Monday, November 03, 2008

BOOK REVIEW - Big Mind-Big Heart by Dennis Genpo Merzel

Genpo Merzel's appeal as a teacher, is based on his ability to make connections between the sometimes obscure Zen source material and ordinary peoples lives. Sometimes this is a tricky line to walk, the main danger being to the health of Buddhism. You make something accessible, but it may be done at some cost to the Dharma (the Buddha's teachings) - to dumb down, misrepresent, or introduce elements that are not in sympathy with it. The challenge for all Buddhist traditions working in the West is to maintain the clarity of the teachings they've inherited, whilst discovering ways to fit them into the culture they now find themselves in.

This is not a new dilemma, it occurs when Buddhism arrives in any new culture it encounters. It happened in China, Japan and now in the US and UK. Chan/Zen, has found itself at both a physical and philosophical distance from the original Buddhist source material, ever since Bodhidharma arrived from India. This explains why Chan/Zen repeatedly states its ancestral lineage back to the Buddha, just in case we might be inclined to doubt it. On one hand it appears defensive about this Dharma inheritance, on the other, it confidently asserts that its teachings are 'a special transmission outside the scriptures'. The core Zen texts are mostly later Mahayana concoctions, the only existent texts often being Chinese translations, or sutras that are specifically Chinese Chan in origin. Aspects of Zen teaching can, as a result, seem to tread an unconventional line, when placed against earlier Buddhist teachings. This generation of texts need referring back to the primary scriptures, in order to provide continuity and context. Otherwise you will not be able to discern whether a sutra's teaching has cultural or doctrinal authority. There is an element of 'Chinese whispers' here, where the message gets seriously distorted the further away from the source - the original Buddha's teachings - it gets. So, in the West there is both a requirement to experiment, but also to accurately present the Buddha's teachings as clearly as possible. Merzel's book doesn't quite succeed in doing both.

Having admired some of his previous books I approached this book, with expectant interest. I'd heard about the Big Mind -Big Heart process he's been championing, without quite ascertaining the details of it. Finally I could obtain a better sense of what this consisted of. The endorsement on the cover from Ken Wilber, should have been advance warning - he says that the Big Mind process can be used - 'in any spiritual path you wish, or even by itself, as a practice for realising your True Self''. This tells you all you need to know about where this book is coming from. Merzel wants this approach to be accessible to all, but in order to achieve this he has effectively to neuter the Buddhism that should underpin and explicitly give it vigor. He often blurs distinctions between religions, making relativistic generalisations and sweeping universalising of belief systems. The idea of what the True Self is, is a substantially different affair looked at it through Buddhist eyes, than it would be through a psychologists eyes, for instance. Quite what sense, if any, does the ideal of a True Self make within the theology of Christianity or Islam. What exactly would Enlightenment mean to Catholic theology? Also, The Ten Perfections of the Bodhisattva - are translated by Merzel into - The Ten Perfections of Excellence. This makes no real sense without also understanding The Bodhisattva Ideal, and that these perfections can only be fully practiced by an enlightened being - not an unenlightened one! Its important to know that these are difficult Ideals to put into practice, not an easy to follow, step by step, Self-Help Guide.

The publisher designates the book as Self-Help/Body Mind Spirit, and I would say that's the best place for it. Essentially the process Merzel has designed is a development of a psychological technique called Voice Dialogue. In this you speak as aspects of your psyche and come into a more intimate relationship with them. What Merzel has done is extend this voice dialogue to include spiritual aspects too. So practitioners speak as The Self, The No Self and The True Self, etc. This makes sense if you believe these things are present, buried within your current, but still conditioned unconscious - Enlightenment is already within you, you just need to unlock it from your experience. That a conditioned person could intimately experience the unconditioned, whilst remaining a conditioned person, I can't quite believe is possible. There might be vague glimmers, but no substantial insight. The view behind this seems to misrepresent the Buddha Nature doctrine of imminence, though this is not directly mentioned here at all.

The danger in the Big Mind process is that it appears to make Insight a simple matter of psychological role play, for this truth to arise into consciousness. As a Buddhist, admittedly from a different Western Tradition, with its own jargon, I found it difficult to understand exactly what level of spiritual experience was being evoked by this role-playing. There is such a jumble of specialised jargon's, disguised Buddhist references, psychological models, psycho/spiritual guff, Self-Help and Universal philosophies at play here. In short, some of the underlying premises of this book are extremely dodgy. Mostly its misleading about how an Insight experience could be achieved. If it was this easy, then surely the Buddha, or some enlightened person over the last few millenia, would have espoused it. I don't believe Merzel is such a person either.This book comes across as half baked Buddhism, garnished with a sprinkling of psychology for added cultural zest. It maybe that people will try this technique, experience something bigger than themselves, and this could be of some help to them. At the very least it could assist with the whole process of psycho/spiritual integration. There isn't much danger in actually using the technique, but there would be if you bought into the wooliness of the philosophy behind it.

1 comment:

Bob G said...

Thank you. This looks like an honest and thoughtful review