Thursday, May 7, 2009

Mind in the Balance

One of the wonderful things about Buddhism is that its teachings can range from the very simplest and most purely experiential to the most intensely scholarly and philosophical--without in either case losing anything of their meaning or value. I've been thinking about this recently with the approaches of four very different teachers sitting on my desk, awaiting my attention. There's a CD filled with short dharma talks by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, abbot of the Metta Forest Monastery, covering every aspect of the human experience. There's a book by his student (and my friend and fellow sangha member,) Dr. Barbara Wright, describing her application of "metta"--the loving-kindness practice--to interpersonal relationships and conflict resolution. It's based on her board game, Metta. And there's Still the Mind, an audiobook by Bhodipaksa, whose website Wildmind is one of the great online resources for information and guidance about the Buddhist practice.

More of these in the coming days, as time allows. For today, there's Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity by B. Alan Wallace, a pioneering work of careful scholarship that seeks a new basis and rationale for a science of the mind. Exploring, first, the long history of religious meditation practice in both East and West from its ancient origins, Wallace then turns his attention to the attempts of scientists and philosophers, in more recent centuries, to describe the workings of the mind through the lens of a rational, empirical methodology--attempts that have consistently run up against the rocks of the seemingly impenetrable subjective/objective divide.

The main body of his book is devoted to Wallace's own attempt to break through that obstacle, in a series of alternating chapters that "balance" theory and practice in ever-deepening and more carefully refined stages of awareness, awareness of awareness, and observing the awareness of awareness. Following him along with his work is akin to watching the most skilled of surgeons with his scalpel, separating out intricate tissues and pausing to examine each of them under the microscope of consciousness. It's fascinating, intense, and infinitely detailed mind-work.

Be it said, then, that this book requires a lot of patience. "Mind in the Balance" is not one for the slacker. Be it said, too, that I am still in the process of reading it. I cannot claim to have fully plumbed its depths. Because it demands the reader's highly focused concentration and active collaboration, it is not a fast read. Wallace asks a lot of his reader, who must--if he is to read the book as it is intended to be read--learn some pretty skilled meditation practices along the way, and spend more than a minimal amount of time experiencing them before proceeding to the theoretical examination of their implications for Wallace's argument. I'll be the first to admit that I find the practices challenging, to say the least--and I have been at the practice for a number of years.

But if the author asks a lot, he gives a lot in return for the reader's patience and collaboration. This careful, methodical study of workings of the mind is in fact the essence of the Buddha's teachings, as I understand them. Remarkably--but perhaps not surprisingly--it coincides in the most important places with what Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Dr. Wright, and Bhodipaksa have to say. It's simply a different presentation from theirs, a different way--the way of the scholar and the rationalist thinker. At the center of it all is the Buddha and the ineffable depth of his compassion, its radical simplicity and inexhaustible wisdom.


khengsiong said...

The main form of Christian meditation is contemplation, am I right?

I think Islam Sufism also has some forms of meditation, but I don't know much.

ganesh statue said...

Buddhism put us on the right path.

WH said...

nice review - I posted mine here -