Cup of Nirvana Philosophical and Contemplative Explorations

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The Myth of Enlightenment

Are you seeking enlightenment? What I’m about to say may be surprising: give up this search for enlightenment.  Everyone seeking “enlightenment” ensures only one result, the continuation of his or her own unhappiness.  Your fundamental interest is best served by simply dumping this search for enlightenment into the nearest trashcan.

In the present essay, I would like to deconstruct or demythologize “enlightenment” and explain the central insight of Non-Duality within many of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.  This central insight may be concisely stated as follows: you are already awake, and nothing can make you more awake than you already are. As something not already in your possession, not already your present reality, and therefore as something you aim to attain, enlightenment is a myth, indeed a delusion. The search for enlightenment is self-defeating in this way, for the reality you are seeking can never become your present reality because it already is your present reality.  As Zen Buddhist Sekkei Harada has said, “If you make a separation between yourself and what you are looking for, no matter how much effort you make to lessen that distance, that effort will be in vain.”

I.  The Enlightenment-Seeking Game 

Humans have something of a shared project: the search for completion, satisfaction, or fulfillment.  In the material sphere of existence, we seek completion through money, fame, physical possessions of various sorts, drugs, and—if we’re more “evolved”—the right kind of relationship with another person (e.g., friendship, lover, partner). Many people realize at some point, though, that none of these objects or relationships really brings a genuine or lasting completion or fulfillment.  Once we’ve run through multiple unsatisfying relationships or career paths, we may find ourselves, like many others, moving on and seeking completion in an ostensibly transcendent or spiritual object or relationship.  By way of meditation, prayer, or some other spiritual practice, one seeks spiritual awakening or a personal connection with God.  Those lucky enough to find it, inevitably lose it and spend the rest of their lives trying to find it again.


The search for completion, whether undertaken in the material or spiritual spheres of human experience, is actually one and the same.  It’s the search to be someone or something, to have an identity, and it’s rooted in our shared sense of incompletion and lack of satisfaction.  At the root of the search for enlightenment is the same feeling and belief at the root of the search for completion in the material sphere of existence, namely the feeling of separateness and the belief that I am a separate self and therefore lacking a connection or oneness with others and the world. From this notion of being a separate self arises all suffering or lack of satisfaction.  As long as searching is present, lack of satisfaction is present.  As Francis Lucille has aptly noted, “unhappiness is the search for happiness.”  What must ultimately be uprooted is not the object of the search, but the very search itself.  The reason why our search for enlightenment fails is not because we haven’t found the right object.  It fails because we think there is an object, something outside ourselves and something not already present, that will bring the satisfaction we wish to attain. 

II.  The Dualistic Presuppositions of Enlightenment-Seeking

To hear that the search for enlightenment is misguided is initially confusing to most people.  This is probably because the eastern spiritual traditions are often portrayed as proposing paths that allegedly lead to enlightenment.  Enlightenment is the spiritual equivalent of baking a cake: just follow the recipe, and there are lots of recipes out there for enlightenment. So, for example, by practicing meditation a person is supposed to achieve enlightenment, or by engaging in devotion to a particular god (e.g., Shiva or Krishna) a person is supposed to experience God.  After all, wasn’t the “Buddha” (i.e., the “awakened one”) born only when Siddhartha Gautama achieved special insight while sitting under the Bodhi tree after many years of meditation and rigorous spiritual practice? Didn’t the various Christian saints experience God only after their devotional practice was sufficiently elevated? 

The assumption in this common account of enlightenment is that we move from lacking something (e.g., knowledge, wisdom, enlightenment, connection with God) to possessing it. Our natural condition, or at least starting point, is that of ignorance: ignorance about the true nature of the world and the self.  By following a particular path or spiritual practice this condition of ignorance is supposed to dissolve.  One achieves a new condition of awakening or enlightenment.  There is practice, and there is the goal to which it leads. Practice and goal are two separate things, and the goal is achieved as the effect of the practice as cause.

This common understanding of enlightenment and its conditions is misleading at best, and in at least one sense simply false.  So I call it the “myth of enlightenment.” 

The common understanding rests on the false assumption that there is actually a separation between things, for example, between some goal and the means that leads to it, or a separation between the place you’re in at present and where you should be in order to be “OK.”  Most fundamentally, it assumes a separation between what you are and that which you wish to attain.  The eastern traditions use the word “samsara” to refer to the cycle of death and rebirth, a cycle fueled by our attachments to sense objects (e.g., things, people, relationships).  In samsara there is suffering, as our attachments never bring us lasting satisfaction. Samsara is often contrasted with moksha (liberation from the suffering intrinsic to samsara) or nirvana (cessation of the suffering intrinsic to samsara).  The common understanding of enlightenment suggests a separation between samsara and moksha/nirvana.

The common understanding engenders questions like, where is Nirvana located? What kind of existence is Nirvana?  Do we need to die to get there?  Similarly, it leads seekers to suppose that enlightenment is some exotic experience, some altered state of consciousness.  After all, if enlightenment is a realm outside of ordinary experience, it must at the very least involve a radically altered state of consciousness.  So people end up ingesting some hallucinogenic drug and spending four hours looking at smashed cherries on the sidewalk in the hope of seeing the face of God. 

III.  The Non-Dual Understanding of Enlightenment 

In the non-dual spiritual traditions (for example, in Zen Buddhism and Hindu Advaita Vedanta), the forms of separation or duality suggested by the common understanding of enlightenment are considered false, or at any rate they cannot be the ultimate truth. Therefore, non-dual traditions have a very different understanding of enlightenment and its relation to spiritual practice and our present condition. 

Three famous non-dual teachers illustrate the fundamental point.

Second-century Indian philosopher Nagarjuna wrote: 

Nothing of saṁsāra is different from nirvāṇa, nothing of nirvāṇa is different from saṁsāra. That which is the limit of nirvāṇa is also the limit of saṁsāra; there is not the slightest difference between the two.

Zen master Dogen said: 

You should understand that birth-and-death is itself nirvana. Nirvana is not realized outside of birth-and-death. . . . Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap. . . .It’s not that there is no practice and no enlightenment. It’s just that it’s not possible to divide them.

Ramana Maharshi taught: 

The state of Self-realization, as we call it, is not attaining something new or reaching some goal which is far away, but simply being that which you always are and which you always have been.

It is false to speak of realization. What is there to realize? The real is as it is always. We are not creating anything new or achieving something which we did not have before. . . . Liberation is our very nature.  We are that! 

There is no goal to be reached. There is nothing to be attained.  You are the Self.  You exist always. Nothing more can be predicated of the Self than that it exists.  Seeing God or the Self is only being the Self or yourself.  Seeing is being.

So where is nirvana? Answer: it’s nowhere; indeed, it’s nothing other than life as it is already present to you.  What kind of experience is it? Answer: it isn’t an experience at all. It’s what is present in all experience, namely the awareness or consciousness at the root of every thought, feeling, and sensation, or what is often called the witnessing background of experience.  As Maharshi repeatedly said, nothing is more evident to us than I am, not I am “this” or “that,” but simply I am, simple consciousness, or the abiding presence of awareness. 

According to the logic of Non-Duality, there can be no ultimate separation between practice and enlightenment because reality as such is non-dual.  Since the mind operates according to dualistic categories, the mind’s grasp of reality is always by means of conceptual and categorical overlay.  We cannot say that the mind is grasping things as they truly are. Consequently, practice and enlightenment become two things by way of mental engagement with reality as it is.  Similarly, no one can achieve enlightenment or awakening because that which is (inadequately) signified by the term “awakening” is already the present reality, indeed the only reality there is.

In considering your alleged “awakening,” simply ask yourself “who is there to be awakened”?  Not your true Self, for your true Self is already awake, just as the sun is already shining and inseparable from its light.  The mind cannot be awakened, for to become awake is to see and be all things as they truly are, as ultimately one.  This is beyond the mind, which can only approach it by speculative and theoretical reconstruction, as an object of inquiry.  A character in a film may intellectually entertain the possibility of being made out of the screen, but he cannot experientially know it. Similarly, the mind cannot know the substratum of pure awareness out of which it is made. 

What is often obscured in this exploration is the distinction between the fact of our essential nature and the mind’s encounter with it or approach to it.  Our essential nature is clear seeing or simple awareness.  More completely stated, it’s the union of being and knowing, and peace is intrinsic to it.  For this reason, in Vedanta the Self is called satchitananda (being-consciousness-bliss). Hence, peace is already the present reality.  However, having judged this reality not to be present, the mind embarks upon the search for it.  Of course, it will not find it for the very reason that it initially judges it absent.  The present reality eludes the grasp of the mind because reality is non-dual, but the mind operates on a dualistic schema, which filters and alters the present reality, dividing it into subject-object and thereby separating being and knowing.  Hence, the peace intrinsic to our very Self is not graspable by the mind. At best, it’s obscurely reflected in the mind it in a filtered, limited form.

A frequently used analogy to illustrate the relationship between the mind and our essential nature as abiding peaceful awareness is that of a dusty mirror that reflects rays of light from the sun.  The mirror can only inadequately approximate the reality of the sun by reflecting its light along the surface of its limited, dusty contours.  Neither the mirror nor the light it reflects is the sun itself. It’s the sun altered or modified in the form light from the mirror.  Similarly, the effects of our essential nature may arise in the mind, veiled and altered under name and form.  In this way, “awareness” – I am – takes the form of a particular I-thought (I am a man, I am a student), I-feeling (I am tired, I am sad), or I-sensation (I am appeared to redly, I am appeared to mountainly).  The latter are all limited names and forms of unlimited awareness.  At best they dimly reflect our essential nature. 

Rupert Spira has nicely summarized enlightenment from the non-dual viewpoint.

Real enlightenment is not an exotic experience.  It’s the natural condition of all experience.  It’s the most familiar thing we know: just the knowing of our own being as it is, and it shines at the heart of all experience. 

IV. Re-Conceptualizing the Enlightenment Experience

What then is the alleged experience of enlightenment?  After all, many people have claimed such an experience.  Two possibilities present themselves that are consistent with non-duality. 

First, they may be referring to the mind’s reflection of the reality that is already present as their essential Self.  Here there is no becoming enlightened.  The mind is always reflecting this present reality, for it is not an experience but the witnessing background of all experience.  What is always present is awareness, I am or I am present.  At the most we can say that something is noticed, in much the same way that we may suddenly notice the screen on the television we’ve been watching for an hour. We’ve been looking at the screen all along as we watch the movie.  But our attention shifts to the screen as that out of which the movie is made.  Periodically there is a blissful experience or some other apparent shift in awareness.  The thing to understand here is that the particular experience is an effect of the deeper reality; it is not that reality itself.  Those who are seeking a particular experience will invariably miss their essential nature.

Alternatively, what is called “enlightenment” may also be conceptualized not as an event in the mind or ego (even as the effect of our essential Self), but as what is left when the separate self or mind has dissolved. This preserves non-duality in a more coherent manner.  When there is a noticing of abiding awareness, it’s the same noticing that is happening all along, except that the hindrance, the mind, has been removed.  The mind does not apprehend the Self, neither directly nor indirectly.  It is knowing that knows, and knowing immediately and infallibly knows itself.  And this knowing is simply non-different from being the Self each person essentially is, in much the same way that the sun’s being just is the sun’s illumination. 

We can, of course, interpret spiritual practice in either of these two ways, as either a polishing of the mirror or as a shattering of the mirror.  But consider practice from the latter viewpoint.  Ramana Maharshi, in recommending the method of self-inquiry, asked his students to trace the I-thought back to its source, which is the Self or Essential I of pure awareness.  In this process, of course, the mind never gets to the source.  It dissolves upon approach, like rays of light reflected off a mirror back into the sun from which they originated. As Maharshi said, “When the ‘I’ is divested of the ‘I’ only the ‘I’ remains.”  So it’s not that the mind achieves insight, either directly or indirectly.  The mind simply ceases to exist.  It’s not that practice polishes the mirror.  Practice breaks the mirror altogether, which is why the understanding that is present in clear seeing is non-different from our very being. Better yet, practice is the celebration of realization as our essential nature. 

Hence, Maharshi says: 

You are awareness. Awareness is another name for you. Since you are awareness there is no need to attain or cultivate it. All that you have to do is to give up being aware of other things, that is of the not-Self. If one gives up being aware of them then pure awareness alone remains, and that is the Self.

V.  A Non-Dual Orientation Towards Practice

We can still speak of enlightenment or awakening, though paradoxically there is no one there to be enlightened or awakened.  At the most, we can say there is awakening.  Indeed, there was awakening, there is awakening, and there will always be awakening. There is also no need to deny practice.  What is essential is the attitude towards it.  Any orientation towards practice that loses sight of the abiding presence of awareness loses sight of practice itself, for practice is itself an expression of the awakening that is the Self.

Paradoxically, the best practice for a person will be whatever practice helps relax and dissolve the effort to find enlightenment.  It can be playing the guitar, basketball, writing in a journal, sitting by the ocean, reading a book, petting a cat, making love, eating chocolate, painting a wall, or sitting in a Zendo with your face to the wall.  All these activities can be forms and expressions of meditation, if by this we understand what Krishnamurti said: “in meditation every form of search must come to an end.”  What is crucial is being present, and you are utterly present whenever your activity is undertaken for no reason other than the pure love of doing it. Here you see that meditation is what you are, and it’s merely revealed in the practice.  For this reason, Jeff Foster says, “the end of all seeking is life as it is.”  Here there is clear seeing, of dogs, people, trees, rivers, butterflies, birth, pain, and death.

Of course, life “as it is” is already underway and totally present.  Oneness is not something separate from what is already happening around you and within you.  And you are already seeing life as it is.  Indeed, you are that life!  Therefore, in your essential nature you are already awake, and nothing can make you more awake than you already are. 

Michael Sudduth

Chocolate Nirvana

The Sesshin at Jikoji Zen Meditation Retreat Center ended on Sunday July 6, 2014 with my first bite of chocolate in two years.

For those unfamiliar with sesshin, it’s a multi-day period of intensive Zen meditation. We just completed a three-day sesshin at Jikoji. For various reasons, my participation in the sesshin was less than I had anticipated, but something very profound happened at the end.  You might call it enlightenment, satori, or nirvana, or – what amounts to the same – life as it is.  I ended my nearly two-year abandonment of processed sugar and ate a large piece of chocolate.  While this may seem insignificant to many people, it was a profoundly beautiful event I experienced in utter solitude. 

Background. I had a very dear friend visiting me here at Jikoji for a few days. While roaming unseasonably frigid beaches in Santa Cruz, we had some wonderful discussions about our evolving spiritual practices and individual life journeys.  Among our “lighter” topics of discussion was food, and in connection with that what “sweet” thing I should choose to temporarily suspend my now nearly two-year abandonment of processed sugar.  I had decided that it should be extremely expensive, something like a $30 chocolate eclair at a fancy restaurant, consumed with an expensive bottle of wine and the company of close friends, somewhat reminiscent of Socrates being joined with close friends as he drank the hemlock and passed into the world of the gods.

However, on Sunday as I walked into the resident kitchen at Jikoji, in a moment’s realization my former intention struck me as utterly absurd.  It was then that my eyes fell upon a huge block of dark, bitter-sweet chocolate with almonds, sitting on the kitchen table.  I walked up to it, broke off a large chunk, and without a second thought ate it all by myself. I drank it down with a cup of earl grey tea . . . hot. 

I have a feeling I will later look upon this experience and realize that I was “enlightened” at the moment the chocolate entered my mouth. maybe before, or maybe after.  For now, I simply see the experience as one in which I let the river carry me to the ocean.  Perhaps as the chocolate dissolved in my mouth, I too dissolved into a timeless present in which clinging and aversion had temporarily disappeared.

Do I now become a sugar addict again?  Only time will tell.  However, self understanding, which is the only final virtue in life, is worth the risk.  As philosopher Harry Callahan aptly noted, “a good man always knows his limitations.”  Yet sometimes we only discover our real limits but pressing hard against the false boundaries we have erected in our lives. Right now, I’m largely about saying “fuck you” to limits grounded in delusions created by aversion and my former co-dependent relationship with my ex fiancée.

The bite of chocolate is in a sense nirvana: the cessation of a subtle form of suffering, which can only be rooted out and dissolved one bite at a time.  True freedom lies in the ability to say “yes” to whatever places you on the fine line between utter destruction and complete fulfillment. Anything short of this is a life half lived, and any such life is hardly lived at all. 

Michael Sudduth

Nisargadatta on Wisdom and Love

Nisargadatta Maharaj (1897-1981)

“When I see I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I see I am everything, that is love. My life is a movement between these two.” – Nisargadatta 

Nisargadatta here summarizes one of the central insights articulated in the Upanishads.  He speaks of wisdom or knowledge associated with a negative realization, the realization of what one is not. He also speaks of love associated with the positive realization of what one is. He speaks of his life as a movement between each, for life may be lived in such a way that the wisdom gained by understanding what we are not gives rise to the loving understanding of what we are. Having divested ourselves of the understanding that we are the limited mind, body, or mind-body, we are situated to see that we are a vaster Self present and experienced in all things.


The Path of Exclusion

“To see that one is nothing” doesn’t mean “to see oneself as non-existent.” It’s rather to see one’s no-thingness, seeing that essentially we are not the limited being we believe ourselves to be.  More specifically, it’s to see that the real self is not the mind-body or any of its many manifestations or roles: man, woman, son, father, mother, student, professor, lawyer, American, Californian, Democrat, Republican, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.  I am not what is thought in thinking.  I am not what is perceived in perceiving.  I am not what is sensed in sensing. I am not the body, which appears as the object of my thinking, perceiving, and sensing.  To see that one is no-thing is to dissolve the sense of self that is rooted in attachments to the non-enduring objects of sense experience.  This “path of exclusion” involves a dismantling of a false conception of the self that has arisen from identification with the body-mind.  The Upanishads directs us to this understanding of our essential nature by the phrase neti neti (not this, not that), that is, “I am not this thing” and “I am not that thing.”

Then what?

When the subject is divested of an identity forged in relation to an ostensibly independently existing world of outer objects, the true subject itself is revealed or realized.  I am not my thinking, perceiving, or sensing. I am that which is aware of them. The only enduring feature of experience is the atman, pure awareness, the ever-present, witnessing background of all experience. This is the “I” that remains once the I (of the false ego) is dissolved. In this way, the path of exclusion brings one to the knowledge of the true, enduring Self.

The Path of Inclusion

However, what is given in the knowledge that one is pure awareness is not the knowledge of the nature of this pure awareness. This remains to be explored as a second movement after the path of exclusion. We can speak of it as a “path of inclusion.” Here the Self, initially distinguished from the world, returns to the world and ultimately sees all things as manifestations of the Self.  The return to the world of objects commences with the exploration of our experience.  It is to ask, what is known in the thinking? What is known in the perceiving? What is known in the sensing? It is to see, after careful engagement, that there is nothing in the experience other than the knowing of it.  In the perception of the tree, there is nothing but the knowing of it. In the sensation of heat, there is nothing but the knowing of it. In the thought of one’s name, there is nothing but the knowing of it. Experience itself is made of nothing but the knowing of it.

“To see that one is everything” is just to see that everything is made out of the awareness that is oneself.  However, never coming to be nor ceasing to be, this awareness is ever-present, without origin, and eternal. Having no boundaries, it is boundless. Having no limit, it is limitless or infinite. The Self does not partake of the destiny of either the body or the mind, but is witness to their birth and witness to their ultimate dissolution.

The Path of Love

This path of inclusion may be understood as “the path of love,” and from this love all compassion freely flows.

First, from the viewpoint of the Upanishads, the heart of all suffering is resistance, and resistance arises from subject-object duality. I can only experience resistance if there is the perception of some thing other than myself.  There can be no resistance in non-duality. Thus non-duality is peace, completeness, satisfaction, or the absence of wanting or needing. Otherwise put, suffering arises from resistance born of the separation between the knower and what is known (being).  Ananda (bliss or love) may therefore be understood as the union or non-separateness of knowing and being.

Second, love is the outflowing of one’s being that produces the infinite variety of the objects of experience. They are so many manifestations of the love that is oneself.  But love is also the inflowing of one’s being back into awareness, for in the realization that “the object” is really a form of the “subject,” the object as a mere object dissolves. Love, divested of its object, falls back into the Self from which it originated. Hence, as the Upanishads state, all things arise from love, evolve through love, and dissolve into love.  You are that love, the fountain of compassion guided by wisdom.

Michael Sudduth

Zen Thoughts

During the past few weeks, I have posted thoughts at the intersection of Zen and Advaita Vedanta.  Here I offer the first of several blogs that I will simply call “Zen Thoughts,” though much of what I have to say reflects the non-dual tradition of Advaita Vedanta.

I begin with three quotes from Zen master Dogen.

“Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap.”

“Great enlightenment is the tea and rice of everyday living.”

“Beyond enlightenment is the jewel concealed in your hair.”

In the first statement Dogen affirms the non-separateness of the Path and the Goal.  In the second he tells us that what we are looking for in the way of spiritual attainment (Path and Goal) is our present reality.  In the third he makes the same point, with the suggestion that we need to “get over” enlightenment as a goal.

Below I explore Dogen’s wisdom.  The first section is a series of statements about enlightenment as our present reality, the mental conditions under which this present reality is obscured, and human suffering.  The second section is a series of statements about zazen, so-called “Zen meditation.” 

I offer these thoughts not simply from an intellectual standpoint but as children born from me through zazen practice during the past few months.  Ultimately, of course, Zen insight cannot be adequately captured through thoughts or words. You must deeply dive into your experience.

Enlightenment as the Veiled Present Reality

1. The greatest challenge in the search for enlightenment is finding the path that leads to it, and the greatest challenge in the search for the path to enlightenment is realizing where you are at present.  The path you are seeking is actually where you are in your present condition, and the light you hope to find at the journey’s end is already your present reality.  It is shining as your essential Self.

2. The mind veils the Dharma (truth), so it is not seen as your present reality.  The mind veils the Path, so it is not seen as the ground where you are already standing and upon which you already walk.  The mind veils the Self, so that it’s seen to be different from the Dharma and the Path.

3. What is the veil?  The veil is the belief and subsequent feeling that I am this self, this person, that what I essentially am shares in the limits and destiny of the mind-body.  Being this self, I am separate from other things.  Being separate from other things, aversion and clinging to them arises.  In short, the veil is the mind’s story. The central character is the “I-thought” and the plot is the search for enlightenment, intermittently suspended by brief moments of peace in an on-going cycle of clinging and aversion.

4. Ramana Maharshi said, “When the I is divested of the I, only the I remains.”  Here the Big Mind of Zen meets the Abiding Awareness of Vedanta.  Enlightenment, therefore, may be described as a subtraction:  the falling away of the small mind, the dismantling of the false ego, the dissolution of what we take ourselves to be.

5a. The present reality is the perception of the butterfly landing on a leaf, the sound of a passing car, the taste of cashew butter, the smell of oranges, the softness of the cat’s fur as your hand glides upon its back – all an expression or manifestation of life as it is, without judgment, without reaction.  You are that.

5b. The present reality is the perception of the lifeless body of a bird, the screeching sound of nails upon a chalk board, the sourness of a lemon, the smell of rotting meat, and the prick of a thorn that penetrates your skin – all an expression or manifestation of life as it is, without judgment, without reaction. You are that.

5c. The present reality is your struggle, your depression, your anxiety, your sadness, your pain, your suffering.  It’s the impermanence of things; indeed, it’s the no-thingness of things.  You are that.

6. The greatest obstacle in the search for enlightenment is searching for enlightenment, because in this search you might miss the chair sitting in your room.

7.  Don’t worry about enlightenment. It will find you, and there’s utterly nothing you can do to prevent it.  You may be taking a shower, drinking tea, or brushing your teeth.  You may be reading a novel, conversing with a friend, or watching a cat walk along a fence.  You may be laughing, crying, or sleeping.  Enlightenment will find you.

8.  Enlightenment is like breathing.  It’s present and happening all the time but just not noticed.

9. I like this “pleasant” experience. Attachment to it arises. Suffering is invited. I dislike this “unpleasant” experience.  Aversion to it arises.  Suffering is experienced.

10. Unhappiness is nothing less and nothing more than the search for happiness, but the substance of all unhappiness is the very enduring peace we wish we had instead.

Sunset at Jikoji Ridge

On Zazen (“Zen Meditation”)

1.  Zazen is the path. Zazen is the goal.  Zazen is the goalless path. All true. Like enlightenment, zazen is ungraspable because it grasps us.  If you are reaching for it, it has already reached you.  This is your present condition.

2. Having taken the noble posture in zazen, simply sit with whatever thoughts, feelings, or sensations arise in the mind-body.  Simply “watch” the inner movie, with neither clinging nor aversion to the characters or storyline.  Just observe, without judgment, without commentary.   If judgment or commentary arises, be the watcher of these too.

3. In zazen there is no attempt to change or control the mind, no attempt to rigidly fix the attention on some thought, feeling, or sensation.  In fact, there is no attempt to grasp after or get anything, even from the practice itself. There is, therefore, space for all thoughts, feelings, and sensations.  In this way, life as it is may be clearly seen and seen as one’s present reality.  Zazen is simply the direct or immediate encounter with life as it is.

4. Having freed attention from this or that thought, image, or mantra, we are left only to face the self, to trace the “I-thought” to its origin.

5.  If you close your eyes, you easily fall into your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Open your eyes and always come back to your breath to remain on the “outside” of thoughts, feelings, and sensations.  Always observing.  Know that when judgment is present (“I like this” or “I dislike that”), the mind is speaking.  The witness or observer is awareness.

6. Welcome the unpleasant feeling or thought as much as the pleasant, for they are equally your inner guides. Do not dictate the duration of their stay.  As they spontaneously arise in you, so also they will dissolve of their own accord.

7.  It’s not possible to sit quietly for an extended period of time and not begin the process of peeling away the defenses the mind has created to keep you from life as it is.  This is why few people like to sit still for more than a few moments.  The mind knows the conditions of its own demise.

8a.  Zazen is unconscious work being done on conscious life.  Zazen is conscious work being done on unconscious life.  This is why five minutes in zazen is better than no time in zazen.  What we may describe as “shitty zazen” is zazen nonetheless and on that account entirely efficacious, whether we know it or not.

8b.  If you practice zazen, you may have an experience you call “enlightenment,” or you may not have such an experience. It’s also possible that you will experience enlightenment and simply not know it.

9. The effects of zazen are compassion and wisdom, extended towards oneself and all sentient beings.  Softness guided by insight is a precious jewel.

10.  If you have ever done the dishes, made a bed, or taken out the garbage, you have experienced the whole reality contained in zazen but so cleverly veiled by the small mind.

11. Zazen is a universal “yes.” It is a “yes” to everything, the pleasant and the unpleasant, self and no-self, truth and falsehood, suffering and peace.  This universality, this meeting of every aspect of life, is symbolized in the mudra, the oval-shaped positioning of the hands in zazen. And having experienced this “yes” while sitting, experience it while standing, walking, and working.  Let every action be a “yes” to the world.  In this way, let every action originate from the center.  This center is the vitality of utter presence in your action.  Zazen in silence and zazen in activity is each zazen, each the vehicle of Dharma transmission.

12.  There are many ways of describing Zazen:  the study of the self, the dissolution of the small mind, the peace of being, oneness, life as it is, and so forth.  These words underscore the basic interest of Zen:  finding satisfaction in every moment of life, even the unhappy ones.  However, it’s important to get beyond words.  Only in zazen, whether in silence or activity, is the Dharma directly experienced.

13. It seems paradoxical to offer thoughts on what cannot be grasped by thought, but the whole point of the exercise is to collapse or dissolve the mind to make room for a special kind of understanding.  This understanding is, in the words of the famous Zen koan, “your face before your parents were born.”


Michael Sudduth

Falsification, Simplicity, and Survival

Michael Prescott’s readers have responded to my latest series of critical remarks on their earlier comments. Here I’m only going to comment on one reader’s response, the first in the thread.
The reader writes:
I have read the article by Sudduth and I think he will not be satisfied until someone develops a survival hypothesis that make predictions that can be falsified, that is, according to him, the key is not what observations could confirm my hypothesis but what observations would falsify my hypothesis, following the Popperian epistemology.
He goes on to say:
However, I do not accept the epistemological approach of Sudduth, because he is a deductive approximation based on the work of Popper: postulate hypothesis draw their predictions and observe if the hypothesis is falsified, but the hypothesis of survival is part of the abductive and inductive hypotheses: observe a number of phenomena and infer the simplest hypothesis that relates to everyone. And here the simplest hypothesis that relates OBEs, NDEs, apparitions, mediumship and people seem to remember their past lives is a determined survival hypothesis, ie that there is a vehicle of the psyche that remains after biological death and it can appear, own certain individuals, rebirth and remember their previous incarnations lives.
RESPONSE: I am not a Popperian, nor do my criticisms of survival arguments, unfortunately misrepresented by the reader, depend on Popperian epistemology.  In fact, I explicitly reject Popperian epistemology, which I regard as largely misguided and corrected by subsequent philosophers of science.
The core problem with survival arguments is not lack of falsifiability.  It’s relatively easy to formulate a survival hypothesis that can be falsified.  If we recall the Duhem-Quine thesis (to which I’ve referred several times now), it becomes clear that any hypothesis is easily falsifiable, including survival. I can, for example, easily falsify the God-with-purple-objects-fetish hypothesis: the world was created by a supremely powerful being who wanted everything to be purple. Similarly, I can easily insulate any hypothesis from falsification. The God-with-purple-objects-fetish hypothesis is not falsified by there being non-purple objects because he only wanted some things to be purple, as he was actually in fetish recovery when he made the world.  There are dozens of survival hypotheses that can be falsified (or rendered immune to this), and I’ve explained how this would work.  So I’m actually quite satisfied at this juncture.
The core problem, to repeat, is lack of independent support for auxiliary hypotheses needed to generate predictive consequences (or explanatory salience). To be sure, this creates problems for falsifying hypotheses, but falsification is not the core problem. The problem of auxiliary hypotheses infects survival arguments in all their classical formulations, including inference to best explanation formulations (which the commenting reader favors).  What is essential to all formulations of survival arguments is the idea that the survival hypothesis is supposed to lead us to expect (deductively or probabilistically) the observational data.  This is essential whether we’re construing the survival argument abductively (as an inference to best explanation) or in terms of non-explanatory confirmation criteria.  This requirement leads right to the problem of auxiliary hypotheses, which, I should repeat, is completely independent of Popperian epistemology.
As for the survival hypothesis being the most simple explanation of the data, I’ve yet to see a single survivalist make this argument in the light of the auxiliary hypothesis requirement. Survivalists routinely make the mistake of comparing a simple survival hypothesis (which has minimal or zero explanatory power) with robust alternatives (that is, alternatives that require various auxiliary hypotheses), and then they argue that the survival hypothesis is the simpler hypothesis.  Naturally, survival wins using this strategy, but the strategy is a logical sleight of hands, as I pointed out in my interview with Jime Sayaka earlier  this year. Survivalists need to show that a robust survival hypothesis is more simple than robust alternatives. This has yet to be done, largely because survivalists ignore their dependence on auxiliary hypotheses.  So I regard all simplicity arguments as a bit of a cheat.
Finally, whether the appeal to simplicity has any explanatory or evidential value will depend on the particular explanatory or confirmation model we assume.  That being said, it’s generally the case that simplicity is only one determinant of explanatory power (or evidential weightings in confirmation models), and it’s probably the least significant given the elastic nature of the criterion.  Like the appeal to fit with background knowledge, survivalists hang heavy arguments on a very thin and loose nail.
Most importantly, it’s utterly premature to appeal to the survival hypothesis being the simplest explanation of the data until one first shows that the survival hypothesis *explains* anything at all.  Simplicity is a “criterion of choice,” meaning that we appeal to it when our explanatory candidates are dead even in other respects, for example, predictive power. Survivalists assume that survival explains the data. They never really show this.  At best they show that other hypotheses do not explain the data.  To show that survival explains would burden survivalists with the baggage of auxiliary hypotheses.
I consider appeals to simplicity as, in principle, no different from appeals to “fit with background knowledge” and the alleged “failure of explanatory competitors,” a strategy of argument that attempts to circumvent requirements for the genuine testing of an ostensible empirical hypothesis.  It distracts from the core issues and core deficiencies of hypotheses.  When your hypothesis either explains or predicts nothing, shift the focus to the alleged defects of competing hypotheses and make your positive case, to the extent you have one, based on thin criteria like simplicity and fit with background knowledge.  This is usually a sign that we’re dealing with a metaphysical hypothesis that’s parading as an empirical one. Metaphysical hypotheses have a wonderful way of accommodating any data you wish.  So-called empirical arguments for survival are exactly like this. They are great examples of ex post facto reasoning or evidence retrofitting, which of course can serve explanatory competitors just as well (or poorly, as the case may be).  If the empirical world had been any other way, you could run exactly the same argument.  One certainly doesn’t have to be a Popperian to find this form of reasoning objectionable.
Michael Sudduth
Related Readings in Philosophy of Science:
Heather Douglas, “Reintroducing Prediction to Explanation,” in Philosophy of Science, 2009, 76: 444-463.
Elliott Sober and Christopher Hitchcock, Prediction Versus Accommodation and the Risk of Overfitting. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 2004, 55: 1-34.
Elliott Sober, “Evidence” in Sober, Evidence and Evolution: the Logic Behind the Science. Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Response to Prescott’s Minions

Earlier in the month I responded to author Michael Prescott’s critical comments on my  critique of Chris Carter’s defense of empirical arguments for life after death. After publishing my response on his blog, his readers have offered various counterpoints.  I told Prescott that I would be happy to respond to “highlights” of his readers’ posts.  So here’s my response to the selections he emailed me earlier in the week. Since I don’t provide much background to the various comments, I’d recommend that interested subscribers to my blog first read the comments section in Prescott’s blog where Prescott’s readers responded to my arguments. – M.S.



I’ve read the selected comments you forwarded to me from your readers.  Here are some responses. 

First, some of your readers brought up near-death experiences (NDEs), which I have not directly addressed at this stage.  So here’s a preview.  On my view, NDEs provide prima facie justification for belief in survival for those who have such experiences, and the testimonial data from such experiences may provide an interesting argument against some materialist philosophies of mind.  But I don’t think there’s a good argument for survival from the testimonial data.  In fact, I’d say that arguments for survival based solely on the data from NDEs are the second weakest kind of survival argument, the weakest being arguments from apparitional experiences. In addition to the widely advertised problems with NDE survival arguments, all such arguments will run into the problem of auxiliary hypotheses. I’ll discuss this in more detail in my book.

Second, as far as the alleged consistency of NDEs goes, it’s not clear to me what precisely your readers think this actually proves, shows, or otherwise establishes vis-à-vis the survival hypothesis or my critique.  For reasons I’ll note here, I think the appeal to the consistency of NDEs has limited value within the larger landscape of the survival debate.

(i) As is well known from the analysis of religious experience in the philosophy of religion, it’s relatively easy to find consistent/inconsistent features in different experiences when the experience-type has vague parameters. Given the elastic parameters of NDEs, the acceptance of the survivalist interpretation of NDEs based on their consistency is just as unwarranted as the rejection of the survivalist interpretation of NDEs on the grounds of their alleged inconsistency. Proponents and opponents are equally held captive to naïve ways of conceptualizing the situation. 

(ii) Even if we grant that the descriptions of NDEs are consistent and exhibit various non-trivial coherence relations, what follows? It’s unclear how this shows a “hole” in my argument.  My central argument, even applied to NDEs, is entirely compatible with NDEs exhibiting coherence.  It’s also compatible with the consistency of NDEs contributing to the evidential value of NDEs.  However, until we formulate an argument for survival that is informed by the issues in evidence assessment I’ve raised, we don’t really know the net value of consistency.  This is just another example of survivalists thinking that the demands of serious argument are met by claiming that survival is true because they’ve provided a statement of their subjective degree of confidence in unclear or contentious principles.

Third, with respect to Rouge’s comments about auxiliary hypotheses, I think he’s confused either about what independent testability involves or about how it’s applied in the sciences. 

(i) Contrary to Rouge’s suggestion, the auxiliary hypotheses required to test different evolutionary hypotheses actually are independently testable in the relevant sense.  See Elliott Sober’s Evidence and Evolution (chapters 3-4), where this is demonstrated, for example with reference to common ancestry and phylogenetic relationships. 

But let’s be clear about what independent testability involves. Your readers seem to be operating with some highly inflated and/or idiosyncratic conception.  Roughly stated, for a hypothesis H (proposed to explain observation O) to be independently testable means there’s a procedure that produces a justification for h that does not depend on our being antecedently justified in accepting H, not H, or O.  I’ve provided many examples in my publications showing how this condition is widely satisfied in the sciences and in a variety of everyday applications.  (I direct your readers once again to my “Getting Sober about Survival” blog series where I discussed these issues). So survival arguments fail to secure an epistemic virtue that is widely exemplified across different disciplines and modes of inquiry.  In the light of this, the survivalist appeal to “consistency” looks at best like “last prize.”  This tends to reinforce suspicions about survival arguments rather than rescue them from skeptical objections.

(ii) There’s no doubt that the fossil record by itself, though incompatible with certain theistic-creation hypotheses, is nonetheless compatible with a range of alternative hypotheses of the sort Rouge outlined.  But this strikes me as utterly insignificant.  A single piece of evidence at the scene of a crime may eliminate one suspect but still leave us with three possible suspects.  This is why it’s important to locate “discriminatory evidence,” that is, observations that are to be expected given one hypothesis but not another. And, as I’ve argued, an essential aspect of such a program is locating independently testable auxiliary hypotheses in arriving at predictive consequences for both one’s preferred hypothesis and whatever hypothesis is the competitor. Again, I refer readers to Sober’s discussion (in Evidence and Evolution) of how a hypothesis is to be tested against a competitor.

Fourth, Rouge appeals to the transmission theory of consciousness, apparently to show, contrary to what I’ve argued, that some conceivable survival scenarios are more to be expected than others if consciousness survives death.  This is at least an interesting suggestion. 

There’s some initial confusion in Rouge’s argument, for he begins by saying: 

I would argue that any version of the transmission theory is compatible with the persistence of memory, intentions, skills, and personality, and that the transmission theory in some form is by far the most likely model of the mind-brain relationship.

But, of course, the issue is not whether the transmission theory is compatible with the persistence of memories, etc. (of course it is), but rather—the stronger notion—whether these are to be expected.  Rouge then switches to the stronger conception: 

On the basis of the transmission theory, certain afterlife-related outcomes would be predicted to occur – not invariably, given the individual variations that are natural in any study of human consciousness, but at least in some cases. We would expect some dying patients to show heightened lucidity as consciousness begins to slough off the damaged brain – and there are cases of “terminal lucidity,” vivid and veridical deathbed visions, and NDEs in which thought and perception are heightened far beyond ordinary experience. We would expect mental confusion attributable to a damaged brain to clear up in a postmortem state, and mediumistic communications provide support for this. We would expect the deceased to retain their memories and even to experience them more vividly, and again this is consistent with mediumship, past-life studies, and NDEs (the life review). So I would suggest that, while testable predictions in this area are inevitably less certain than those in (say) chemistry or physics, the transmission theory does provide us with some predictions, and these predictions have tended to pan out.

It looks like Rouge wants to treat the transmission theory of consciousness as an auxiliary hypothesis for the purposes of developing a space of plausible survival worlds from among a larger array of merely conceivable survival worlds. So if consciousness survives death (the survival hypothesis) and the transmission theory (auxiliary hypothesis) were true, then certain afterlife-related outcomes would be predicted to occur, well, at least in some cases.  Since the transmission theory has been independently tested (with success, according to Rouge), we have a survival-friendly auxiliary hypothesis for which there is independent evidence but which leads us to expect the relevant data. 

This is the most interesting suggestion from among the various comments, but ultimately it’s not plausible.

(i) Where T = the transmission theory and O = any of the observational data (noted by Rouge), let’s assume that the value of Pr(O | T)—the probability of O given T—is well defined.  The relevant range of data for survival arguments is considerably broader than O.   Survival arguments require that the Pr(D | S) has a well-defined value, where D = the broader range of data and S = the survival hypothesis.  A well-defined value for Pr(D | S) requires the kinds of auxiliary hypotheses I’ve outlined in detail, but it’s not possible to derive these auxiliaries from T.   So even if Pr(O | T) is well-defined, this would be insufficient to extricate survival arguments from the problem of auxiliary hypotheses.

(ii) However, as it turns out, the value of Pr(O | T) is actually not well-defined. Rouge doesn’t actually show why T should lead us to expect O, but this is precisely what needs to be argued.  And this is particularly important because Rouge has hedged the prediction with an extremely important qualifier, namely in some cases.  So why should T lead us to expect O, yet only in some cases? Which cases exactly?  What are the even approximate parameters here? And is this a consequence of the content of T, or T + something extra? Rouge nonchalantly refers to “individual variations that are natural in any study of human consciousness,” but this is not to be lightly passed over.  Until Rouge can answer these questions, there’s no workable model here at all, and certainly no challenge to my claim that the auxiliary hypotheses required by survival arguments are not independently testable.

On the face of it, Rouge’s assertion of alleged predictive derivations strikes me as more retrofitting.  He’s simply transferred this from the survival hypothesis to the transmission theory.  His qualifier is quite convenient, too convenient.  It allows easy confirmation but makes difficult, if not impossible, falsification.  For example, it allows us to treat verified memory claims as evidence for the theory, but not their absence as evidence against the theory.  If either survival or the transmission theory makes genuine predictions, I should like to know what observations we should expect if the theory is true but not if the theory is false.

(iii) As it happens, transmission theorists have taken different views concerning the degree of psychological continuity there would be between ante-mortem and postmortem consciousness, to what extent unique personality features would carry over, what causal powers would be attributed to surviving “selves,” and so forth.  Understandably so. Simply proposing that the brain “transmits” consciousness rather than produces it is compatible with a broad range of survival scenarios. In fact, the language can be interpreted in terms of multiple models of consciousness.   And this shows again that the value of Pr(O | T) is simply not well-defined even among those who advocate transmission theories.  Indeed, on some views, if we survive death, we should not expect our ordinary personality to survive. See Tart, Charles. 1990. “Who Survives? Implications of Modern Consciousness Research.” In What Survives? Contemporary Explorations of Life after Death, ed. Gary Doore. Los Angeles, CA: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 138–151.

Fifth, several of your readers are under the impression that disposing of materialist views of mind/reality somehow renders survival more plausible.  But that’s too quick in point of logic.  At best, disposing of materialism removes an objection to some hypotheses of survival, but removing an objection to a hypothesis is not the same thing as providing evidence for a hypothesis.  And at all events, whether materialism is true or not (or whatever metaphysical theory survivalists wish to advocate) is irrelevant to the problem of auxiliary hypotheses.

Sixth, your readers didn’t properly understand my references to Broad, Price, and Ducasse.  My point there was simply that they, unlike other writers, were cognizant of there being many different conceivable survival hypotheses with varying predictive consequences.  That’s not an endorsement of any of their particular flirtations at this juncture.  Anyhow, any attempt to refute Broad’s “persistence hypothesis” or Price’s “place memory hypothesis” (as alternatives to personal survival) will run right into the problem of auxiliary hypotheses and get caught in the net I’ve cast into the survival debate.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote from Elliott Sober that sums up the plight of empirical survival arguments on my view. 

The lazy way to test a hypothesis H is to focus on one of its possible competitors H0, claim that the data refute H0, and then declare that H is the only hypothesis left standing. This is an attractive strategy if you are fond of the hypothesis H and are unable to say what testable predictions H makes. (Sober, Evidence and Evolution, p. 353).

This is basically the strategy of argument in most books that try to present empirical evidence for survival, Carter’s included.  They are just so many variations on lazy testing. 

Michael Sudduth

Zen, Starbucks, and Iron Maiden

In a week my life undergoes a major transition. On June 1 I move into a Zen center/community in the Santa Cruz mountains, where I will reside for the summer, writing, making bricks, and engaging in Zen practice. As time permits, I intend to blog on my experiences during the summer, as well as continue blogging on material related to my book on survival.

Starbucks: During the past two weeks Starbucks has been something of a second home for me as I dismantle my domestic life and embark upon a new phase of life’s journey. I’ve met some really interesting people at Starbucks and had some great conversations. I’d like to dedicate this blog to them. Here I offer some Zen-oriented contemplations on Nirvana and enlightenment, quite appropriately while sitting in Starbucks and listing to Iron Maiden. 

Now for contemplations under the influence of many cups of Starbucks tea and Iron Maiden tunes. . . .

According to Buddhism, attachment to fictions such as ‘permanent world’ or ‘permanent self’ is the cause of dukkha (lack of satisfaction).   Nirvana, literally ‘to be blown out,’ is usually described as the cessation of attachment to such fictions and consequently the cessation of dukkha. 

However, when the mind tries to grasp Nirvana, the mind thinks ‘goal to be achieved.’ Immediately the mind is in the grip of a delusion.  That which must be ‘achieved’ is judged not to be present, but Nirvana is precisely the present reality.  To look for it elsewhere is to miss it together.  More specifically, to look for it is delusion.   Nirvana is not a thing at all, which is why it is nothing to be achieved.

Nirvana is beyond the grasp of the mind, beyond all thinking, feeling, and sensing.  The mind can no more know Nirvana than a character in a film can know the screen out of which it is made.  All ‘things’ are made of Nirvana.  All ‘things’ are Buddha nature. 

Duality/Non-Duality: It’s not that there is no duality. It’s not that there is no non-duality. It’s that these are different ways of speaking of what cannot be spoken, diverse ways of grasping at what cannot be grasped by the mind.

Life minus ‘mental story telling’ equals Nirvana. 

To see the flower without judgment is all that is meant by Nirvana.

If nirvana is a goal, it is unattainable.  If nirvana is practice, it is trivially attained. Nirvana is therefore practice and goal, simultaneously unattainable and as easy as your next breath. 

When I blow out a candle, the room is plunged into darkness, but does the cat care?

No one ever achieves Nirvana, for all sentient beings are even now the Buddha nature.  What does it mean that we are Buddha nature?  Nothing more than what is present in each breath. You are already experiencing Nirvana.  It just goes unnoticed. Breathe, therefore, with awareness.

Nirvana is unstoppable.  As you are powerless over delusion, you are powerless over enlightenment.

In the big mind there is plenty of space for chaos and nonsense.

Nirvana sometimes appears as birth.  At other times, it appears as death. When birth has been freed from attachment and death has been divested of aversion, birth and death are non-different from Nirvana.  The lake that is stirred up by wind is tranquil when the wind has ceased.  Whenever life is revealed as it is, there has been cessation.  This is nirvana.

Nirvana is the field covered with bullshit when bullshit gives rise to life.  Nirvana does not require the removal of bullshit from consciousness, only its rearrangement, that is, seeing bullshit as bullshit.  This is what Nagarjuna meant by saying that nirvana and samsara (life and death) are non-different.  Life happens. Death happens. Shit happens.  See it clearly and you won’t step into it, and if you step into it, grass will grow from your feet. 

What, from the perspective of duality, appears as ‘entering Nirvana’ is in fact only the falling away of the body-mind.

As long as you are inside criticism or judgment, nirvana is veiled.  But the truly hard thing about removing the veil covering nirvana is not cessation of criticism and judgment but simply our stopping talking altogether.  You want to see clearly? Just stop talking, at least for a few minutes.

In zazen (Zen ‘meditation’), there is no essential concentration of any object, but rather a relaxing of attention on objects.  Thoughts, feelings, and sensations are permitted to arise without attachment or aversion to them.  This may be described as a gentle watching of mental activity.  Watch the rising and falling of layers of mental content, like waves on the ocean. 

If you sit in zazen, you may experience something people call ‘enlightenment,’ or you may not experience what people call ‘enlightenment’.  Most likely, you will experience enlightenment but not know that you have experienced enlightenment, for the effects of zazen are beyond our conscious life. 

But if you sit again, and again, you may nonetheless conjecture the work is being done.  I believe this is what Dogen meant by saying that sitting in zazen is the effect of enlightenment, not its cause.  And this is true even of the first sit.  It too is the effect of enlightenment.  Ultimately zazen is grace – grace expressing grace. 

What is enlightenment? Dogen said it was the tea and rice of daily living. For me, it’s 12 hours at Starbucks drinking Calm tea with steamed milk while listening to Iron Maiden.

I’m waiting in my cold cell, when the bell begins to chime.

Reflecting on my past life and it doesn’t have much time

‘Cause at 5 o’clock they take me to the gallows pole.

The sands of time for me are running low, running low


When the priest comes to read me the last rites

Take a look through the bars at the last sights

Of a world that has gone very wrong for me.

Can it be that there’s some sort of error

Hard to stop the surmounting terror

Is it really the end, not some crazy dream?

Be Water, My Friend

“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup; it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put it in the teapot; it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” – Bruce Lee

If we watch Bruce Lee in action as a martial arts master, we see a physical manifestation of the perennial eastern wisdom Lee here expresses.  His bodily movements were flexible, fluid, like water, capable of adapting to changing circumstances. His body often appears to have no boundaries, no limits. We might say that Lee “empties” his body. This emptying is the experience of the body as intrinsically without form or shape.  Therefore, it is capable of taking on many different forms and shapes.

But here Lee speaks of “the mind,” not the body.  He says “empty” the mind. He says to be “formless, shapeless.” What is it, then, for the mind to be empty, for the mind to be formless or shapeless? 

First, observe in yourself the tendency to give consciousness a form or shape: anger, sadness, bliss, anxiety, being tired, perceiving a tree, or remembering yesterday’s breakfast. Or better yet, think of the presumption that consciousness is this or that form. I am angry because I have experienced some deep emotional injustice. I am sad because my partner dumped me. Here consciousness has shape or form.  And so do I, for notice the subtle psychological identification of self with these states of consciousness. It’s not simply that anger or bliss is present to or in me. How impersonal is that? Rather I am this!  This is why pleasant and unpleasant experiences land a powerful punch or kick. Consciousness has been incarnated, and we experience attachment to it or we experience aversion to it.  I like this thing “bliss,” and I don’t like this thing “sadness.”  In the first case, I am happy; in the second, I am unhappy.

To speak of consciousness as shapeless or formless is in the first instance simply to cease identifying consciousness with any particular name or form, be it a pleasant or unpleasant one.  It’s to communicate the idea of a larger consciousness or mind, of which anger, sadness, and such are but temporary manifestations. Eastern spiritual teachers often use the analogy of the wave and the ocean to communicate the idea of smaller, temporary manifestations of a larger enduring reality. This larger enduring reality is pure consciousness, what Vedanta calls the Self and Zen calls the larger or bigger mind. 

When we examine our experience, we find thoughts, feelings, and sensations, or more properly the activity of thinking, feeling, and sensing.  Upon more careful introspection or meditation, we also find a witnessing background to these mental activities, an ever present, abiding awareness, the one who watches the coming and going of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The eastern teachers tell us that our sense of being an I, an enduring self, derives from this witness, but this true “I” is veiled through a false identification of “I” with the body-mind. And this delusion is the root of our suffering.  We think we are something we are not. We therefore want what we do not need. Consequently, we suffer.

Return to the water metaphor. Like water, consciousness is essentially without form or shape. Therefore, like water, consciousness can permeate everything and it can become anything. You put consciousness into an unpleasant experience, and it becomes the unpleasant experience.  You put consciousness into a pleasant experience, and it becomes the pleasant experience. Better yet, formless consciousness becomes incarnate in every thought, feeling, and sensation, but consciousness itself is neither pleasant experience nor unpleasant experience.  It can therefore take the name and form of either. It is not this or that experience, but the witnessing background of all experience. Since it is no thing, it can become everything, just as the water is one though it becomes many names and forms – now pot, now cup, now bottle. This is why the Upanishads identify the true Self with Brahman and declare that “Brahman is the world.”

If, then, you are that shapeless, formless mind, understand that you are no less present when it is incarnated as the unpleasant experience than when it is incarnated as a pleasant experience.  You are there, not merely in the background of all experience but in the foreground, as the very knowing inherent in all thoughts, feelings, and sensations.  It is this presence for which the small mind searches because, being small, it has judged itself as in need of completion or enlargement, and implements clever but unsuccessful strategies of assimilating and rejecting this or that object. We take ourselves to be teapot-water longing to be bottle-water, or cup-water longing to be teapot-water.  Only if I am “this” or “that” can I fail to be what I want or succeed in being that which I do not want. 

However, if consciousness is like water, it matters not whether consciousness is “in the bottle” or “in the cup” or “in the teapot.”  It is not intrinsically confined to any of these forms. And if the container should crack or shatter, nothing is lost but a limiting condition of our essential nature.  This is why, as Kahlil Gibran noted, “your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”

What does it mean to “empty the mind”? Not the dissolution of the contents of the mind, but rather the dissolution of the understanding of my relation to these contents, specifically the dissolution of the belief and subsequent feeling that what I essentially am shares in the limits and destiny of the body-mind.  I do not deny the shape the water has taken when it is in the cup if I say water is formless and shapeless.  I imply that the water is more than this, that it is essentially not this shape.  What is dissolved in emptying the mind is a particular story the mind tells about itself, the world, and the relation between them – the dualistic story that divides the world essentially into subject-object relations. To empty the mind is not simply to take something away; it is to give the small mind the very completion for which it searches. This completion is the cessation of the story that perpetuates its suffering.

Of course, if you are the water, now flowing then crashing, the call to “be water” is simply a way of saying notice or lend attention to what you already essentially are. You flow and you crash. You are fully present in each moment of life as it happens.  And the peace you seek is your very Self, whether flowing or crashing.

Michael Sudduth

A Response to Michael Prescott

Author Michael Prescott has recently provided some critical comments on my recent blog post on Chris Carter’s defense of empirical arguments for postmortem survival. Prescott’s widely read blog often addresses the topic of life after death.  However, unlike many other bloggers, Prescott brings some quality insights to the topic, so naturally I’m happy to see a discussion of my arguments on his blog, and I’m happy to respond to his comments.

In his most recent blog,  Prescott focused on what I call the “problem of auxiliary hypotheses.”  On my view, empirical arguments for survival depend on auxiliary hypotheses that are not independently testable.  In this way survival arguments are very much unlike empirical arguments we encounter in other domains of inquiry (e.g., detective work, jury deliberations, and the sciences), where the predictive consequences of hypotheses are derived with the assistance of added assumptions that can be independently tested and for which there is independent evidence. As a result of reliance on auxiliary hypotheses that lack independent support, survival arguments carry significantly less force than their proponents claim.

Below is my response to Prescott’s criticism of my argument concerning auxiliary hypotheses. The specific context here is my application of the problem of auxiliary hypotheses to one of Chris Carter’s defenses of survival arguments against appeals to living-agent psychic functioning as a viable counter-explanation of the relevant empirical data. As explained in “Chris Carter’s Challenge: Survival vs. Super-Psi,” Carter rejects living-agent psi explanations of the data because they can only account for the data by being expanded into a fairly robust version of living-agent psi called super-psi, but – so Carter contends – super-psi lacks independent support. 

My response to Carter is a simple parity argument.  Survival can only account for the relevant data by being expanded into a fairly robust version of survival, one that, like super-psi, involves a large number of auxiliary hypotheses for which there is no independent support.  Hence, if “lack of independent support” is a reason to reject non-survival explanations of the data, it is equally a reason to reject survival explanations of the data.  As I see it, Carter and other survivalists who reject non-survival counter-explanations of the data on the grounds that these alternative explanations lack independent support are ignoring the extent to which the survival hypothesis fails in precisely the same way. The integrity of survival arguments is undermined by reliance on what amounts to an epistemic double standard.

Prescott attempts to rescue Carter from my critique by arguing that, while survivalist auxiliary hypotheses are not independently testable, they do fit with our background knowledge. While the strategy of generating a salient difference between the auxiliary hypotheses of competing explanations is in principle sound, Prescott’s particular argument does not work. The main problem in Prescott’s argument is that there are many different auxiliary hypotheses that (i) are consistent with the survival hypothesis, (ii) fit with our background knowledge, but (iii) generate very different predictive consequences, many of which would disconfirm the survival hypothesis.  Otherwise stated, there are many different survival hypotheses.  Only a very narrow range of these survival hypotheses would lead us to expect the data adduced as evidence for survival.  We simply don’t know how the world should look if survival is true, which is why empirical survivalists can’t tell us how the world should look if survival is false.

The upshot:  in the absence of independent testability/support, we have no way of selecting auxiliaries in a way that does not appear to be a case of explanatory retrofitting.  Particular facts are judged salient and consequently selected because they fit the auxiliaries one’s favored hypothesis needs to generate successful predictions.  This is not a truth-conducive policy in explanatory reasoning in any other domain in which we aim to weigh empirical evidence.  The burden is on the survivalist to show that the survival hypothesis is an exception to this rule.

– M.S.


Response to Michael Prescott


Thanks for your continued discussion of my critique of Carter. I’ve provided some comments here on your blog “More on Super-Psi.”

You have my permission to post this response on your blog. I’ll probably post it on my own blog this coming week.

Before digging into your main argument, let me offer an initial clarification.  In your blog, you wrote:

“I don’t think that a rigorously logical proof, along the lines of proving a mathematical theorem, is possible when dealing with empirical evidence, especially when the evidence involves something as in inherently ambiguous and subjective as states of consciousness (incarnate or discarnate). Instead, I think what is needed is something more like the reasoning we hope to find in a jury’s deliberations.”

I agree that a “rigorously logical proof, along the lines of proving a mathematical theorem,” is not possible when dealing with empirical evidence. Of course I’m not asking survivalists to produce such an argument. This is not the problem with empirical survival arguments.  My criticisms are directed towards what survivalists claim on behalf of their arguments.  Survivalists make claims (of varying sorts) about the force of evidence for the hypothesis of survival, often claiming that the evidence confers some favorable probability on this hypothesis.  I’m subjecting these claims and their supporting arguments to critical evaluation, and I’m relying on principles that are broadly applicable to evidence assessment across different domains of inquiry.  I really don’t see how we can do justice to survival arguments and avoid technical issues in confirmation theory and general epistemology.

With reference to my critique, you’ve mainly focused on one of my several criticisms of Carter’s arguments.  Carter objects to the super-psi hypothesis on the grounds that it lacks independent support.  I had argued that the empirical survivalist is in exactly the same position.  The only kind of survival hypothesis that generates anything in the way of even general predictive consequences depends on a range of auxiliary hypotheses for which there is also no independent support.  My argument is a straightforward parity argument: Carter demands “x” of super-psi arguments, but survival arguments don’t satisfy “x.”  It’s also an application of one of my more general criticisms of survival arguments, namely that the lack of independent testability/support for auxiliary hypotheses significantly deflates the force of empirical survival arguments in their classical formulations.

Now it appears that we agree on at least two issues.  You agree that empirical survival arguments depend on auxiliary hypotheses.  You also appear to agree that these auxiliary hypotheses are not independently testable and lack independent support. The point of disagreement concerns whether this fact undermines Carter’s particular criticism of the super-psi hypothesis.  You seem to think not.  And here you make the observation that survivalist auxiliaries are consistent with our background knowledge. It’s not entirely clear how this observation, which is surely correct, deflates the force of my criticism of Carter, but I suspect you intend something of the following sort:  while it may be true that survivalist and living-agent psi explanations of the relevant data each depend on auxiliary hypotheses that are not independently testable, the survivalist assumptions at least fit with our background knowledge, whereas living-agent psi auxiliaries do not, or at least the former fit better with our background knowledge than the latter.  So it seems that your answer to my parity argument is a “disparity” counter-argument.

Well, this is an interesting approach.  In principle it’s the right kind of move to make.  To deflate a parity argument you’d need to show an overriding salient disparity, a significant difference between the survival hypothesis and its explanatory competitors that favors the survival hypothesis, even if my parity thesis is true.  However, I don’t think you’re going to get the necessary mileage out of this particular argument.  In fact, I’m inclined to think that it actually highlights precisely what I think is wrong with survival arguments.  So it’s worth looking at this.

First, there’s something of a challenge here in determining the precise role of fit with background knowledge in the larger framework of the survival arguments we’re critically engaging, and this includes Carter’s defense of survival arguments.  “Fit with background knowledge” is plausibly a virtue of some sort for hypotheses.  But what sort? And what sort of weight do we give it in the larger context of other criteria we’re invoking in evidence assessment.  The same is true with respect to “simplicity,” which participants on both sides of the debate tend to wield in an incautious manner.  Until this is explored, it’s hard to see the net impact of your observation on either survival arguments or my critique of Carter’s objections to super-psi.

Now one way “fit with background knowledge” often enters the structure of empirical arguments is as a determinant of the prior probability of a hypothesis.  By “prior probability” I mean the credibility of a hypothesis independent of the evidence it’s adduced to explain.  So we might treat your observation as offering “credit” to the prior probability of the survival hypothesis.  However, assigning a prior probability to the survival hypothesis is a notoriously difficult matter.  I’m highly skeptical that such assignments do anything more than express the arguer’s subjective degree of certainty in the hypothesis of survival.  And this is one of the several problems that infect (Bayesian) formulations of survival arguments that incorporate claims about prior probabilities, which is why Likelihood formulations are better suited to survival arguments, even if the conclusion must be a bit more modest.  (See my blog series “Getting Sober about Survival” for a discussion on Likelihoodism).

Second, with respect to the alleged advantage of survival-friendly auxiliaries over living-agent psi-friendly auxiliaries, it’s important to note that there are lots of different auxiliary hypotheses that may be used to generate robust living-agent psi hypotheses that account for the data in a way consistent with our background knowledge.  Here I’ll refer only to Braude’s well-developed living-agent psi hypothesis.  There simply isn’t a single super-psi hypothesis.  Both Hodgson and Carter adopt a fairly narrow set of auxiliary assumptions about super-psi (as well as auxiliaries about the relevant psychodynamics that might play a role in its operation), and from this position they try to show that super-psi generates predictive consequences that are contrary to our observational data. However, in the absence of independent support for these auxiliaries, we really don’t know whether the alleged observational data count against the super-psi hypothesis or count against the auxiliaries Hodgson and Carter have adopted.   I’ve discussed this problem in Sudduth 2014b.

Third, and this is really the crucial issue, while there’s no doubt that the survival-friendly auxiliaries you cite fit with our background knowledge in precisely the ways you’ve suggested, there are dozens of other auxiliary hypotheses that are (i) consistent with the survival hypothesis, (ii) fit with our background knowledge, but (iii) generate very different predictive consequences of varying degrees of specificity.  Broad, Price, and Ducasse each outlined a range of different robust survival hypotheses, each of which has analogues with our current experience (e.g., dream consciousness, dementia, dissociative identity disorder, psychogenic amnesia).  But these alternate robust survival hypotheses do not lead us to expect the data adduced as evidence for survival. For example, they would not lead us to expect the persistence of ante-mortem autobiographical memories, intentions and purposes, skills, or the personality traits/profiles of relatively unified selves.

The root of the problem is apparent if we look more carefully at how you make use of fit with background knowledge.  What you’ve done is show how the auxiliaries needed for predictive success in survival arguments fit with a selected subset of our total relevant background knowledge.  But note – you could have selected very different auxiliary hypotheses about the nature of postmortem consciousness, and these would have been equally compatible with our background knowledge.  Had you selected a different subset, the survival hypothesis would not have had predictive success because, relative to these alternate hypotheses, we would not expect survivors to have strong psychological continuity with their ante-mortem lives.  Why privilege your subset then?  That’s the crucial question.  Since you acknowledge you have no independent support for your auxiliary hypotheses, your selection procedure is open to the charge of being more accurately a retrofitting procedure.  Particular facts are judged salient and consequently selected because they fit the auxiliaries one’s favored hypothesis needs to generate successful predictions.

If defenders of living-agent psi hypotheses appear to adopt ad hoc auxiliaries, survivalists are guilty of adopting auxiliary hypotheses that beg the question.  In the absence of independent support for auxiliary hypotheses, we have no way to sensibly navigate the vast array of options in the logical space occupied by auxiliaries that are consistent with our background knowledge but that produce very different predictive consequences.  This is why survivalists have a hard time stating what observation would be evidence against survival.  It’s simply not clear what the world should look like if survival is true, which is rather unfortunate for empirical arguments for survival.  Similarly, and contrary to Hodgson and Carter, it’s also not clear what the world should look like if “super-psi” is true.  It follows that we don’t know whether the relevant data are more to be expected given survival or super-psi.  What then of arguments that purport to show that the evidence favors survival over living-agent psi?  Perhaps this explains why the jury is still out on this one.


The Dharma

The Dharma 

This Dharma is utterly unattainable, and yet I vow to attain it. A butterfly landed on my arm. The contradiction dissolved.

This Dharma is utterly unknowable, and yet I vow to know it. I watched my pain and suffering. The contradiction dissolved. 

This Dharma is utterly unspeakable, and yet I vow to speak it. I ordered a Venti Earl Grey tea with steamed milk. The contradiction dissolved.

This Dharma is utterly unlivable, and yet I vow to live it. I took the first of twelve steps. The contradiction dissolved.


This Dharma is painful, and yet I vow to feel it.

This Dharma is blissful, and yet I vow to let it go.


The Dharma is introverted, but I vow to extrovert it.

The Dharma is extroverted, but I vow to introvert it.

The Dharma is thinking, but I vow to feel it.

The Dharma is feeling, but I vow to think it.


What is this Dharma?


The Dharma is “think not thinking.” The Dharma is “feel not feeling.”

The Dharma is “know not knowing.”  The Dharma is “perceive not perceiving.”

The Dharma is the dawning of consciousness upon the dark night of the unconscious.

The Dharma is the unconscious.


The Dharma is being. The Dharma is non-being. 

The Dharma is that which is beyond being and non-being.

The Dharma is the God, incarnated, crucified, and resurrected from the dead.

The Dharma is the God who plays the flute and dances in the forest of Vrindavan.


What is this Dharma?


Chanting is Dharma. 

Zazen is Dharma. 

Prayer is Dharma.

Bliss and non-bliss are Dharma. 

Self and non-self are Dharma.

The Dharma is life and the Dharma is death.


The Dharma is the heart in which sits

the unborn child that never was conceived.

The Dharma is the cat chasing mice, and the mice chasing cheese.

The Dharma is the man chasing dreams, and the dreamer chasing himself,

ghost upon the wind, 

wind upon the face, 

face upon the sky,

and sky upon the world.


The sand between my toes, 

a kiss upon my lips, 

the silence of the waves, 

flickering flame blown out – nirvana,

the essential emptiness of lover and beloved,

ocean without water, 

fire without heat, 

mind without thought, 

the no-thingness of “things.”


The Dharma is the butterfly that lands upon my arm, 

the suffering that is born with the rising sun, 

and which passes away by eventide, 

reborn again in the words that pass between my lips, 

and cast into the dirt upon the ground I walk, 

where my softly moving feet take root.


The Dharma is the cat to which I bow.

The Dharma is the mountain to which I bow.

The Dharma is the suffering to which I bow.


The Dharma is Buddha.

The Buddha is You; the Buddha is Me.

Buddha is life as it is.