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To Judge or Not to Judge

January 31, 2015
'Elephants' by Dominik via

‘Elephants’ by Dominik via

Snap judgments. Judgmental. Judge not. The act of judging gets a bad rep.

At the same time, good judgment is synonymous with prudence and wisdom. What’s the deal?

Judgment is human and mostly instantaneous and subconscious. It evolved to help us see the tiger in the bush and decide what to do. If our judgment was quick and correct, we lived. If our judgment was slow or wrong, we died. But if our judgment was quick and wrong…we also lived. Good job, Mother Nature.

In spiritual care, we are told not to judge, but the truth is that we judge all the time. We can’t help it. Our subconscious judgments form our emotional reactions, thoughts, words, and deeds. The Canki Sutta (MN 95) describes judgment as a precursor to action, in this case, good judgment leads to right action and right understanding and wrong judgment to wrong action and wrong understanding. Yet this is not merely a theological or philosophical position. It is part of our basic human psychology, now reinforced by a host of modern psychological research. What is not apparent on first reading of the sutta, however, is that we are not aware of most of these judgments. They are largely subconscious and affective (emotional) rather than conscious and rational.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 2007 book is Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, but it might just as easily been called ‘Snap: The Power of Quick Judgment.’ In it, Gladwell describes the “adaptive unconscious” as a part of our brain that makes “very quick judgments based on very little information.” He illustrates how it works with an experiment at the University of Iowa in which subjects played a card game with two decks. The red deck was rigged to deal out a few big wins and a steady stream of losses, leading to a net loss. The blue deck was rigged to deal out only moderate wins, but fewer losses, leading to a net gain. After eighty cards, on average, subjects could explain what was happening, yet their behavior actually began to change after only fifty cards. They began favoring the blue deck, although they often seemed unaware of this. Even more dramatic, the machines to which each subject was connected began to record a physiological stress response as early as ten cards – but only to the red deck. Ten cards in, their adaptive unconscious had figured out the game. By fifty cards, they had a hunch they couldn’t explain. It wasn’t until eighty cards had been dealt that their reasoning brains could describe exactly what was happening; something they had unconsciously discovered seventy cards ago.

Unfortunately, this form of judgment isn’t conscious, rational, or even verbal. It comes more in the form of feelings and emotions, two in particular: attachment and aversion. Before the subjects could explain what was going on with the red deck, they had a feeling about it, a specific aversion they weren’t even aware of but was already influencing their behavior. Jonathan Haidt calls this our ‘elephant.’ First in The Happiness Hypothesis and then further in The Righteous Mind, Haidt describes a two-part mind made up of a rational rider (based in our more recently evolved hominid cortex and pre-frontal cortex) and emotional elephant (based in our older mammalian and reptilian brain). The key to understanding this mind is accepting that the rider serves the elephant, not the other way around.

The elephant ‘leans’ in response to aversion or attachment towards stimuli, and the rider immediately goes to work trying to figure out how to smooth the elephant’s path and get it what it wants. Sometimes it can correct the elephant, but only when the elephant is motivated. It is literally, the five ton beast. Mostly, we are ignorant to the movement of the elephant or that it is really the one calling the shots. To complicate matters, we delude ourselves into believe the rider is in control, when really the rider mostly reasons in response to (rather than to decide upon) a felt reaction. The rider exists primarily as a rhetoritican to explain our leaning to others, or even ourselves.

Of course, we are already familiar with attachment, aversion, and ignorance (or greed, anger, and delusion, if you prefer) in another paradigm. They are often called the Three Unwholesome Roots or the Three Poisons.

Gladwell’s point isn’t that this is good or bad, but that it is adaptive. Remember the tiger in the bush? This rapid functioning of the human brain helps us survive. But, as Gladwell points out, when our snap judgments “go awry, they go awry for a very specific and consistent set of reasons, and those reasons can be identified and understood,” which is also what Buddhism tells us. Not only can we learn to be more conscious of our instantaneous judgments, but even our unconscious mind can learn to make better judgments. When necessary, we can even interrupt the process.

Many meditation practices are designed to do precisely this. Samatha, or calm abiding, watches the movements of the mind so that we can become accustomed to them and less swayed by them. Our elephant becomes steadier. Vipassana, or insight meditation, helps us develop wise discrimination, to see clearly the causal chains between events and the nature of reality. The rider becomes a better lookout and subtly cues the elephant onto a smoother path. They work together. We become experts of our own minds.

Gladwell calls the ability “to have a much better understanding of what goes on behind the locked door of their unconscious,” the “gift” of expertise. This is because experts  are better able “to reliably account for their reactions,” even when those reactions are somehow flawed. In the non-expert, the process of explaining a preference, decision, action, or feeling can actually alter the content of that initial mental event. Gladwell calls this the loss of “the ability to know our own mind,” and it has been verified and replicated through countless studies and experiments. He likens the development of expertise – whether in food tasting, war games, art appraisal, or meditative wisdom – to psychotherapy, in which the client effectively becomes an expert on their own mind through years of inner work.

Buddhism, in this way, can offer a certain kind of expertise, a psychological system and the language to describe interior experiences and their effects on our behavior and the world around us. Judgments become dangerous when we are unable to pinpoint and deal with the roots of our feelings, thoughts, words, and deeds. Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American-born Buddhist monk, highlights a tension between the idea of non-judgmental “openness” and Buddhist teaching that may shed light on this paradox.

It should be noted at once that whereas the school of openness bids us to drop our discriminations, judgments and restraints in order to immerse ourselves in the dynamic flow of immediate experience, the Buddha prescribes an attitude toward experience that arises from carefully wrought judgments, employs precise discriminations, and issues in detachment and restraint. This attitude, the classical Buddhist counterfoil to the modern program of openness, might be summed up by one word found everywhere in the ancient texts. That word is heedfulness (appamada).

He goes on to describe heedfulness as a defense against harm caused by negligence (pamada). Bodhi recognizes that “all willed actions, even our fleeting thoughts and impulses, are seeds with roots buried deep in the mind’s beginningless past and with the potency to generate results in the distant horizons of the future.” A heedful person is one who is both aware of the mind’s capacity for delusion and yet practices careful judgment in order to overcome these very delusions. In this sense, Buddhist teaching is aligned with modern research, such as that explored in Gladwell’s book.

Of course, Buddhism also recognizes the power to harm others through labeling (a form of snap judgment). American-born, Tibetan nun Pema Chödrön, has written extensively on the dehumanizing effect of labels reminding us that they can lead to “prejudice, cruelty, and violence.” When we think “This person has a fixed identity, and they are not like me” then “We can kill someone or we can be indifferent to the atrocities perpetrated on them because ‘they’re just hajis,’ or ‘they’re just women,’” etc. Staying open and curious about others by letting go of our fixed ideas or judgments about them is one way to defend against such harm. Buddhism offers practices to do just that, starting with mindfulness meditation.

But spiritual good can also come from wise judgment. The admonishment to avoid judgment altogether precludes this possibility. American-born, Thai Forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu says we need the “clear powers of judgment” from others because “you can’t really trust yourself to see through your delusion on your own. When you’re deluded, you don’t know you’re deluded. You need some trustworthy outside help to point it out to you.”

We can judge mindlessly according to our unknown aversions and attachments, lost in the delusion that we are doing no such thing – or we can acknowledge that we are doing it, always judging all the time (sans enlightenment) and try to do so with greater heedfulness.

The Buddha’s Practical Theology

January 29, 2015
'Sleeping Buddha' by Matt Westgate via

‘Sleeping Buddha’ by Matt Westgate via

A while back, I wrote a literature review about “Buddhist Practical Theology?” with the question mark in the title. This paper summarized and critiqued the very scant number of articles and books on the topic, only two explicitly so and a few other tangentially related. I followed it up here with a discussion of Buddhist theology, which is a tricky enough topic on its own. I’ve continued to muse on the idea of Buddhist practical theology and come to the conclusion that such a theology is inherent to Buddhism, we simply know it by another name: The Four Noble Truths. Let me explain.

When the Buddha first uttered the Four Noble Truths in the deer park at Varanasi, he laid down an eminently practical theology. Of course, he did not call it that, least of all because Shakyamuni Buddha did not speak English. As Buddhists attempting to remain true to his teachings twenty-five hundred years later, we may find the term ‘practical theology,’ a very odd fit. Adoption of this term is not terribly important, but it does offer methods for analytical reflection to align our thoughts, words, and deeds more fully with the Dharma.

So what is ‘practical’ about Buddhist theology? Within Christianity, practical theology is a recognized as “a general way of doing theology concerned with the embodiment of religious belief in the day-to-day lives of individuals and communities,” according to Bonnie Miller-McLemore. As an academic subject and theological method, it can easily be applied to Buddhism (for it is already within Buddhism). Much of the existing Christian scholarship can be adapted, especially as most of the methods employed are drawn from secular social sciences.

Practical Buddhist theology can be tentatively defined (from my earlier paper) as a theological discipline within Buddhism that uses empirical description and normative construction in a dialogical relationship with lived experience to study, understand, and beneficially transform human activity. In other words, when we study the Dharma, it changes how we live our everyday lives. And the way we live our everyday lives changes our understanding of the Dharma. Practical Buddhist theology is concerned with this relationship.

The simplest possible practical theological framework is that of action-reflection-action. One does something, observes and reflects upon the outcomes, and adjusts one’s actions accordingly. In the Sona Sutta (AN6.55) the Buddha likens practice to the strings of a musical instrument, a vina, asking if the instrument was playable if the strings were too tight or too loose. Just as a musician tunes his instrument by tightening a string, listening for the sound, then loosening it again, we employ action-reflection-action to bring ourselves more in tune with the Dharma. In the case of certain forms of meditation, this framework may be slightly reversed and described as reflection-action-reflection, but the basic formula remains and can be applied on a moment-to-moment daily basis.

A more formal method for practical theology is described best by Richard Osmer in his book Practical Theology: An Introduction. This method has been widely adopted by practical theologians because of its very pragmatism. Osmer admits he did not ‘invent’ the method, but he does an outstanding job of explaining and applying it. Osmer’s four-part method, or the Four Noble Truths method, if we wish to claim it for ourselves, can be employed for more deliberate reflection. Osmer describes his method thus:

Over the course of this book we explore four questions that can guide our interpretation and response to situations [within our religious communities]:

What is going on?

Why is this going on?

What ought to be going on?

How might we respond?

Answering each of these questions is the focus of one of the four core tasks of practical theological interpretation:

- The descriptive-empirical task. Gathering information that helps us discern patterns and dynamics in particular episodes, situations, or contexts.

- The interpretive task. Drawing on theories of the arts and sciences [or Buddhist psychology or philosophy] to better understand and explain why these patterns and dynamics are occurring.

- The normative task. Using theological concepts to interpret particular episodes, situations, or contexts, constructing ethical norms to guide our responses, and learning from “good practice.”

- The pragmatic task. Determining strategies of action that will influence situations in ways that are desirable and entering into a reflective conversation with the “talk back” emerging when they are enacted.

Osmer’s book is well worth a read in its entirety by any Buddhist teacher or clergy involved in caring for a sangha or counseling fellow Buddhists. It is relatively short and easily accessible, even for those relatively unfamiliar with its Christian applications.

An example of practical Buddhist theology in action is provided by Bhikshuni Lozang Trinlae, an American Buddhist nun and doctoral candidate at Claremont School of Theology in California.

A Buddhist meditation teacher is teaching her students how to generate a meditative state of altruistic compassion. She conducts a guided meditation session on the topic according to typical traditional theological guidelines. After the session, she reviews the session using Osmer’s [practical theology] framework:

Descriptive: from student feedback, she learns that many students found the meditation difficult to follow;

Interpretative: the meditation guidance was perhaps too long for the students to digest fully in one sitting;

Normative: more time should be given for students to learn and understand the meditation procedure;

Pragmatic: next class, she will read through an explanation of the meditation with students before conducting the guided meditation

Bhikshuni demonstrates the application of Osmer’s four-part method for practical theology in a Buddhist context. Osmer is a Christian theologian and, until now, practical theology has largely been a Christian discipline. However, this framework also happens to exactly parallel the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. This is not coincidental, but rather further evidence of with wisdom of the Buddha in providing a universal path.

According to Bhikshuni Lozang Trinlae, Buddhism needs a practical theology “…because Buddhist congregations, clergy, religion teachers, etc., have the right to benefit from critical, normative, and pragmatic reflection on praxis.” Thus far, English-language academic literature on Buddhism has largely lacked such a dialogue due to the dominance of Buddhist studies over Buddhist theology in the academy. In her papers, Bhikshuni applies methods developed by several Christian theologians, who do not suffer such a lack, in various Buddhist contexts and concludes that practical theological methods are entirely suitable to Buddhism. In fact, Osmer’s framework is precisely the same framework provided by the Buddha in the first turning of the wheel of Dharma.

We need only return to the Four Noble Truths to find that the Buddha himself was an eminently practical theologian (in the broad sense). The First Noble Truth is that of suffering. It describes our everyday experience. The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. It interprets experience to get at the heart of the problem. The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of suffering. This is a normative judgment about the best possible outcome. The Fourth Noble Truth is the way out of suffering. It is a pragmatic prescription for what we can do to realize the outcome we seek, liberation from suffering. The Four Noble Truths and the meditation example above follow the same pattern as Richard Osmer’s methodological framework for doing practical theology, described below. This reflection-action framework can and should be explicitly adopted by Buddhist teachers and leaders who seek to apply the Dharma in ever-changing modern contexts.

[NOTE: This post is adapted from a forthcoming chapter on Buddhist practical theology in a book edited by Nathan Michon and Danny Fisher. For more about how to apply Buddhist practical theology in various contexts, please look forward to the upcoming volume. I will post an update when it is released.]

New Year’s Gratitudes

January 12, 2015

I’ve written before about how I don’t do resolutions based on the arbitrary mathematics of the calendar year. My four standard resolutions continue. Sometimes I fail (okay, most of the time) and sometimes I succeed. The tactics change a little. I’ve been listening to audio books about psychology, will power, and habit formation lately. I’ve had a modicum of success as a result.

However, since the New Year has just come and gone and as I haven’t been blogging much lately, I thought I’d return to my lately forlorn habit with one of my favorite exercises: gratitude. Here’s what I’m grateful for during 2014.

'Gratitude and rust' by Shannon Kringen via

‘Gratitude and rust’ by Shannon Kringen via

I am grateful to my teachers, particularly my professors at Claremont School of Theology. This historically Christian seminary didn’t bat an eye at enrolling a Buddhist Chaplain in their Practical Theology program. My advisor, Dr. Duane Bidwell, has been a real resource. Not only do I feel welcomed in my classrooms, but valued as a source of new knowledge into a different religious tradition. Sometimes, this can be daunting. “So, Monica, what do all Buddhists everywhere think about this issue?” Okay, they don’t say that, but I occasionally feel that’s what I’m representing and I go out of my way to name the particular Buddhist viewpoint from which I’m speaking and discuss how other Buddhist traditions may handle things differently. Nor do they expect me to learn all things Christian by default just for being enrolled. They’re helping me learn about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and certainly my beloved Buddhism and giving me the space and support to study what is truly important to me.

I am grateful to my coworkers at University of the West where in June I became the full-time Institutional Effectiveness and Planning Officer. I feel like my work is valued. I’m able to contribute to projects I enjoy and frequently given the opportunity to learn new things and try what I’ve never done before (also daunting). I enjoy the challenge and the community feeling I have working here. The university has come a long way since I showed up on it’s doorstep in 2010 and I am proud of what we accomplished, but by no means fooled about the work we have yet to do. They also let me teach, which I enjoy immensely.

I am grateful that I was able to spend time with my family this year, first when they came out to California in May and then when I went home to help my parents move into a new house in August. I have always been close to my family and living so far away has been challenging. I am grateful that we are all in good health, of sound mind (mostly) and body (also mostly), financially secure, and able to travel and see each other regularly.

I am grateful for my new family here in California, particularly my partner, Colin. He put up with a particularly hectic schedule on my part this fall and supported me through some stressful work, conferences, and final papers. I am particularly grateful that he is always willing to hang in there for the difficult conversations when I feel like a lot of other people would either check out or freak out. He and his family have done everything to welcome and integrate me into their extended California clan and include me in their many celebrations and travels. Together, Colin, Archer (dog), Isis (cat), and I make a fun little DINK nuclear family that enriches my life.

Thank you. Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!

Winter Break

December 23, 2014
The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya in snow. March 2007. Photo by author.

The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya in snow. March 2007. Photo by author.

I just completed the busiest semester I’ve had for several years, perhaps ever. Thus, the dearth of blogging.

In June, I achieved my first full-time job in ten years. In a way, it felt anticlimactic. After all, I have always worked, except for the nine months just after I moved to California. Even then, I rebuilt a student government to keep myself busy. My full-time position is simply an upgrade of the 30-hour per week position I already held, so the transition was seamless. But it was now a stronger draw on my time.

The university where I work is growing and the single undergraduate class I teach needed two sections this fall instead of one. In compensation for the larger work and teaching load, I only enrolled in two classes instead of three, but that’s still two doctorate-level classes, with all the work that entails.

Finally, in addition, my clinical pastoral education unit started meeting in October. Functionally, this is a third class, including homework in the form of periodic clinical case presentations and reading assignments.

Essentially, I was working full time, attending school full time, and teaching two classes on the side. Something had to give. Mostly that was blogging, exercise, and, to my partner’s patient dismay, time together as a couple, particularly in the evenings. I would frequently be away from home for 11 hours a day or longer during the week.

Next semester will be easier, but not by much. I am taking one less class and teaching one less class. My partner and I will get our weekly date night back. I will restart my morning routine of yoga and meditation. And, hopefully, there will be one or two posts per month here on the blog.

In the meantime, everyone is looking forward to the holidays, winter break, and some vacation travel. We will with my partner’s family for a few days, then home a few days while the university is closed, then flying off to Florida to spend ten days at Walt Disney World.

My partner and his mother, for whom this is a regular family trip, are looking forward to visiting one of their favorite places. I am a bit more reluctant. Theme parks were sometimes (not always) fun when I was a child, but as an adult, I find them somewhat overwhelming. Nevertheless, things will be fine overall. I’m sure a lot of it will be fun, and when I do get overwhelmed, I have been promised a lovely hotel room with a jacuzzi tub to retreat to whenever I like. The food will be good and company outstanding.

I hope all of you have a similarly lovely holiday. For those who do not, I wish you the compassion and equanimity of the Buddha. Take care of each other, stay safe and warm. Cheers!


September 26, 2014
tags: ,

Two and a half years later. A friend said so today. Is it really? Two and a half years since I shared a joke with you? Two and a half years since you made me think? Two and a half years since the text message came that told me you were gone? Yes. It is two and a half years later.

Your friend died. We memorialized him today. Forty years your elder and yet he outlived you. We remembered you and thought what you might have said or done. I was sad. I knew him less than you, but I was sad because I know you would have wept. And joked. I was sad because I missed you.

Your picture is in my office, on a shelf. You’re smiling. You’re in other offices, too, all over this place. I would say “like a guardian angel,” but no one who knew you would call you that. Maybe you’re our guardian devil, or our trickster at least.

I hope you would be proud of me. Proud of all of us. I’m still working on the questions you made me ask myself when I met you, four and a half years ago.

It seems like a gyp when I think about it now. I only got to know you two years. How unfair. How wonderful. Because I got to know you at all.

Burn My Ego Down

August 5, 2014

'Hattie' by Gabriel Radley via

‘Hattie’ by Gabriel Radley via

This is a prayer to the dead Buddha

who can’t hear me.

Dear Buddha,

please burn my ego down.

Please give me wisdom like a flame,

let that flame burn and brighten,

and burn my ego down.

Let me let go of the dead wood

of attachment, aversion, and delusion

that I carry on my scarred back like a weight.

Let me let go of this burden

and set it alight

and dance around the flames

while I burn my ego down.

And let me not fear the fire

that burns my ego down.

Let it be a warmth, a light, a balm.

Dear Buddha,

I don’t think you can hear me,

but I don’t think you need to.

This is a prayer to the buddha inside me

when I have burned my ego down.

Even Shakyamuni Had ‘First World Problems’

July 30, 2014
First world problems internet meme

First world problems internet meme

We use the phrase ‘first world problems’ to denote inconvenient things that happen to relatively affluent and comfortable people. There’s even a meme for that. We use it as a joke when something trivial makes us sad. On the one hand, it’s telling us to get over ourselves.

On the other, it’s reinforcing that our sense of relative security. After all, not everyone is lucky enough to have ‘first world problems.’ Just think of those Tibetan monks and nuns who, though being tortured for years, never lost compassion for their jailers. Now those are real problems. Think of how strong that made their practice. How in the world are we supposed to cultivate a practice like that?

But even Shakyamuni had ‘first world problems.’ He was a prince, remember. His life was as affluent and comfortable as it was possible to be for his time. Yet he was not immune to suffering.

In fact, it was precisely because of his affluence that the problem of suffering bothered him so deeply. He had been given everything a person of his society might want, yet he was not free from the dukkha of birth, old age, sickness, and death.

Many of us now living in relatively wealthy, safe countries have almost anything a person of our society might want. We live like royalty of previous ages, yet we want more. And we are not free from the dukkha of becoming and unbecoming.

I often wondered if my comfortable life was a hindrance to my practice. The suttas say the gods do not seek liberation because they do not have enough suffering to motivate them. Even with all my small struggles, I wondered, am I living in a small heave-realm on earth? Are we all?

 No. Affluence is not the problem. Ego is. Wondering if we’re ‘too comfortable’ keeps our mind fixated on our ‘selves’ and reinforces ego. Attachment, aversion, and, most insidious of all, delusion is the problem. Although we have so much, we are still beset by tanha, craving. This is the problem.

Shakyamuni had a radical solution. He walked away from it all. He cut off his hair, gave up his fine robes, left his palace, and became a wandering aesthetic. He almost starved himself to death before he saw that was not the eay either.

We should not envy those who have cultivated their practices through the adversities of torture, poverty, or illness. We should respect them and pay homage to them, but recognize that the Buddha would never have prescribed that as a method of practice.

Nor should we regret that we were born into more fortunate circumstances. That is just craving of another kind. We should use those circumstances to support our practice and to help others as much as we can (those are the same thing, to my mind). Even though we have much, we can still crave for little.

Finally, we can recognize that even we silly people with our ‘first world problems’ are capable of enlightenment. Perhaps even more able than people in starving, war-torn countries who have never heard the Dharma. We can be grateful for our good fortune. We, of all people, can help others the most, if stop worrying about ourselves and practice!


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