Tag Archives: Thomas Kuhn

Busting out of the Dharma Paradigm


After a lot of work with a meditation practice heavily based on Buddhist meditation techniques, I have decided to try to strike off in a new direction. It’s harder than you might think. It seems that the deeper one gets into a meditation practice, the more all encompassing and self-evident it becomes. It isn’t just a matter of picking a different object or adding a new technique. It’s more about changing a fundamental mindset. In this way the framework in which a meditation practice takes place is a lot like what Thomas Kuhn famously called a paradigm. A scientific paradigm, Kuhn argued, is not just a set of theories and other explicit beliefs about the world. It is a rather a whole set of tacit ways of operating within a domain of inquiry. Kuhn argued that paradigms structure the very entities that one can observe and the problems that one can engage with.

In meditation, which is an inquiry into our inner experience, there is a similar kind of deep structuring of experience by the paradigm of practice one immerses oneself in. To make it concrete let’s look at the Buddhist meditation paradigm. It begins with the assertion that everything in experience displays three basic phenomenological characteristics. These are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-duality (i.e., not being either a subject or an object of some subject). The claim often made by Buddhists is that anybody who honestly investigates their own experience in meditation will find these three characteristics in every part of experience. There is a lot of talk about the idea that this is “just how things are” or “seeing the ultimate nature of things”. A lot of contemporary North American Buddhists even liken Buddhist meditation to science. They claim that it doesn’t involve any faith, but is simply a method for investigating the truth about phenomenal reality.

Hmm…What Would Kuhn Say? (I should get that on an armband!) Kuhn would point out that the entities and properties that the observer expects to see based on their paradigm will influence what they actually discover. In that case, going into meditation with the assumption that absolutely all experience truly displays the 3 characteristics  would make it at the very least much more likely that one would see those characteristics. In fact, it’s not easy for beginning mediators to see the 3 characteristics in a lot of stuff. It takes a lot of work on the cushion to train the mind how to break apart seemingly solid objects into fluctuating, vibrating, flickering sensations. Even then, it’s not always obvious that these fields of vibration are unsatisfying. One often has to search for the dukka (suffering) in the vibrations. Sure enough, in looking for it, one can usually find it. The last one, non-duality (often called no-self) is the hardest of all to perceive. It involves something called dis-embedding. This is where awareness separates itself from the aspects of experience that are normally part of the perceptual background. In effect, there is a kind of radical figure-ground switch, where what was once the perceiver becomes perceived. This switch is followed up with a further effort to see both what was formerly the perceiver and what was formerly the object at the same time. This is pretty neat trick, and it has the result of synthesizing formerly disparate aspects of the perceptual field.

In my meditation practice, I must have gone through thousands of such cycles of perceiving these three characteristics and thereby creating a more synthesized perceptual field. It’s a pretty difficult process, nothing feel-good about it. It involves ripping your comfortable reality to shreds in order that it can be reborn in a less fragmented form. However, the outcome seems worth it to a lot of people. It does reduce the amount of overall stress in the perceptual field and increases the sense of flow and equanimity. However, despite these benefits, it seems to leave out a lot of stuff that’s really essential to living a full and vibrant human life. It is focused on reducing experienced suffering at a very neurologically basic level, but not on creating value, flourishing, or eudaimonia (pick your term!).

The main thing I want to draw attention to right now is just that Vipassana meditation is a highly conceptually structured process, not at all a simple or naive approach to investigating lived experience. There is little doubt in my mind that following the techniques of vipassana meditation will eventually reveal the truths that it posits in experience, but where I object is to the claim that this way of viewing reality is somehow special or ultimate. “The Buddha said so,” just doesn’t cut it for me.

So getting back to Kuhn again, what should we look for if we want to evaluate the Buddha’s teachings as a paradigm for experiencing the truth about phenomenal reality? We should look for something that Kuhn called anomalies.  Kuhn argued that scientific theories are never strictly proven or falsified. Rather, if one looks at the actual history of science rather than thinking in terms of unrealistic and idealized notions about scientific method, one sees that scientists persist in using a paradigm as long as that paradigm continues to generate interesting research problems. When paradigms start to crumble, it is because it starts to get beset by anomalies. An anomaly is not simply an experimental result that is not predicted by a theory. Theories can often be elaborated upon and expanded to try to accommodate unexpected results. This is what scientists do all the time, and it’s not bad science. However, sometimes experimental results start making things difficult because they are so outside of the paradigm that the theories cannot be coherently expanded to make sense of them.  There is a sense not just that things are getting strange, but that the research within the current paradigm can no longer continue without a lot of headaches.

Bringing this back to meditation and Buddhism, what are the anomalies we see. In this post I’m not going to tackle the anomaly of divine emanation, because that deserves a post of its own. Here I’ll point a more universally recognized anomaly, which is an experiential tension between the early Buddhist teaching that life is not worth living, and the pervasive human tendency to experience life as valuable in itself. The early Buddhists scriptures based on the historical Buddha’s teachings are pretty stark when it comes to the value of life. Basically, all lived experience is inherently a burden, no matter how good it seems.  The only reason not to just kill yourself is that it doesn’t actually work thanks to the mechanism of re-incarnation. If it weren’t for re-incarnation, one could save oneself a lot of trouble on the meditation cushion and receive ultimate liberation from suffering through a very simple act. This should be a sobering thought for all those contemporary scientistic Buddhists out there who want to be fundamentalists about the Buddha’s original teachings while simultaneously being skeptical of literal re-incarnation.

But centuries before modern rationalism cast doubt on the idea of re-incarnation, people started to get uncomfortable with this life-denying aspect of the Buddha’s teachings.  Human beings, God bless them, have a serious hankering for existence! As much as it pains us, we can’t help but feel that there is some point to it all (when we aren’t depressed anyway). The Mahayana reformation decided to jettison (or at least indefinitely post-pone) the whole spiritual suicide idea by inventing the idea of voluntary re-incarnation motivated by compassion.

This reform was probably for the better as it made the Buddhist paradigm more encompassing of the data of deep human experience, but it led to some pretty severe tensions within the ideological framework of Buddhism. Zen, resolved these tensions by telling us to throw logic and rationality out the window.  For example, the classic Zen teaching that Nirvana is Samsara is pretty resonant with the teachings of many other mystical traditions that the divine being is both utterly transcendent and utterly immanent at the same time. However, while this is a seeming paradox no matter how you slice it, with Buddhism this whole teaching sits a little oddly, since it is in straight up contradiction to what the Buddha taught.

Well never-mind, all religions are full of contradictions aren’t they? Yes, but I’m not really interested in the logical coherence of a religious viewpoint here, I’m interested in noticing how historical paradigms for meditation practice condition and perhaps constrain that practice. I’ve always felt that a spiritual frameworks should not be unnecessarily obscure. Although the Mahayana (Zen) and Vajrayana (Tibetan) schools of Buddhism do re-appropriate much of the life-affirming and even theistic concepts that early Buddhism repudiated, there is a strong sense that this results in paradox and an inability to speak in clear open language about meditation practice. Of course, Zen asks us to embrace this paradox as part of our practice. But what if the paradox is only necessary because of the unwillingness to step out of the original paradigm structure set forth by the historical Buddha?

It reminds of Ptolemaic astronomy, which placed the Earth at the centre of the planetary system. For many years after Copernicus presented his heliocentric model of the solar system, the Ptolemaic system was still viable, because it incorporated epicycles that sustained the predictive accuracy of the model. Yet, at some point the need for so many epicycles became too burdensome to work with on a practical level and the model ceased to be useful. While Zen and Vajrayana innovations bring an affirmation of life and re-introduce the Shakti principle back into the Buddhist picture, there is an unavoidable tension with the original one-sided teachings of the Buddhist paradigm. The paradigm can accommodate innovation, but the original core elements of the paradigm create unnecessary obscurity, complexity, and confusion, and this shows up and has a definite impact on meditation practice.

The basic tenacity and goodness of the desire for life, for sex, for the richness of meaning is one of the fundamental anamolies that made me never entirely comfortable with the Buddhist paradigm. Of course, it didn’t hurt that my home religion of Judaism has very strong teachings about the importance of remaining engaged with human realities and the fundamental goodness of God’s creation.

So why did I spend so long toughing it out on the meditation cushion looking for the 3 characteristics? The simple answer is that I did it because the technique is so damn effective. It clearly produced results. It created fundamental and permanent shifts in my consciousness that opened me to new worlds of experience, and reduced the suffering I experienced on a moment by moment basis. That’s pretty nice and worth some extra effort and suffering along the way. I also felt that I didn’t have a choice once I crossed a threshold called stream entry. According to the articulation of the Buddhist paradigm put forward by Daniel Ingram, once you cross stream entry, you’re stuck with involuntary vipassana until you either finish the process in total enlightenment or your die. This was like having a gun to my head. I’d better keep going I thought.

Yet, at some deeper level there was always a resistance to the process, always a sense that it was somehow a violation of something sacred, something that in my heart of hearts I knew we weren’t supposed to mess with too much. My individuality, my sacred separateness, my soul, my authentic self, my unique purpose, my sense of service, my self-expression (notice all those possessive pronouns!) These were things that the Buddhist paradigm regards as so much karmic wood for the pyre; attachments to be burned off through practice.

Two weeks ago, I had a major shift in my practice. I felt some deep inner knot untie and my resistance to sensory experience was dramatically reduced. For a few days, I flirted with feelings of selflessness, centerlessness, agencylessness. It was peaceful in the way the desert landscapes can be, but it was not beautiful, for beauty depends on finitude. I had a deep realization that I had to change course. I realized that my days of hunting for the 3 characteristics were over. I had to turn my meditation practice around, break out of the Dharma paradigm!

The adventure of that attempted jail break will be the subject of future posts.

~May you Love Yourself as God Loving Godself