Out of a living silence

A contemplative shares thoughts that emerge in moments of quiet reflection

The cloud of forgetting

with 3 comments

And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.—(The Book of Privy Counseling, Chapter 23)

About thirty years ago, in 1986 or so, I attended a day-long workshop on Buddhist and Christian contemplative practices. During the day various Buddhists led meditations based on vipassanā exercises, Theravādin mettābhāvanā and Tibetan gtong-len practices, and an Anglican contemplative nun led a meditation based on the fourteenth-century guide to contemplative prayer called The Cloud of Unknowing. The author of The Cloud is unknown, but it is commonly believed that the same anonymous author wrote The Book of Privy Counseling that is quoted above. The session based on The Cloud of Unknowing turned out to have a profound and lasting influence on my own approach to meditation. In the present writing my aim is to reflect on one particular Cloud theme and how I have found it useful as a Buddhist practitioner.

First, for those who may not be familiar with The Cloud of Unknowing, the principal notion is that all the knowledge we have acquired in various ways eventually presents an obstacle to the only reliable way of truly knowing God, which is not through the intellect but through the experience of love. That experience of love takes place in what the author calls The Cloud of Unknowing. Access to that “cloud” is gained by first passing through what the author calls The Cloud of Forgetting. In practice, passing through this first cloud consists in making a deliberate effort to set aside all the beliefs and convictions one has acquired through indoctrination, teaching, catechism and personal study. All such intellectual knowing is to be put out of one’s mind so that the meditator can sit with a completely open heart to whatever may arise in the cloud of unknowing. The cloud of unknowing itself is simply (but not necessarily easily) sitting in complete silence with a mind free of thoughts, expectations, anticipation or personal concerns but with a loving readiness to receive whatever experiences may arise as if they were gifts lovingly bestowed. A Christian doing this practice will naturally speak of it in terms of loving and being loved by God, while a Buddhist may be more inclined to speak of it in terms of experiencing Suchness (tathatā) or the love of Amitābha Buddha, but of course to speak in such terms is possible only outside the clouds of forgetting and unknowing.

Since setting aside all dogmas and indoctrination permanently could prove to become socially awkward, or even dangerous to one’s health, within the context of a religious community that expects adherence to those dogmas, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing recommends again picking up the intellectual knowledge that one set had aside in the cloud of forgetting. After being in the cloud of unknowing, however, one is likely to hold all those views more lightly and perhaps even somewhat ironically. The contemplative who regularly practices this form of contemplative prayer may, for example, continue to say what he or she knows a Christian or Buddhist is supposed to say but is likely to have a profound sense of acceptance of the fact that others were given other lines to recite and are saying what they are expected to say. Believing in the sense of assenting to propositions, however, yields to wordless loving, and as practice deepens, loving becomes increasingly unconditional.

It has been my experience over the decades that there are more and more doctrines that I am prepared to leave at the threshold of the cloud of forgetting and to be disinclined to pick up again at the exit. Except in the most abstract and general way, I now find myself disinclined to recite the lines that as a Buddhist I was taught to say. Yes, I am still willing to say that attachment is a condition for eventual disappointment, and that is indeed a Buddhist teaching, but it is also a commonplace observation on which no tradition owns the copyright. Beyond voicing such commonly articulated observations as that, however, I am no longer led to speak as a Buddhist (or anything else that attempts to organize experiences into doctrinal structures).

Beyond a general disinclination to recite Buddhist dogmas, I feel a particularly strong resistance to repeat a few specific doctrines associated with Buddhism. There is one in particular that I have questioned so often that I have come to feel it is almost entirely useless,—at times even counterproductive—in contemporary society, namely, the doctrine of non-self (anātmavāda).

It is clear from looking at the canonical and scholastic literature of Buddhism in India that the original doctrine was a critique of one specific doctrine held by rival schools, namely, the doctrine that the self (ātman) is a simple, unchanging substance that has no cause, has no agency, is unaffected by anything else and produces no effects. A fairly typical Buddhist critique of that notion of self is that if there is such an entity, we cannot know about it, since it has no effects, including the effect of making an impression on our faculties of sensing and understanding. Moreover, even if such an entity exists, it cannot play any role at all in the task of primary interest to a Buddhist, which is the task of changing one’s mentality from one that sets up the conditions for frustration and disappointment to one that painlessly deals with whatever experiences may present themselves. It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that the Buddhist doctrine of non-self is a critique of a view that hardly anyone in modern times holds. It is a razor in search of a beard. In the context of current beliefs about how the human mentality is constituted, arguing that there is not a simple, permanent, unchanging, uncaused, actionless and inconsequential self is approximately like arguing that there is no such thing as the fire-element phlogiston. Anyone standing on a soapbox and making such a proclamation is unlikely to meet any opposition. Such a safe proclamation is unnecessary and ultimately useless.

In the absence of an actually held negandum for the doctrine of non-self, modern Buddhists have tended either to absolutize the doctrine to mean that there is no self of any kind anywhere or to interpret it to be a warning against a particular notion of self called Ego.

The former of those options, saying that there is no self at all of any kind, is too obviously false to be worth more than a moment’s consideration. There clearly is a complex physical and psychological self that every healthy person experiences nearly every waking moment of every day, a self that is inaccessible to other selves and to which other selves are largely unknowable. The self of daily experience is so multifaceted that it does not admit of easy definition, but being difficult to define does not disqualify it from being something that most people devote most of their energy to making more or less successful attempts at protecting, nurturing, ameliorating and controlling. It is important to realize that being a self is not in any way contrary to the letter or to the spirt of Buddhist teachings. As one of the most treasured of all Buddhist texts, Dhammapada, says:

157. If one holds oneself dear, one should diligently watch oneself. Let the wise man keep vigil during any of the three watches of the night.

159. One should do what one teaches others to do; if one would train others, one should be well controlled oneself. Difficult, indeed, is self-control.

160. One truly is the protector of oneself; who else could the protector be? With oneself fully controlled, one gains a mastery that is hard to gain.

163. Easy to do are things that are bad and harmful to oneself. But exceedingly difficult to do are things that are good and beneficial.

165. By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.

166. Let one not neglect one’s own welfare for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.

The second of the options, saying that denying self is really about denying Ego, is potentially more confusing that it would be to say nothing at all. That is because both in modern psychology and in ordinary language, the term ego has numerous meanings, so one must specify exactly which sense of the term one is taking pains to deny. In some discussions of abnormal psychology, for example, having a weak ego is said to be a characteristic of some types of serious mental illness. Given the polysemy of the term ego in modern usage, it is probably better not to present Buddhism as a set of antidotes against ego itself.

Buddhism may be presented as an antidote to egocentrism, that is, the inability to distinguish between self and other that manifests as an inability to grasp or appreciate any perspective or belief other than one’s own. Such an antidote, however, can be presented in a more straightforward way than by expounding the somewhat arcane Buddhist doctrine of anātmavāda. Rather than denying self (whatever that might mean) or problematizing the distinction between self and other in the mysterious language of non-dualism, it is probably more helpful simply to teach positive contemplative exercises such as the cultivation of friendship (mettā-bhāvanā), which begins with the recognition that one naturally strives for well-being for oneself, progresses to the realization that all conscious beings seek well-being for themselves and that there is no compelling reason why one should favor one’s own self over anyone else’s self, and finally extends the care that one has for oneself to an increasingly wide circle of other selves. While the cultivation of unconditional love for all beings is easier to say than to achieve, it is a task that is not in any way made easier by introducing the classical Buddhist doctrine of non-self.

Religious and philosophical teachings are better seen as invitations to discovery than as accurate descriptions of what one will discover. Teachings that prove useful to some people at some times may not be at all useful to other people, or to the same person at different times of life. In the culture of ancient India, there was a doctrine that all the changes of life are not to be taken too seriously, because they are not really the self, the true self being outside the realm of everyday experience. While some people no doubt found that way of thinking a useful way not to be overwhelmed by the world of change, others found it difficult to make sense of such a doctrine. It is said that the Buddha was among those who did not find the doctrine of a static true self (ātman) useful and sought to provide an alternative strategy, the dogma of non-self or even no self (anātman), to avoid being overwhelmed by the experience of constant change. That alternative is historically interesting, but that there is no simple, unchanging substance to be called the self now goes without saying. That which goes without saying is probably better left unsaid. Or, in the language of The Cloud of Unknowing, it is better left inside the cloud of forgetting.


Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 at 20:06

Posted in Meditation

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. I enjoy your comments, Richard. The atman vs. the anatman has been a complexity to me. I enjoy a quiet peaceful environment which I can now, at my age, embrace. If I hadn’t given this duality much thought, I’d be a different person, It was always a conflict, I thought, that the atman became The Ego, making a cross-species jump to what we consider psychology and so putting those limitations around it. I agree anatman was born of Buddha’s times, a revolt against the Brahmins, not to mention the caste system.
    Actually when I read your title, I thought you might talk about the diminishment of memory in old age, and some possible workarounds. Ha! Memory does actually disappear of itself these days, I notice, and both my doctor and Medicare want to know what “stage” one is at. I’m sorry that memory is so “important” in this sense, since I could hardly care what goes away. The 3 X 5 empty white card is in constant use at our household.

    Nancy Snyder

    Tuesday, May 24, 2016 at 21:31

  2. Wonderful piece, Richard. As an analytically trained philosopher and skeptic, I am immediately suspicious of anything that requires us to give up our hard-earned knowledge on behalf of “experience”; after all, isn’t our knowledge just a distillation of experience? Indeed, there is a difference in kind between the kind of anecdotal experience by which we ordinarily live our lives and the careful, structured experience used to build our best theories of the world. (Which then become our “knowledge”).

    To throw away knowledge in favor of anecdote is fraught with danger.

    So I think the practice you suggest is one that must be undertaken carefully. The guru tells us to give up knowledge and follow our experience, by which all too often it is meant that we must follow his whim.

    But that such an approach is complex and potentially dangerous is not an argument that it is always improper. Or to use another analogy, perhaps once one reaches a certain level of knowledge and wisdom, one can remove the training wheels for awhile. (I don’t think we can realistically remove them for good).

    As for anātmavāda, as you note, often the problem comes more in the interpretation than in the actual teachings, at least as found in the Nikāyas. I find the non-self approach makes Buddhism less ego-centric than, for example, its closest Western counterpart, Stoicism. While teachings of the Stoics are admirable, I find they often put too much emphasis on the role of the courageous self, as though by sheer force of ego-dominance one could put everything into place. It is of course a matter of degree, but in Buddhism the constant reminder to include “anatta” beside “dukkha” and “anicca” is, at least I find, one of its wisest teachings. Get yourself out of the way. That said, of course the literal claim “there is no self” is absurd, and there is no problem in saying so I think.

    Douglass Smith

    Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at 06:38

  3. Reblogged this on Advayavada Buddhism.

    John Willemsens

    Wednesday, May 25, 2016 at 13:55

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