Thursday 19 September 2019

Colin Wilson on Buddhism

This very interesting passage comes from Poetry and Mysticism by Colin Wilson (1970) which was developed from an earlier, smaller book named Poetry and Zen. It has apparently never been reprinted but so far (I am on page 80) it seems to be one of Wilson's best books in the Outsider series - with a likable freshness and urgency about it.

This energetic quality probably derives from it being written in the era when Wilson was stimulated by several stints as a visiting professor in American colleges. This led to some interesting experiences and meetings - this book was written for City Lights press - the 'Beat' bookstore in San Fransisco after Wilson had met its owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who is, remarkably, still alive - aged 100!).

What makes the book significant is that it was his first exposition of the 'robot' idea, which featured strongly in his work from that point. The robot is the idea (which he shares with William Arkle, under a different name) that modern consciousness gains efficiency from the way that so many skilled and difficult tasks (like typing, driving a car - even basic abilities like walking and talking) become automatic; allowing us to focus attention on other matters.

But the robot also takes-over the things that most interest and satisfy us - like reading novels, listening to music, talking with friends... In the end, life becomes merely automatic - the robot does everything - unless we are shocked out of this comfort zone by some emergency, when we may come-alive again for a while.

Because it was Wilson's first discovery of the idea, there is an enjoyably exploratory feel about the book. Also, it has more detail about Wilson's evaluation of 'Eastern religions' than I have seen elsewhere. This following passage about Buddhism struck me as insightful - and there are several other similar sections which seem to bring out truths that seem valid (From page 30.):

Buddhism is an extremely positive religion. Its world rejection is quite unlike the Christian 'renunciation'. You wouldn't call it renunciation if you rejected cold tea for champagne.

This also explains why exponents of Buddhism feel only a patronising contempt for Christianity - as well as for Judaism, Mahommedanism and the more traditional forms of Hinduism. 

The basic Buddhist belief is identical with the basic vision of science; it has no use for 'belief' or dogma; it aims at pure contemplation, as detached and unprejudiced as a scientist examining an unknown virus under the microscope. 

But anyone who has fallen under the spell of Buddhism - or other eastern religion, for that matter - will have discovered the drawback. You can determinedly withdraw your mind from the objects of sense, assure yourself that you are free of all desire - and nothing whatever happens. 

You cannot 'contemplate' merely by wanting to contemplate. In fact, you soon realise that contemplation is closely bound up with desire. 

When you first perform that mental act of rejecting your desires and obsessions, the feeling of freedom is magnificent, and the mind is launched like a rocket, powered by the desire you are rejecting. That is why religious conversions are such violent experiences. 

[However,] When there is nothing more to reject, the mind becomes static. And there is a world of difference between serenity and mere lack of emotion. 

I would not go so far as to reject the whole Buddhist concept of contemplative objectivity; it can be achieved in flashes. But I am inclined to believe that when the aspirant sits cross-legged and concentrates the gaze at the end of the nose, his immediate aim should not be a state of contemplation. It is too negative. The mind requires a more positive aim. 


Faculty X said...

Which is why Yoga is better.

Bruce Charlton said...

@X - Well, he finds Yoga inadequate as well!

Faculty X said...

Yes, but only because he caricatures Yoga in way all too common among Westerners.

CW posited that developing Faculty X hinges upon developing a kind of relaxed super-concentration.

That's what Yoga does in the sequence of concentration-contemplation-meditation/samadhi, which leads to superconsciousness, or Yoga.

Yoga can have varied focal points for attention, therefore a positive aim.

Depending on the object of the mind's focus there arise varying siddhis, or supernormal powers of mind, which is similar to Faculty X in action.

Dividualist said...

For some reason, Christian writers tend to think Theravada, Hinayana approaches are the whole of Buddhism. Perhaps it is because they were contacted first. What Chesterton or this gentleman or many other wrote are just the Theravada approach. Rejection of desires, no motivation etc.

For example, the Mahayana, Bodhisattva recognize the problem, that "I want to get rid of the 'I' " is circular and use compassion as a motivation, a desire to work for other people.

But the rejection of the desires is a very weird meme as not even the Theravada teach that. All schools of Buddhism tend to agree that six emotions lead to six kinds of rebirths: anger:hell, envy:hungry ghosts, stupidity:animals, desire:humans, competitive jealousy:titans, pride:gods. And the first three are far worse than being a human, the second two are better than humans, but the problem is that reaching buddahood is only possible as a human, so it is the most useful rebirth. Thus, desire is precisely the LAST thing a buddhist would get rid of, after he got rid of everything else (taking many lifetimes). Because as long as he cannot be sure to never be reborn, he wants to rebirth as a human and go on practicing. And the Mahayahan, Bodhisattva does want to be reborn anyway, as a human, to help other beings. So they keep desire.

This is not the first, I keep seeing such misconceptions about Buddhism at Christian sites like the Social Pathologist etc. It is as if traders got to Sri Lanka in 1600 and they documented what they saw and then people still use these resources without looking at the larger picture like Tibet or paying attention to what Western Buddhist teachers like Ole Nydahl are saying, who are better at interpreting those things in a way that for Westerners leads to understanding it correctly, removing Eastern cultural baggage from it, as that is misleading.

(For example, one Eastern cultural is fatalism. For example it is very common that when Ole Nydahl is in Nepal that someone says I am ill. So why don't you go to a doctor? Because it is may karma. Ole says it is also your karma that your were born in an age where there are doctors and hospitals. It is stupid to not use your good karma to deal with the bad. So for example, in this case the fatalism of that guy is simply Eastern cultural baggage. While Ole is using the Buddhist idea of a karma in a Western way, more can-do way. This is why just reading Eastern texts in itself without removing Eastern culture from them is misleading.)

Dividualist said...

Faculty X: which yoga? Yoga, a cognate of yoke, means connection. Depending on what you want to connect to, there are a gazillion forms of Hindu, Buddhist, Jainist yoga. I think if you wanted to explain in Sanskrit that a Christian prays to Christ in order to build up a personal connection, a devotion in himself to Him, Christ yoga would be a quite correct term.

Or you mean *that* yoga? "Yoga as exercise, of the type seen in the West, has been greatly influenced by the school of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who taught from 1924 until his death in 1989. He combined asanas from Hatha yoga with gymnastic exercises from the physical culture of the time, to develop a flowing style of physical yoga that placed little or no emphasis on Hatha yoga's spiritual goals." has more to do with Ling's Swedish Gymnastics and Sandow's strongman exercises.

William Wildblood said...

What Dividualist says about the difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism is perfectly true but the difficulty arises when we ask which one more accurately reflects the traditional teachings of the Buddha? And then why did Buddhism have to evolve, and did it evolve in the way it did because of Christian influence? I don't mean the influence of Christianity so much as the influence of Christ which operated spiritually as well as more conventionally on the physical plane.

If Buddhism is not just the teachings of the Buddha then what is it, a hodge-podge of miscellaneous influences all packaged together? There is a basic contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity which is not really resolved by the Mahayana, however it is spun.

Some people compare the two main schools of Buddhism with Catholicism and Protestantism but this doesn't work because the teachings of Christ stand above these in a way that the teaching of the Buddha does not.

Faculty X said...


Patanjali's Sutras best encompass Yoga in the sense I am using it, emphasizing the 3 steps of focusing mind; the positive focal points for the mind's attention; and the resulting siddhis and supernormal consciousness that results from practice.

Regarding loving devotion to a personal god such as Christ, yes, that would be the Bhakti path of Yoga. Devotion to Christ is recognized as a Bhakti path within Hinduism. See Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi for an interesting integration of the two.

I definitely didn't mean the modern physical Yoga that has swept the West.

Traditionally the physical postures, including pranayama or breathing practices, were to prepare the body and mind for stillness as a first step to focusing the mind's power of attention. Raja Yoga and Kundalini Yoga would be the main paths thereafter.

I agree with you about Buddhism and the depiction of it by many Christians such as Social Pathologist and writers from the last century. A little knowledge can be a dangerous and misleading thing. The height of Buddhism in my view are branches of Tibetan Buddhism, which overlap with Yoga.

Dividualist said...

@William the comparison is aesthetical.

I saw a Protestant church building in the Netherlands, it was a brick cube with a small iron cross above the door. Boring. That is like Theravada.

A cathedral with all the artwork and colorful windows is like Mahayana.

I don't mean architecture or visual styles, I mean the general approach and idea, boring vs. "colorful". Theravada is just very disciplined, unimaginative and "Prussian". Mahayana is like one's somewhat eccentric Italian uncle who tells a lot of stories with a lot of wisdom in them but don't believe all of them, don't take all of them literally. Was that story about that dude who gambled away all his money and then realize the unity of emptiness and form by meditating on his empty purse legit? Prolly not, but cool.