Life is a game of immersion. How willing are you to take it all in, to acknowledge both the pleasure and pain, without looking away, self-medicating, or relying on some other trick of avoidance? Of course, we all have our limits, even those monks sitting in Himalayan caves can’t fully countenance all the horrors of a world that doesn’t play fair or nice, that doesn’t care about you or anyone else. But they try, and we should too because the more you’re willing to face reality, the better able you will be to navigate it.
For 2600 years, Buddhists have been designing practices and techniques to help humanity deal with what the world is really like. And this week, we’re supremely honored to spend time with a young thirty-something from Detroit who has made it his life’s work to make those teachings more accessible. Nicolas Bommarito’s Seeing Clearly: A Buddhist Guide to Life was a revelation to Foreword reviewer Matt Sutherland. In his review for the September/October issue, he writes, “The book’s goal is to interpret a wide variety of Buddhist practices ‘in a way that will be relevant to the lives of modern people,’” and Bommarito excels at demystifying some of Buddhism’s harder to grasp concepts. He further provides specific techniques to help readers move beyond philosophy into the actual practice of quieting anxiety, embracing change, and, yes, seeing the world more clearly.”
Oxford University Press helped us connect author and reviewer, with Matt playing his favored grasshopper role.
In the preface, you write “Buddhism means very different things to different people around the world.” Can you talk generally about why Buddhism attracts followers of all stripes and convictions: some are fiercely beholden to Buddhism’s ancient historical texts, while others are attracted to Buddhist thought as philosophy, as an intellectual challenge, and others still simply dabble with Buddhist breathing practices, for example, because they’re tired of being addicted to YouTube. What is it about Buddhism that makes it so approachable, that has allowed it to survive and prosper for 2600 years?
You’re definitely right to point out that people relate to Buddhism in very different ways. Though I think that’s not a special feature of Buddhism—being Jewish or Catholic or a Democrat can also mean very different things to different people and in this respect Buddhism is no different.
There are also a lot of boring historical factors that helped Buddhism spread far and wide, things like the social and political situation in India at the time, the development of the Silk Road, and so on. But even given those factors, people wanted to spread Buddhism and so it had to become something more universal and less tied to a particular culture (as opposed to something like Confucianism which is more strongly tied to the Han Chinese cultural world). This isn’t to say that Buddhism is unique in this respect—after all, Christianity also became something that transcended the politics and culture of Roman-occupied Israel.
There is a kind of flexibility in Buddhism. It’s common to point out that it adapts to new cultures and existing frameworks. That’s why Buddhism in 14th-century Japan, 17th-century Tibet, and 20th-century America can look and feel very different. I think this has a lot to do with Buddhism aiming to solve a universal problem. We lose things like our health and our loved ones. We grow old and die. That’s scary and unsettling. Buddhism is by no means the only answer available to these problems, but I think addressing universal problems is a big part of universal appeal.
Following up on Buddhism’s big tent, is it disrespectful to sincere followers of Buddhism if Buddhism-inspired breathing and meditation techniques are borrowed and used out of a Buddhist context?
I don’t think using techniques from Buddhism is inherently disrespectful but I think it can be done in careless and disrespectful ways. Sometimes the connection to Buddhism can play on existing images of some perceived exotic and ancient wisdom of the East—in this way it works as a kind of marketing tool. If the same breathing technique was developed by some guy named Bob from Minnesota in 1985, would it have the same cachet? For many it wouldn’t, which points to the idea that it’s less about whether or not it works and more about playing into people’s stereotypes.
I think it’s important to be honest about what you take and what you leave out. It’s one thing to say, “We’ve adapted this breathing technique from Buddhism,” and another to say, “This breathing technique is the essence of Buddhism and all the other stuff Buddhists do is just unimportant superstition.” It can be upsetting for one part of what you do to be held up as the central. These techniques in Buddhism are one part of a larger system of practices and their aim is often very different. You use the techniques to come to see very subtle aspects of the world—how things lack any persisting essence and how what you felt to be a self doesn’t really exist. Being stressed prevents you from seeing these things and internalizing them, but the point isn’t really to be less stressed.
One way I highlight this in the book is to imagine a group in China who develops a kind of secular rosary practice. They might rightly point out that saying the Hail Mary and moving the beads through your fingers really does reduce stress. And, they might point out that, though they learned it from Catholics, you don’t have to be Catholic to do it. After a few years, people start saying that stress relief is the real essence of Catholicism and they have conferences where they invite priests to speak about the rosary, though they ask them to downplay the role of God and anything supernatural. A devout Catholic might be kind of annoyed at this and not without warrant. These are complicated issues, but if anyone is interested I recommend checking out Jeff Wilson’s Mindful America and David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhism Modernism. They’re both really insightful and point to the complexities of what Buddhism is and what people think it should be. (McMahan has a wonderful line where he points out that in American culture one can be “into Buddhism” in a way that one cannot be “into Presbyterianism.”)
None of this is to say that people shouldn’t do these things—if something helps people feel better they should do it. But I think it’s overstepping to say that in feeling better you’ve discovered the true essence of Buddhism or, even worse, that what many Buddhists around the world actually do is just misguided superstition. I think it’s important to be honest and say, “This technique is inspired by those found in Buddhism but we’re doing it in a different context for different purposes.”
The world, even the fundamental nature of ourselves, is different from how we expect it to be, a point you stress in Seeing Clearly. And that mismatch is the cause of so much of our unhappiness, insecurity, and anxiety. Why do you think humans evolved to avoid or refuse to face reality? Did any other religions/schools of thought (major or minor) develop an effective means of correcting this basic human flaw? Like, say, the Roman Epicureans?
Irrationality is funny that way. It can sometimes be at least locally beneficial, and when it is we relabel it as a “coping mechanism.” I think we develop mental habits and heuristics based on the usual situations we find ourselves in. Those habits work pretty well most of the time, but not so well when we try to go beyond the situation they were developed for. I’m no expert in evolutionary theory so I won’t speculate on that aspect, but from a Buddhist point of view the problem doesn’t have to be one of avoidance or refusal, those are typically deliberate. If I’m avoiding someone or refusing to meet them, I at least know about them. For Buddhists often the problem is more like obliviousness—we aren’t even aware of many important aspects of reality. We just assume that we’re separate selves that exist and proceed as if things will last when they won’t. To use a Buddhist metaphor, we feel like owners when we’re really custodians and we feel like residents when we’re really visitors. It’s not that we know this and won’t face up to it, but that it never even occurs to us to consider the issue at all.
This happens a lot in everyday life. Someone who is good with directions will know which streets in a city go north/south and which go east/west. For people like me who are bad with directions, it’s not that I refuse to face up to which streets are north/south, it’s that the whole question doesn’t really occur to me at all! I don’t have the right framework to even make sense of it and when I do think about it, I can’t apply it very well on the ground. For Buddhists the usual way people go through life its like that—we’re just oblivious and unaware of important aspects of reality. Though for them it’s not something simple like cardinal directions, but something harder to realize like the lack of a persisting and independent self.
I should say I do not think Buddhism has the market cornered on techniques that correct human flaws. I think that Buddhist ones have been useful for me and my life and I’ve found them interesting and rewarding to do and think about. But it would be incredibly parochial to suggest they’re the only valuable ones. So you mention the Stoics and Epicureans, but I think you can find effective techniques in Confucianism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity, contemporary psychology, and on and on. (I should mention here that my book is part of a series of Guides to the Good Life that will have a range of volumes focusing on various traditions that offer techniques for living well!)
Alright, let’s go deeper and talk about Buddhist practice as a means to realign how we feel about ourselves and our place in the world. Which leads to one of the doozier tenets of Buddhist philosophy. You write, “A mistaken feeling about who you are can cause a lot of misery … [but] the mistake is not that you’ve had the wrong identity but that you have an identity at all.” The goal, we know, is to recognize that so much of our pain is based on illusion. How do we begin? How do we “change” our minds?
It’s really hard to overstate how difficult the task is. It’s incredibly difficult do change even a boring old habit like biting your nails so rearranging your entire view of the world is not as easy as the phrase “change your mind” makes it seem. But the good news is that beginning the process is not so hard and often involves small and simple things. You want to learn Japanese so you buy a textbook and start reading it. You want to be healthier so you join a gym. There are two important aspects here: the initial impulse and taking concrete steps.
The eighth-century Buddhist Śāntideva emphasizes the importance of simple initial wishes and impulses to help others. The wish that others not suffer and feeling pulled to do something to help. He points out that this often comes suddenly but it’s an important spark. And even when it motivates something very small, like spinning a prayer wheel or bringing a sick person soup or donating money you might have spent on yourself, that’s a very important step. It’s always tempting for people to look down on small, early steps but they’re very important.
So maybe it means reading a book or listening to a teacher. Maybe it means trying out a technique and seeing if it works for you. It’s often better to focus on the immediate things you can do now rather than focusing on how hard the task is. I’ve been studying Tibetan language for well over a decade now and I still struggle. I think if I realized how difficult it would be when I first started I might have given up! So Buddhist practice, like learning a language or any long-term project, will have ups and downs but it’s important to do what you can and keep at it.
Continuing along those lines, in your discussion of identity and emptiness—“there’s nothing more to you than the bits that make you up and how those bits are organized”—you stress that our existence is “essentially relational, [and] that the best way to start seeing this is to think of everyday ways in which we think our identity is relational.” Being a daughter depends on a mother, being a boss depends on employees, and so on. You continue, “being what you are relies on everything else being what it is. You don’t exist prior to relationships … You emerge out of them, in a web of mutual dependence.” And that once we fully understand this, that we “don’t have any static, non-relational essence,” our problem begins to evaporate.
This is foundational stuff, and a stunning realization. Will you comment on our essential emptiness, and also talk about why Buddhist scholars, for thousands of years, have been uniquely skilled at capturing reality in such practical, helpful ways? And, as a philosopher, can you give us a sense of the influence Buddhism has had on other philosophical schools around the world?
I like that you emphasize practical and helpful! Buddhism does have it’s fair share of academic scholastics, but what I’ve always appreciated was that the discussions of metaphysics, of what the world is really like, are so often motivated directly by practical and ethical concerns. You figure out how the world really is so that you can better navigate it. Many times I’ve talked with Tibetan monks and nuns about Western philosophers working on questions about metaphysics and they often ask, “Does this person think that figuring this out will help them become enlightened?” and when I say no, they’re puzzled why anyone would spend their time that way. That’s a bit harsh, as people can do things because they find it fun or interesting, but it highlights that metaphysics often plays a different role in Buddhism. I should mention that this approach isn’t exclusive to Buddhism—metaphysics often plays a similar role in other Indian philosophical schools like Vedanta and Jainism, not to mention Western figures like Spinoza.
The thought that everything is empty, merely relational and lacking any independent essence sets up a lot of interesting philosophical questions: Is emptiness itself empty? How do we know? Is language empty? If it is, can anything we say be true? There’s lots of fodder for really interesting philosophical questions so it’s no surprise that you find an influential strand of philosophical work.
It also has a lot of relevance to other philosophical schools. There are debates right from the start with other Indian schools like the Nyāyas and Jainas. Recently, Alison Gopnik has some interesting work exploring the possibility that the Scottish Early Modern philosopher David Hume was influenced by Buddhist thought. In contemporary philosophy, people often compare the late Derek Parfit’s ideas about the self to Buddhist ones. In China, philosophers like Wang Yangming and Zhu Xi were influenced by Buddhist thought in different ways. In Japan, the influential Kyoto School, including philosophers like Nishida and Nishitani, drew on Buddhist ideas. I don’t just want to list names here, but the point is that even people who wouldn’t call themselves Buddhists are responding to and adapting Buddhist ideas in their own ways. Jonardon Ganeri and I just wrote a paper drawing on the work of both Buddhaghosa (a sixth-century Indian Buddhist philosopher) and Simone Weil (a twentieth-century French philosopher). So even outside of Buddhism proper there’s lots to learn and explore!
I’ll do my best to make this question as succinct and neutral as possible: Will you help us understand why certain people spend their lives seeking a state of grace, willing to do the hard work it takes to understand themselves and the world around them as a means to benefit humanity, while others couldn’t give a frog’s fat ass? On one hand, we have those committed to right behavior, kindness as a default position, and a general attitude that we’re all one big family on this earth. And, on the other, evil, selfishness, violence, and the like seems to keep chugging along unabated. How does Buddhist thinking explain the whole breadth of human behavior?
I should say that I don’t really think Buddhism is in the business of explaining all human behavior. A doctor isn’t really in the business of explaining why human bodies are the way they are; they’re in the business of curing certain ailments. Knowing about the human body is, of course, relevant for that task, but that’s not the main aim. Similarly, Buddhism is about solving a problem, and of course being sensitive to the whole range of human attitudes and dispositions is important for that task, but it’s not primarily trying to explain these differences.
That said, one way Buddhists can make sense of this is as different kinds of mistakes. Think about people who are beginners at learning a musical instrument—they make a lot of different kinds of mistakes. Some can’t hear certain bad sounds, some have an ear for tone but not for rhythm, some want to get better but don’t want to practice. There are lots of different ways to go wrong and Buddhists will say that people are in a similar situation with regards to living well. Many of these mistakes aren’t about not knowing something intellectually, but not having the perceptual sensitivity to realize things—you haven’t trained your ear to hear certain aspects of the sound or you haven’t trained your attention to notice the harm you’re causing.
Buddhists do spend a lot of time thinking about how people go wrong, not in order to explain human behavior, but to better diagnose and treat it. A music teacher should know the different ways students can go wrong because they will require different techniques to set them right. So Buddhists will talk about different abilities and mental tendencies that obscure things so that different techniques can be applied to correct them. This is partly why for many Buddhists having a relationship with a teacher is important; they’ll be able to help figure out what mistakes you in particular are making and so can tell you the corrective steps that will work for you.
So there are a lot of ways people can go wrong, but in the case you bring up, that of someone who just doesn’t give a shit about other people, a Buddhist-style diagnosis of what they’re missing might go something like this: It’s only from a certain point of view that caring about yourself and not others makes sense, one that sees your own interests and desires as separable from those of others. So if you’re not careful it can seem to make sense to think “Who cares about minimum wage workers? Their problems have nothing to do with me,” but then a pandemic hits and you realize that for you to get the food you want means having healthy workers to stock the shelves. Your food buying was always deeply intertwined with the workers that stocked the shelves. Buddhists are keen to point out that when you really examine what you want closely, the idea that your happiness is something independent of others’ starts to fall apart.
The last couple dozen pages of Seeing Clearly are a delight—including chapters called Kindness and Joy, Patience, and Clearing Your Mind—in that you seem to have found some space to relax, wander a bit, make creative connections, and generally bring the book home. Can you talk about what you hope this book will do, to what audience, and why you thought you could do something different from other similar projects?
First of all, thanks! To be honest, when I was first approached about writing the book my initial reaction was “No way. If there’s one thing this world doesn’t need it’s another book about Buddhism by a 30-something year-old white guy.” But as I thought more about it I really felt like I could do something different. The first thing was just talking about Buddhist philosophy and practice together. A lot of books on practice don’t really explain the philosophy and a lot of books on philosophy totally ignore practices. I think that’s a mistake as they are pretty deeply intertwined, so I wanted to write something that would treat them together.
Another thing that was important to me was the tone. I’m a Midwestern guy from Michigan and I like books that are straightforward. A lot of books on Buddhism are written either in a highly technical way with Sanskrit terms all over the place or in a touchy-feely New Age kind of way and neither of those really resonate with me. When I lived in Tibet I would talk about Buddhism with people in Tibetan and it felt very natural, like it was a normal thing to talk about. So I wanted to try to write about Buddhism that way in English, in a way that makes the practices seem normal and the ideas relatable without being condescending. Basically I wanted to write about Buddhism in a voice that felt natural to me, which isn’t something I had really experienced before. (One exception here might be Richard Hayes; his Land of No Buddha was a real inspiration for me in this regard.)
One way I sometimes think about the content of the book is as a kind of list of my own mistakes. I really wanted to explain things about Buddhism that I wish someone had told me when I first started learning about it, things that would have saved me a lot of time and effort if I didn’t have to learn them the hard way. This meant sometimes taking a more removed view of things: Lots of books on Buddhism are written from the point of view of a particular sect or lineage and they present a real party line, but this one is less me telling people what’s right and more me enabling people to think about and explore the Buddhist world for themselves. Of course, I, like anybody else, have a particular view of Buddhism, but I tried hard to be honest about debates that happen within Buddhism. I really wanted the book to be something to give people their bearings in the confusing world of modern Buddhism.
Following that dry series of questions, I’d like you to know that Seeing Clearly is an astounding work. I’ve spent many, many hours with dozens of Buddhist books, and you have improved my understanding of Buddhist thought, the way I go about thinking, and my own life, in countless ways. I wish you and the book every success.
Aw thank you so much! :-).