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Norman Fischer’s Plan B

posted by Greg Zwahlen

Zoketsu Norman Fischer, a senior dharma teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, has an interesting article in the latest issue of Buddhadharma magazine (a portion of which is available online). In the article he states that as a teacher, he has a “Plan A” approach in which he teaches Soto Zen “with all the usual bells and whistles,” and a “Plan B” approach in which he teaches meditation in secular contexts, such as at Google, with doctors and businesspeople and so forth.

He seems to start to set up oppositions between the two (as his Plan A-B schema suggests) before backing off of them. Usually when I read someone talking about a Plan B, it implies to me they are talking about a contingency plan, what they will do if Plan A doesn’t work out, not something complementary. But it seems that ultimately Fischer does see them as complimentary. Which is cool. I think they are complimentary too.

He also writes “the idea that Buddhism and Buddhist mediation [is] nonreligious  . . is considered completely incorrect by most contemporary Buddhist scholars I know and have read.” I’ve read a lot of academic scholarship on Buddhism myself, and I agree that most would consider Buddhism a religion (because it is one), but I’ve never seen anyone assert that Buddhist mediation can have no role in secular contexts. Fischer asserts “they maintain that whatever good might come from mediation practice as a so-called secular activity is pretty superficial.” I’ve never seen anyone express that opinion–I think at the very least Fischer makes a vast over-generalization.

He seems to be a little spooked by a round table discussion with young Buddhists in which he participated for the same magazine, and about which I blogged earlier. Spooked, that is, about the future of the convert-Buddhist beachheads in the west. Perhaps there is reason to be, and admittedly one of the youngest participants sounded like a dilettante with unreasonable expectactions, if I remember correctly. However, while I don’t think deep practice and study will ever be a big phenomenon, I think there are and will continue to be enough interested parties to sustain it well into the future.


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Julia May

posted June 17, 2009 at 11:14 am


Firstly, what is a “beachhead”?
Secondly, I don’t understand everyone getting so uppity about the religion/non-religion issue. It seems antithetical to Buddhist principles to get so ‘this is what it is/is not’. It seems – dare I say it – dualistic.
Thirdly, Julia May is going to revisit her 10th grade debator self and give you the definition of religious (webster):
1: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity
2: of, relating to, or devoted to religious beliefs or observances
By definition I, and many of the folks who purport to see Buddhism as not a religion are, in fact, very religious. If someone prayed every day you would say they had religious devotion. If someone meditates every day because of a view of ultimate reality, they are also religious.



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ellen9

posted June 17, 2009 at 11:52 am


I think the problem, as ever, comes from people using diff definitions for the word religion. And not many people use that Websters one.
Many people do not consider a worldview, (darshana in Sanskrit) as a religion, and they regard buddhism as a worldview. Science or atheism can also be a worldview. Such folks often restrict the term religion to organized religion, an institution with leaders, dogma, followers, and an existence as a legal entity within the power structure of the state.
Thus, they won’t call buddhism a religion, although there are buddhist groups and entities. However, because buddhists groups are seldom large, well-known, often monolithic entities with extensive histories such as the Church of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, Orthodox Judaism, the Masorti Movement (conservative Judaism), Lubavitch Hasidism, Assemblies of God, Quakers, and so on and so on, a lot of buddhists don’t think they belong to a religion.
I’d say that Soto Zen folks in Japan and people attending temple services in Thailand, as well as most Tibetans, know very well they belong to a religion; we in America aren’t so sure what we’re doing.



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gza

posted June 17, 2009 at 12:29 pm


beach?head??[beech-hed] Show IPA
–noun
2. a secure initial position that has been gained and can be used for further advancement; foothold:
Re religion, i would second what wikipedia says:
While religion is difficult to define, the standard model of religion as used in religious studies was defined by Clifford Geertz (Religion as a Cultural System, 1973). A religion is an organized approach to human spirituality which usually encompasses a set of narratives, symbols, beliefs and practices, often with a supernatural or transcendent quality, that give meaning to the practitioner’s experiences of life through reference to a higher power, God or gods, or ultimate truth.



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~C4Chaos

posted June 17, 2009 at 11:53 pm


personally, i prefer teachers who teaches Buddhist meditation in a secular way. (Shinzen Young comes to mind. see http://www.shinzen.org)
in any case, i don’t agree that Buddhism is a religion. it has some religious as well as scientific/rational/philosophical elements, but to categorize Buddhism as a religion is inaccurate at best and misleading at worst. don’t take my word for it. B Alan Wallace says so :)
Introduction: #Buddhism and Science – Breaking Down the Barriers – B Alan Wallace ~http://bit.ly/YjH27
that is all.
take care and keep up with practice.
~C



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Julia May

posted June 18, 2009 at 11:05 am


Alan Wallace has too much of an agenda for me. I’m wary of teachers who are so scared of saying there is a spiritual or religious element. To me, they feel like the boys in high school who were *really* into nihilism and ready to argue you down at any corner.



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~C4Chaos

posted June 18, 2009 at 12:09 pm


Julia,
“Alan Wallace has too much of an agenda for me.”
not sure what “agenda” is putting you off.
“To me, they feel like the boys in high school who were *really* into nihilism and ready to argue you down at any corner.”
maybe you feel that way, but i’ve been reading Wallace and listening to his dharma talks and “nihilism” is certainly not in the agenda.
as far as “argument” or debate is concerned, yeah, Alan Wallace is an intellectual samurai in that regard. the Buddhist tradition needs someone who can take one scientific materialists and religious materialists and not blink. B Alan Wallace is the man for that :)
i think it’s because of Wallace’s sharp intellectual nature, as well as debates being a crucial practice in Tibetan Buddhism. see YouTube – Dharma Talk: Debate by H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche – http://bit.ly/IRo0P
~C



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~C4Chaos

posted June 18, 2009 at 12:11 pm


correction: the Buddhist tradition needs someone who can *take on* scientific materialists and religious materialists and not blink. B Alan Wallace is the man for that :)
thanks!
~C



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gza

posted June 18, 2009 at 12:18 pm


What Wallace says in that article is that Buddhism is not a religion if “religion” is defined eurocentrically. Which is sensible enough. But he does acknowledge that Buddhism has spiritual and religious elements, as Julia May puts it, although he does so pretty grudgingly.
But I understand where he is coming from. As he states in the article, he is reacting to scholars like Paul Griffiths who make the assumption that meditation is hokum and at best results in “some kind of profound cataleptic trance, the kind of condition manifested by some psychotic patients and by long-term coma patients.”
If you take the, let’s say, “non-secular” aspects out of Buddhism, you are left with something that is still quite worthwhile, but no longer Buddhism. Karma, rebirth, liberation from samsara–these are integral elements and if they are interpreted metaphorically with the intention of obscuring the fact that they are intended to be taken at face value, that is just dishonest.



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Your Name

posted June 18, 2009 at 1:16 pm


Excuse my bad metaphor – I did not mean to imply that Alan Wallace was talking about nihilism, only that he reminded me of people who did so.
I just don’t see why Buddhists have to “take on” anything.



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Julia May

posted June 18, 2009 at 1:18 pm


Me above. Driving up comments with expired CAPTCHA text since 2009.



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~C4Chaos

posted June 18, 2009 at 1:42 pm


Julia,
“I just don’t see why Buddhists have to “take on” anything.”
“take on” is just a figure of speech i’m fond of using. a more accurate phrase would be to “engage” or “dialogue with”.
for example, one main reason mindfulness meditation is now accepted in the mainstream academia is because of people like Jon Kabat-Zinn who repackaged the essence of Buddhist practice in a *secular* way. see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nwwKbM_vJc
another example is B Alan Wallace “taking on” (or having intellectual debates/dialogues) with scientists/neuroscientists/cognitive scientists to present the essence of Buddhist practice outside of its religious context. see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhntEOGslbs
and probably the most ballsy of them all is Shinzen Young, whose goal is “to see Buddhism and the long training period necessary to learn how to become a skillful meditator become obsolete through the development of a merged western-eastern neuroscience and brain-based approach to meditation.” see http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=weblog&id=393&wlid=9&cn=0
my two cents.
~C



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Damaris

posted June 18, 2009 at 2:11 pm


Julia,
I understand where your coming from. There is the prevailing thought as to why find the dividing line between what is and what isn’t if ultimately it doesn’t matter.
The thing is that in order to help us understand the mind we still have to investigate how we interpret it in our current culture as well as continue the journey of learning how our mind and reality works. To just accept the past teachings without investigation would lead toward dogma and the real spiritual traps we find ourselves in.
Without debate we can learn from ourselves and each other.
This is what makes Buddhism stand apart from some other spiritual practices. Sadly, there are many Buddhist who run from debate like the plague because it effects their egos and considers those who do debate as annoying disturbances.
As I’ve encounter difficultly with some sangha members I have noticed the criticism given contains zealotory comments even though they profess the Buddhism is not a religion. So adding that as an additional point, I agree with you. Buddhism is a religion.
I believe the difficulty that exist in accepting that is contained in the nature of our collective “western” culture which habitually attempts to compartmentalize older traditions and accept/reject aspects according to our norms.
Btw @ C4Chaos – Thank you for H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche – may we be brave enough to engage in such an honorable tradition.



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Damaris

posted June 18, 2009 at 3:56 pm


Correction to my above post.
“Without debate we can learn from ourselves and each other.”
I meant “With”.
I better hurry up and take a writing class. I don’t use it and I’m clearly loosing it.



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gza

posted June 18, 2009 at 4:17 pm


Shinzen: “The Dalai Lama, you know more or less calling for the end of Buddhism and its merging with science”
That is such a careless distortion of what the Dalai Lama says on the subject I can’t take anything this guy says seriously.
The bottom line is, I doubt science will ever have much to say about what makes life worth living, what you might expect to experience after your death, and so forth. Some of us value the guidance Buddhism provides on these matters. Whether or not that is obsolete is not for Shinzen Young to decide, except for himself.



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~C4Chaos

posted June 18, 2009 at 4:36 pm


gza,
“That is such a careless distortion of what the Dalai Lama says on the subject I can’t take anything this guy says seriously.”
yes, i understand how someone not familiar with Shinzen Young could get that initial reaction. but there is more context to what he said in that interview. i suggest you check out his articles online so you can have a wider perspective on the dude :) http://www.shinzen.org/Articles.htm
~C



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gza

posted June 18, 2009 at 5:01 pm


I did read the whole interview. It is still a total distortion of what the Dalai Lama says on the subject.



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~C4Chaos

posted June 18, 2009 at 5:03 pm


gza,
P.S. i also suggest checking out Shinzen’s videos – http://www.youtube.com/user/expandcontract
as you can see, he still is a Buddhist teacher :)
~C



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gza

posted June 19, 2009 at 12:04 pm


Like I said, I don’t need a context wider than the interview to see that he is prone to distorting the facts to further his agenda. Which makes me disinclined to spend my time investigating him further.



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BrewerLeona31

posted March 26, 2010 at 10:49 am


If you want to buy a car, you will have to receive the mortgage loans. Furthermore, my mother all the time takes a college loan, which seems to be the most fast.



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PuhapepeFuh

posted June 23, 2010 at 1:38 am


France captain Patrice Evra claims that coach Raymond Domenech dropped him from the squad for “no valid reason” and denied him the chance to apologise to the French public by reading out the players’ statement himself.
http://soccernet.espn.go.com/world-cup/story/_/id/800527/ce/uk/?cc=5739&ver=global



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