding member of Cambridge Zen Center."

According to Wikipedia Thich Nhat Hanh comes from Vietnamese Thiền which is a school of Zen Buddhism.

Do you have a different idea of the history of mindfulness meditation?

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2018-03-14T19:27:54.160Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not especially familiar with the history of MBSR. What I know more is that when I've seen self-described mindfulness practices presented they often rely more heavily on techniques I would associate with vipassana. Also you're correct that Thien is the Vietnamese lineage of Chan Buddhism (Zen is the Japanese lineage of Chan, Keown is the Korean lineage, and Chan itself being the Chinese version started when Buddhism was brought to China), although each one is divergent enough in the specifics that it's hard to say they are on-the-ground similar other than pulling from a common set of historical texts and practices. Given the high prevalence of Theravadic practice in south-east Asia, though, it doesn't seem all that surprising to me that Thien practices might look a lot like the neighboring practices and maybe that's what I've noticed.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-03-14T17:46:40.304Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. Do you think it's fair to say that Zen "seeks" renunciation of the self?

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2018-03-14T19:34:48.414Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW

To some extent yes, although as you note "seek" would be a weird word to use (at least within my own tradition of Soto Zen). Zen takes as fundamental the idea that you already have Buddha nature and through practice learn to awaken to it. Part of Buddha nature is dissolution of the self (the no-self), so awakening or bodhi involves experiencing the no-self, but at least within Soto there is not an attempt to attain no-self; instead it may be a consequence of practice or it may not. Other schools of Zen and Chan Buddhism might be more oriented towards the goal of renunciation of self, but Soto Zen is not.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-03-14T20:37:43.382Z · score: 11 (2 votes) · LW · GW
I have the feeling that both you and Valentine mix the concept of Looking together with no-self even through they are independent for each other.

Both me and Valentine said that no-self is one of the things that you can Look at, but it's not the only one, and that no-self and Looking are distinct and independent concepts?

Or at least Val never specifically mentioned no-self, but he did mostly endorse Ben's comment which summarized Val's position as

I want to get you to experience enlightenment. Not because enlightenment is valuable, but because it’s hard, and the skill of achieving enlightenment generalises to learning a bunch of other things (that are similarly hard).

And likewise, I mentioned that all of the stuff about overcoming suffering and figuring out no-self, is just one particular special case of Looking:

Understanding suffering is a special case of Looking, but a sufficiently important one that it deserves to be briefly discussed in some detail.

So, I don't think that we disagree on that front.

That said, I feel like your post is confusing "renunciation of the self" with "renunciation in general". At least my experience so far doesn't suggest that getting an understanding of the nature of the self would require renunciation in general: rather, seeing that the self is an arbitrary construct which you don't need to take too seriously, can enable you to play with it in a tantric fashion. Which is an idea that I got from Val's post where he talked about doing exactly that!

(I also have a recollection of Chapman writing about how enlightenment [which I interpret as internalizing the three marks on a deep level] is a prerequisite for doing tantra and dzogchen properly, since before that you're too wedded to your fabrications and take them too seriously to play with them; but I don't recall where I remember seeing that, so could misremember. I'll ping him.)

comment by David_Chapman · 2018-03-15T04:08:35.689Z · score: 19 (5 votes) · LW · GW

[FWOMP Summoned spirit appears in Kaj's chalk octogram. Gouts of eldritch flame, etc. Spirit squints around at unfamiliar environment bemusedly. Takes off glasses, holds them up to the candlelight, grimaces, wipes glasses on clothing, replaces on nose. Grunts. Speaks:]

Buddhism is a diverse family of religions, with distinct conceptions of enlightenment. These seem to be quite different and contradictory.

According to one classification of disparate doctrines, Buddhism can be divided into Vajrayana (Tantra plus Dzogchen) and Sutrayana (everything else, except maybe Zen). In this classification, Sutrayana aims at "emptiness," which is a generalization of the Three Marks, including anatman (non-self). The central method of Sutrayana is renunciation. Renunciation of the self is a major aspect. For Sutrayana, clear sustained perception of anatman (or emptiness more generally) is enlightenment, by definition.

For Buddhist Tantra, experience of emptiness is the "base" or starting point. That's the sense in which "enlightenment is the prerequisite"—but it's enlightenment as understood in Sutrayana. Whereas Sutrayana is the path from "form" (ordinary appearances) to emptiness, Tantra is the path from emptiness to the non-duality of emptiness and form. The aim is to perceive everything as both simultaneously. That non-dual vision is the definition of enlightenment within Tantra. The "duality" referred to here is the duality between emptiness and form, rather than the duality between self and other—which is what is overcome in Sutrayana. The non-dual vision that is the end-point of Tantra, is then the base or starting point for Dzogchen.

(Probably the best thing I've written about this is "Beyond Emptiness: Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen." It may not be very clear but I hope at least it is entertaining. "Sutra, Tantra, and the Modern Worldview" is less fun but more concrete.)

seeing that the self is an arbitrary construct which you don't need to take too seriously, can enable you to play with it in a tantric fashion

Yes, this is a Vajrayana viewpoint. For Sutrayana, the self is non-existent, or at least "empty"; for Vajrayana, it is empty form. That is, "self" is a label applied to various phenomena, which overall are found to be insubstantial, transient, boundaryless, discontinuous, and ambiguous—and yet which exhibit heft, durability, continence, extension, and specificity. This mild paradox is quite amusing—a starting point for tantric play.

I'll say a bit more about "self" in response to Sarah Constantin's comment on this post.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-03-16T09:57:07.773Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW

When it comes to reading articles here on LW I don't get the feeling that everything that could be said is said.
Pleading directly for getting rid of the self wouldn't fit into the overton window. Just like issues regarding the t-word or the e-word are unlikely to be expressed. To be fair there's a bit of discussion about the e-word but not in this context.

The word arbitrary is a bit suspect to me. If I would hear a rationalist who says that his love for his wife is arbitrary because it's what evolution programmed into him my instinct would be that there's an issue with how he's in relationship.

I get the same sentiment when I hear you speak about how your self is arbitrary in this context.

When it comes to the reports of memory loss in the comments of the PNSE paper (and Richard's comment) I don't see why that would come with the ability to look but I can see that cutting connections to the self could lead to such issues.

More practically I have the concern of taking meditation advice from Buddhists who's goal is a state of detachment from the self or simply following what they recommend (and what's designed for the outcome of creating detachment) might be problematic.

Of course I might also very well have misunderstood where you or Valentine are and it's not an easy topic to talk about, especially in a text-based public venue like this.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2018-03-16T13:53:24.427Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW
When it comes to reading articles here on LW I don't get the feeling that everything that could be said is said. Pleading directly for getting rid of the self wouldn't fit into the overton window.

Well, if you suspect that I have a hidden agenda which I'm not stating for strategic reasons, I don't know if I can say anything that would convince you otherwise.

I can only say that I have no interest in broad renunciation, and that at least everything that I've been doing so far - including my no-self experiences - has only felt liberating; to the extent that it has affected my ability to influence the world, it has felt like I've gotten more agency and ability to influence the world, not less. (Though a lot of it has been purely neutral too.) If some meditation technique starts feeling like it's reducing my ability to achieve things in the world, then I will stop using that technique and try some other technique instead.

Re: arbitrary - I don't think I have the same connotations for the word as you do. A lot of things can be arbitrary and still be valuable.

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-03-16T14:41:20.506Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You don't need to have an agenda of wanting to renounce the self to practice techniques that have that result.

comment by gjm · 2018-03-14T17:49:16.813Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Superficial typo-pointing-out comment: I think that when you wrote "path of reunification" you meant "path of renunciation". (I am bothering to write this only because (1) the typo changes the meaning a lot and it derailed me for a few seconds and (2) I'm not quite sure I'm right about what went wrong, and if actually you meant to write what you did and I just failed to understand then you might want to add some clarifications.)

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-03-14T19:48:52.676Z · score: 5 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, I got a typo in the first place and hit spellcheck and didn't check the right one.

comment by Elo · 2018-03-13T20:23:23.329Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

a person who spends a lot of time Circling developing the ability to look in the process. At the same time I wouldn’t expect them to renunciation their self.

I agree that the process could lead there, except that I do see the potential non-self experiences almost definitely. By analysing how we relate you end up trying to get a feel for phenomenalism (which you describe very well). In the process of getting the hang of subject-object relating experience you can pretty easily drop the self.

Related, NVC was part of my path and a missing key to my map that helped me to making sense of non-duality by general accident (I wasn't aiming for enlightenment I just go down lots of rabbit holes).

comment by ChristianKl · 2018-03-14T17:43:03.166Z · score: 8 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think the word non-duality indicates self transcendence and/or self renunciation. There isn't only a single way to deal with non-duality.

If you have a clear connection with your felt sense that creates a relationship with your body that makes it clearly your own soma in a very phenomenal basic way.

If you go well through naming an emotion and giving it a handle you create a felt shift as you engage with it.

If you spend 4 hours sitting and focused on your breath you don't engage with any emotions that might come up during the time. You are mindful of them but you don't connect with them or label them.

I'm not sure whether the following is true for you but it was comes intuitively to me and simply expressing my intuitions might be good for providing more substance to understand my perspective:

I could imagine a rationalist who attempts to do NVC to do it without connecting to any of his emotions and thus end up in a place where he detaches from his self but I would consider that partly cargo-culting NVC.

comment by Elo · 2018-03-15T01:35:19.892Z · score: 4 (1 votes) · LW · GW

cargo cult nvc.

Agreed. Edit: also that's kinds a straw rationalist but yes.