A Huxley Hoax?
We’ve learned so much about Buddhism since Huxley was alive, I was surprised that Dana Sawyer simply reported Huxley’s judgments about Buddhism without checking to see if they were still valid or not [“Aldous Huxley’s Truth Beyond Tradition,” Fall 2003]. Did Huxley really know enough about Theravada meditation or Pure Land devotionalism to make accurate judgments about them? In The Perennial Philosophy, did he really identify the subtext of all great spiritual traditions? Or did he simply cite writings that coincided with his own personal preferences? A glance at the first chapter of that book is enough to make you wonder if he really understood what the teaching on nonself was all about. It would be useful to have an article that accurately assessed these issues.
Instead, Mr. Sawyer used his article to put forward his own ideas about the value of eclecticism, calling them “a challenge” and “a threat” to established Buddhism, but it’s hard to see where the challenges and the threat lie. Mr. Sawyer states that anything that works or is meaningful should be accepted as true regardless of what tradition it comes from, and on the surface there is little to argue on this point. However, he presents no clear test to determine what works or what is meaningful, and in this way his position is nowhere nearly as rigorous as the Buddha’s, as outlined in Larry Rosenberg’s article on the Kalama Sutta [“The Right to Ask Questions,” Fall 2003]. Unlike the Buddha’s criteria, Mr. Sawyer’s wouldn’t protect us, for instance, from politicians who find that a belief in a vengeful God works for them, or from hate-mongers who find meaning in demonizing the rest of the world.
—Brad Vinikow, Fountain Valley, California
Dana Sawyer Responds
Answering the above questions more or less in order: First, yes, Huxley did have a strong understanding of Buddhist traditions, which he based on much research, and recent scholarship has not invalidated this fact. My own education includes considerable graduate study in Buddhist traditions, and I cannot find any error in his basic understanding. Also, my article on Huxley was previewed before publication by Dr. Eric Reinders, professor of Buddhist Studies at Emory University, and Mu Seong, director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and they raised no concerns about Huxley’s take on Buddhism.
Regarding your query about whether or not Huxley understood the “teaching on nonself,” I think that his writings clearly show that he did. In The Perennial Philosophy itself, in the section on “nonattachment,” he writes: “The divine eternal fullness of life can be gained only by those who have deliberately lost the partial, separative life of craving and self-interest, of egocentric thinking, feeling, wishing, and acting.” And when he discusses “self-knowledge” he makes clear that knowing one’s self means letting go of it—because those who don’t, “lack the necessary humility” and are “without the fully realized knowledge of their own personal nothingness.” And even back in Chapter One, Huxley makes reference to anatta [no-self]—quoting the Buddha, who explains that to seek a “soul” inside the skandhas [the five aggregates, which together constitute “personality”] is like seeking “the abode of music in the body of a lute.”
On the charge that I have used Huxley to forward my own ideas of eclecticism, I assure you that I have in no way modified Huxley’s position to suit my purposes—and time spent reading Huxley can easily confirm this. When I was comparing Huxley’s ecumenical viewpoint with Goldstein’s—which comprises only the last quarter of my article—I was merely offering a hypothesis. I state clearly that the hypothesis is mine (extrapolating from the position that Huxley himself makes clear), and this is a common scholarly practice. My purpose was to explore Huxley’s position in a contemporary context.
Lastly, you are right that my article does not give the kind of detailed criteria for determining “what works” that is found in Larry Rosenberg’s excellent article. But that was not my purpose. The Perennial Philosophy abounds with such criteria—many of them drawn from Buddhist sources. My purpose was to articulate Huxley’s understanding of Buddhism, and then, at the end, to describe his interesting position that all teachings and practices should be considered as “means” and not “ends,” to avoid the dangers of dogmatism. Huxley believed that if this rule were followed, it would guarantee an ecumenical and otherwise open-minded attitude—the kind of attitude that could perhaps free us of the zealousness with which current ideological dogmatists are creating the violence that you yourself mention.
A Second Opinion
I greatly enjoyed the clarity and honesty of “Under The Lens: An American Zen Community in Crisis” [Fall 2003], until the very last sentence, when I absolutely cringed. In the interest of awareness of alcoholism in the Buddhist community and elsewhere, I would like to point out that Anne Cushman’s conclusion that Maezumi Roshi’s death by drowning drunk in his bathtub does not prove “he was human to the end.” It proves that his recovery process, initiated twenty years before, when his students sent him to the Betty Ford Clinic, was tragically unsuccessful.
One cannot meditate one’s way to recovery, but rather one must in a very focused way disrupt the mental and emotional patterns of addictive logic that perpetuate the addiction even when damage to self and others is evident. Meditation becomes important later, when the spiritual aspects of recovery have a chance of taking hold in a sober mind.
—Dr. Richard Schaub, New York City
What Does It All Mean?
A few months ago I submitted the following question to “On The Cushion”: “Is it possible to have a meaningful meditation practice in the absence of a living teacher?”
In the Fall 2003 issue, Steve Hagen addresses my question, but he does not answer it. Instead, he expounds at some length on the absurdity of seeing meditation as a search for meaning. I agree that meditation is an end in itself. Fair enough, but does it therefore follow that meditating is a meaningless activity? I don’t think so.
If meditation has no meaning or purpose, why publish Tricycle, whose goal seems to be to get us all on that cushion? Why bother to sponsor Change Your Mind Day [a day of free meditation instruction offered to the general public in parks across the country and abroad]?
As a beginner, I was not looking for meaning but for guidance. What I got was a clever Zen slap in the face, which I found less than helpful.
—Helen Weaver, Woodstock, New York
I have some questions about Steve Hagen’s answer to the meditation question in your Fall 2003 issue. What’s wrong with having a purpose for meditating? If meditation is defined as being in the present moment without purpose, I can think of a lot of things I’ve done in my life that had me totally involved in the present moment without thought of the consequences, and for the most part they would have been better left undone. Is that sort of activity really better than the type of meditation where people are trying to cut down on their greed, anger, and delusion? And when Hagen says that his tradition denies that there’s any enlightenment to attain, how am I supposed to interpret that in light of other meditation traditions that give specific instructions on how to get to enlightenment? Do he and his teachers know something those other traditions don’t know, or have they simply not gotten there?
I realize that the desire for enlightenment can be an obstacle to practice, but is making a big deal of denying it the only way to handle it? I also realize that it’s pretty cool to say that you’ve devoted your life to something totally meaningless and that you wash dishes in a way that’s too profound for words, but if the cool pose comes at the price of an enlightenment where there are no dishes to wash, what’s so cool about it?
—Giles Penny, Williamsburg, Virginia
The latest issue of Tricycle arrived in my mailbox about a week ago. I was quite pleased to find an articlewritten by Steve Hagen. The question he addressed was from a reader in Woodstock, New York, who wanted to know if it was possible to have a “meaningful” meditation practice without a teacher. I have been practicing Buddhism since the late 1970s. I have discovered that getting a straight answer from a Buddhist teacher is like trying to shoot an arrow around a corner, for Buddhist teachers choose not to see in a straight line. Therefore (though not presuming to be more than a practitioner), I will answer the question of the person from Woodstock: Yes, you do need a teacher to help you find your way. Without a teacher, you are like a city dweller lost in the middle of a forest. You need direction.
—William Gilliland, Farmington, Maine
I’ve been a reader of Tricycle for a number of years, and I’ve always been struck that your magazine—and Buddhism in America, for that matter—seemed to be geared toward those who can afford it, those who can afford the expensive retreats advertised. Stories and articles about doctors, lawyers, etc. dominate. I would just like you to know that there are those of us who do manual labor and make under $50,000 a year with families, who are nonetheless practitioners of the dharma. It would be nice to see an article on a carpenter, a house painter, or a waitress in an upcoming issue.
—Tony Ryan, Boyce, Virginia
Oops . . .
I wanted to point out that in the article by Allan Hunt Badiner about Rajgir, India [“The Practical Pilgrim,” Fall 2003], the author states that “others recited the prayer of the Pure Land tradition, ‘Namu-Myoho-renge-kyo.’” This is the mantra of Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhism, not Pure Land. Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land) Buddhists recite the Nembutsu—“Namu Amida Butsu”—the name that calls us to awaken. I also wanted to say I enjoy your magazine tremendously and find it very informative and that I read it cover to cover.
—David Shodo Portolano, E-mail
Correction: In the Fall 2003 Books in Brief section, the editor of Holding the Lotus to the Rock was misidentified; his name is Michael Hotz.
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