A site for posting essays and notes, especially on Alan Watts

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Relieving Renunciation: An Examination of Psychotherapy and Selflessness in 'Thoughts Without a Thinker' from a Theravāda Perspective

(The following is an academic essay I wrote for school last year, offering ideas about Mark Epstein's Thoughts Without a Thinker, a book that was influential for me. I'm guessing Watts would approve.)

By Dzintars Dzilna

Often painted with broad strokes of renunciation and self-restraint, Theravāda Buddhism can appear to be dogmatic and uninviting, especially to Westerners who are unfamiliar with the tradition. Passages by Theravādin monks such as Dhammasudhi, an early author of Buddhism’s move to the West, use disciplinarian language[1] about meditation that may seem stark and formidable. More recent
authors, such as Thanissaro Bhikkhu—a Theravādin monk born and raised in the U.S.—use discourse that is more tailored and appealing to Western audiences, embracing affirmative messages. But the perspective of Theravāda as renunciatory is at least to some degree still reflected in the current dialogue between Buddhism and psychology, which is informing the evolution of Buddhism in the West. Whereas Theravāda is often identified as conservative and rigid in its soteriological practices, Mahāyāna schools such as Pure Land, Zen, and Tibetan lineages are seen as adaptive and dynamic.[2]

As an example of the tension between traditions, Mark Epstein, one prominent author within the dialogue, draws from Theravāda to describe its insight meditation techniques, but his interpretive presentations of Buddhist teachings are typically Mahāyānist in nature. In his Thoughts Without a Thinker, he cites a range of Mahāyānist schools, including Zen, Madhyamaka, and the “Tibetan tradition,” to explain how “nirvana is samsara (sic) [Epstein’s italics]” for example, a claim that Theravāda would categorically deny. [3] Perhaps more relevant to today’s Western practitioners, Epstein discusses how Buddhism seeks to “work with” emotions and integrate repressed experiences—rather than “renouncing” them.

Mahāyāna presentations of Buddhism might well be effective for explaining the overall tradition’s teachings to Westerners, but do psychology-oriented interpretations adequately consider Theravāda’s relevance? For his part, Epstein presents Buddhist teachings in terms of psychotherapy,[4] in an attempt to show how the practice of meditation—such as Theravāda-based insight meditation—can enhance psychotherapeutic methods and results. Two prescriptive messages stand out. The first, addressed mainly to Buddhist practitioners who have taken up meditation as a path for emotional healing, promotes professional psychotherapy as a way to help overcome unresolved developmental issues. Epstein asserts that Westerners often use meditation as a defense mechanism, to avoid recurrent behaviors such as low self-esteem and estrangement, as well as serious neuroses and pathologies. In response, therapy provides “working-through” that can help practitioners overcome unconscious obstacles which can, in turn, enable one to employ meditation more effectively for further soteriological work. Epstein’s second message, addressed to Western psychotherapists and patients in general, explains how the Buddhist teaching of selflessness offers psychotherapy an opportunity to go beyond its limits of transforming neurotic misery to only a “common unhappiness,” as Freud even recognized.[5] In short, Epstein explains that Buddhism’s selflessness offers an approach for working with narcissism and reification of a self-entity, which lead to psychological suffering.

Beyond Epstein’s descriptions of Theravāda-based insight meditation and the teaching of selflessness common to all forms of Buddhism, one might assume that there is little common ground between Epstein’s prescriptions and Theravāda’s doctrines. But an examination of Epstein’s treatment in terms of Theravādin hermeneutics—especially relying on the language of the suttas[6] as described by Steven Collins’ Selfless Persons, a study of Theravāda literature and the doctrine of selflessness—reveals the tradition’s applicability to the treatments Epstein promotes. Regarding Epstein’s assertion that practitioners seek professional therapy to build emotional stability, for example, Theravāda recognizes the need for a “unitary self” that is capable to receive its dhamma.[7] The tradition even has a system of categorizing “persons” and suttas, effectively diagnosing individuals according to personal temperaments and capabilities, and matching them with appropriate treatments of teachings. With regard to Epstein’s presentation of selflessness, Theravāda prescribes the teaching only to religious specialists: rare individuals who have proper training within the tradition and a supportive cultural and economic environment. Theravāda’s conservative perspective, in fact, serves as a caution of the difficulties involved in explaining the teaching adequately within the Western milieu. Comparing Epstein’s prescriptions with Theravāda perspectives will provide insights to Theravāda’s relevance in the current dialogue between Buddhism and psychotherapy in general. In addition, this analysis will also offer some insights to Epstein’s own assertions about psychotherapy and his interpretation of the teaching of selflessness as applicable to Western sensibilities.

Conventional prescription: Therapy as part of meditation

As a basis for both of his prescriptions, Epstein first describes psychotherapy’s strengths and weaknesses, positioning the Western tradition as both a potential benefactor for Buddhist practitioners and beneficiary of Buddhist teachings. As a benefactor, the tradition can help patients by revealing latent traumas, repressed feelings, and repeating behaviors, which can foster grieving, acceptance, and some relief. To its credit, the tradition has moved from examining sexual and aggressive conflicts to recognizing narcissism—which Epstein posits in the language of Buddhism as part of the origin of suffering (i.e., Buddhism’s second Noble Truth)[8]—as an underlying cause of psychological suffering. However, psychotherapy has not been able to develop a final treatment for the underlying problem. Revealing past traumas and repressed emotions can aid in overcoming them, but one is likely to continue to harbor resentment for past mistreatment, and one will also continue to seek ever-elusive satisfaction for one’s narcissistic self-construction. In sum, “psychotherapy may be equally necessary [with meditation], especially to expose [childhood deficiencies] and reduce erotic or aggressive conflict, but the psychotherapeutic dialogue will always come up against the problem of the restless and insecure self. … It has not been able to deliver freedom from narcissistic craving.”[9]

Epstein’s second prescription—Buddhist selflessness, as described below—is to provide psychotherapy a way to help patients with the underlying problem of narcissism. But in order to be able to employ selflessness, a patient or practitioner must first have an ability to “hold” experience and observe emotions and thoughts, without getting caught up by them and playing out one’s repeating, painful behaviors. Meditation is the key, described extensively by Epstein in terms of three practices: concentration; mindfulness; and insight. The first two practices, concentration and mindfulness, provide a foundation of psychological capabilities such as bare attention, openness, impartiality, nonjudgmental awareness, and fearlessness. These capabilities are necessary to enable successful self-inquiry involved in insight meditation, the third practice that employs the teaching of selflessness.[10]

As part of his explanation of concentration and mindfulness meditation, Epstein describes the need for psychotherapy—especially for beginning meditators—effectively prescribing therapy as part of meditation practice. Epstein asserts that Western practitioners often use meditation as a way to hide from dealing with recurrent personal conflicts and disorders: “The psychic pain revealed [through meditation] … and personified by the strong longing is often so central and so deeply personal that meditators can never let go of the wish that the meditation itself would magically heal them.”[11] Epstein also describes how therapy can aid progress in meditation practice. He cites one study of experienced meditators finding that subjects were just as anxious as non-meditators, and had no less internal conflict. Meditators only had a “‘marked non-defensiveness in experiencing such conflicts.’”[12] Epstein concludes that while meditation can help the practitioner be more accepting of internal conflict, “without a therapist’s intervention, there is a very real danger of paralysis.”[13] While meditation instructors can help, they are typically not trained to handle psychological issues, especially serious neuroses requiring professional treatment.

Aside from finding it self-serving for a psychotherapist to recommend psychotherapy, Buddhist proponents and meditation practitioners might also find it literally self-serving, i.e., promoting construction of a sense of self that the doctrine of selflessness is to counter in the first place. The idea of using therapy to reconstruct a personal history and work on one’s individual problems might seem to contradict the Buddhist teaching of selflessness, especially within the context of the Theravāda tradition, which can, for example, object strongly even to the use of “the [Pāli] words attā [i.e., ‘self’], purisa and puggala [both ‘person’] … in any theory which posits a real, permanent self or person as the agent behind action or the subject of experience.”[14]

However, Epstein’s prescription for using psychotherapy could be interpreted in terms of Buddhism’s “two truths,” i.e., conventional truth and ultimate truth. Theravāda and Mahāyāna schools alike recognize the two truths as a pedagogical method for presenting Buddhist teachings. While the traditions vary on their views on ultimate truth, they generally agree that conventional truth includes socially accepted norms and ideas, practiced by “worldly people.”[15] As Collins describes, conventional truth within the Theravāda tradition “speaks of selves, persons, spirits, gods, and so on.”[16] The conventional world is thus the world of householders, for whom religion provides a system of ethics, rituals, prayers, etc. Historically, the doctrine of self-lessness was generally not of concern by practitioners within the conventional world, except perhaps as a symbol to oppose Brahmin priesthood and belief systems, according to Collins.[17] Within the Theravādin laity, one believes in the unitary individual, who has an inherent self-interest; in practicing religion and merit-making, the main hope is for reincarnation into a future time when one is reborn into the time of Maitrī, the next Buddha, to hear his teachings and have enough merit to work on selflessness of nibbāna.[18]

In fact, Collins makes a special point to note the indispensable role of developing oneself that was held within early (Theravāda) Buddhist doctrine relative to Buddhist society: “socially and psychologically it was and is necessary that there be both affective and cognitive selfishness in order that that the doctrine of anattā can act, or be thought to act, as an agent of spiritual change [Collins’ italics]”[19] Theravāda uses attabhāva (Pāli) to refer to the lifetime of a person, and it is the convention that the tradition uses “as a means by which its non-personal, category-analytic mode of discourse [i.e., the teaching of selflessness] can be made to come half-way to meet the personalized, self-interested style of thinking and perceiving which is held to be characteristic of all ordinary, unenlightened discourse.”[20] On the level of conventional truth, the tradition recognizes that the personal psychology of the individual appears: “Although the ultimate discovery of the religious life would be the meditator’s ‘realization’ of selflessness, nevertheless on the way to that final goal, the practitioner would find out much about his character.”[21] In Theravāda’s use of attabhāva, the meditative life “teach[es] the monk ‘self-knowledge’” in two ways: One develops a “general awareness of the individual character which is his karmic inheritance, its faults, merits and spiritual potential; and also, he will become conscious, moment to moment, of what actually occurs in the experience of that individual character.”[22] One in training then “work[s] with motivational and perceptual processes as they ordinarily are, that is to say, based on desire.”[23] In this specific context, mental training does not “cut” the stream of desire immediately, but guides it, “like water along viaducts.”[24] If the monk develops intensified self-awareness and uses it to illuminate past experience, it can lead to seeing past “individualities” and “lives.” [25] Buddhism thus assumes “unitary selves or persons”[26] to receive the dhamma, just as Epstein proposes psychotherapy to lay Westerners so that they can develop psychic stability, for the ultimate goal of employing of the teaching of selflessness.

The application of psychotherapy as preparatory for meditation practitioners might also be validated by seeing Buddhist teachings as therapeutic, effectively giving care to different types of patients. The Tipiaka, the Theravādin canon of scripture, includes a wide range of teachings, addressing different types of practitioners—including householders, monks, and specialists—and the tradition includes a hermeneutical approach for organizing the dhamma accordingly. Two postcanonical texts, the Netti Pakaraa and the Peakopadesa, present the teachings in terms of a “gradual path,” a characterization indicating a moderate and preparatory series of steps. According to Bond, the interpretative approach by the Netti Pakaraa and the Peakopadesa provides a way to embrace religious needs of individuals at different stations in life, while concurrently including the singular goal of nibbāna encompassing all the teachings: “The notion of the gradual path to nibbāna allowed the [texts] to subsume mundane goals under the supermundane goal and to explain how the truth of the dhamma relates to all people.”[27] Just as psychotherapy classifies individual patients according to their dispositions and personal neuroses, these two texts categorize people into different typologies and classifications, including life situations (“man in the world” (i.e., householder), learner or initiate (monks or “renouncers”), and adept (renouncers who have attained nibbāna)) temperaments (including different types of defilements of desire and view), and abilities. And just as therapy provides appropriate treatments for each type of patient, the “gradual path” texts correlate classifications of people with different types and combinations of suttas, including teachings for countering defilements and promoting moral living (for householders), for “penetration” (i.e., disciplines for renouncers), and for adepts. Though Buddhist teachings explain the “gradual path” as occurring over multiple lifetimes and “eons” of time—as opposed to focusing on one particular “person” as psychotherapy does—each “birth” represents a necessary stage, “stepping stones to a birth in which a person is able to strive for the ultimate goal.”[28]

Ultimate prescription: Selflessness as part of therapy

Epstein’s first explanation of Buddhist meditation gives a detailed overview of its practices and includes his prescription for including therapy within meditation’s setting. But he also explains meditation in the context of Freudian analysis, specifically, “remembering,” “repeating” and “working through,” a process for enabling the patient to recognize past trauma, identify neurotic behaviors and their developmental impetuses, and integrating repressed emotions. Epstein asserts that Freud understood intuitively the value of bare attention and mindfulness, and proposed that therapists develop these qualities as part of their work with patients. Part of Epstein’s strategy in explaining meditation in terms of Freud’s process of analysis is likely to show that meditation practice is in line with—in fact, practically proposed by—Freud’s work, giving it credence and thus enabling therapists to employ it on a professional basis. It demonstrates how bare attention and mindfulness can help therapists be more effective, and can help patients recognize and work with issues. Another strategy is to explain to meditation practitioners how therapy works in a step-by-step process, described with examples and terms from psychology that Epstein clarifies or are familiar to Westerners. Most important, Epstein’s examination elucidates how within a therapeutic setting one could use insight meditation and the teaching selflessness, which might otherwise remain a theoretical, esoteric, and unattainable concept to Westerners. The teaching of selflessness enables one to realize the “ultimate truth” of nibbāna within the Buddhist system vis-à-vis “conventional truth” as espoused with Epstein’s previous prescription of therapy, along with concentration and mindfulness meditation practices.

The first step of the Freudian process, the “remembering” phase, involves either the patient uncovering past traumatic events, or the therapist’s observing the patient’s present behavior to uncover sources of pain that are not tied to specific events. In the latter case, Epstein explains that most people have neuroses as adults not from an individual traumatic experience in childhood, but from a consistent occurrence or absence experienced while growing up—for example, neglect by parents—that can lead to the individual unconsciously perceiving a flaw in him or herself. Epstein calls this flaw the “basic fault” (using the phrase as originally coined by Balint[29]) and describes how it can lead to issues like low self-esteem and alienation.

In the “repeating” phase, the therapist observes, analyzes, and helps identify the patient’s unconscious “basic fault” and resulting conflicts. Patients with developmental issues often reproduce them in present behavior, i.e., they try to “repair or deny the original deprivation”—but they usually remain unaware of the repeating behavior and of the underlying issue.[30] By observing—and not interfering—the analyst can enable the patient to reveal behaviors and attitudes that repeat, and then can identify them for the patient as necessary.

Last, the “working through” phase is for allowing, accepting, and integrating disaffected content. Revealing otherwise latent deprivations and associated emotional conflicts can enable their transformation. However, the patient can also develop resentment and desire for reparation in finding the “basic fault” and repeating behaviors. As the patient realizes that one’s needs and obstacles of the past were not met—and irrevocably cannot be met—he or she often has a sense of deep outrage which obscures the patient’s observing mind. “This very outrage is the hallmark of what has come to be called narcissism: The vain expectation and selfish insistence that one’s sense of hollowness should somehow be erased.”[31] In this sense, “working through” is limited in its ability to provide final and lasting relief.

By “remembering” past traumas and recognizing repeating behaviors, one can identify and acknowledge—in Buddhist terminology, become aware of—issues that one otherwise denies, creating the opportunity to adapt appropriately. But one has not solved the underlying cause, only a relative symptom. While Freudian analysis enables working through of disaffected emotions to a certain degree, it is limited in providing ultimate relief precisely because the self-construction is still intact. One's narcissism will continue to manifest: “As long as the thinker is implicitly accepted, there will always be some narcissistic attachment to the injury that is uncovered in therapy.”[32] Instead of catering to a narcissism that projects a self as substantialized agent to be healed, Buddhism provides a method for questioning the substantiality that is projected: “In stripping away people’s cravings to have to be something, the insight practices actually allow meditators to function in the everyday world unencumbered by the need to protect the false sense of ‘I’.”[33]

Epstein describes how Buddhism’s “secret weapon” of selflessness “is to look for the sense of I that is hidden behind the disclaimed actions and emotions.”[34] Citing “the Tibetan tradition,” Epstein explains that the practitioner is to use the state of “injured innocence,” i.e., when insulted, outraged, etc., to identify and examine one’s beliefs about self as an existing entity. Once one reaches “the bottom of one’s own outrage” within the Freudian “working through” phase of the psychotherapeutic framework, selflessness can be employed with insight meditation: “One can shift the perspective from how outraged one feels to who it is who feels it, and thereby appreciate what the Buddhist psychologies consider the relativity of the narcissistic emotions [Epstein’s italics].”[35] After cultivating concentration and mindfulness, insight meditation takes the next step: becoming aware of the non-reality of the self. Rather than reacting to outrage of past traumas or neglect, one investigates the feeling of identification accompanying the experience, and the nature of the self-entity “I” that seems to be injured.

The process for questioning the agency of a self-entity can be destabilizing, Epstein explains, but this is precisely part of realizing relief from painful emotions due to narcissistic reifications: “Rather than encouraging a consolidating self sure of its own solidity, the Buddhist approach envisions a fluid ability to integrate potentially destabilizing experiences of insubstantiality and impermanence.”[36] For its part, psychotherapy can help by providing a “sensitive and supportive environment” for “bringing out the subjective sense of ‘I’.”[37] But Buddhism’s technique of insight meditation takes the next step by “uprooting the conviction in a ‘self’ that needs protecting.”[38] One becomes aware of self-representations, reifications of identities that are “constructions out of a reaction against just what we do not wish to acknowledge. We tense up around that which we are denying, and we experience ourselves through our tensions.”[39]

Admittedly, the path utilizing meditation is a culmination of a significant undertaking, including the preparatory development of concentration and mindfulness, i.e., “mental faculties beyond those that are conventionally accepted as adequate for ‘normal’ functioning.”[40] But just as therapy is a careful and sustained effort, one can cultivate meditative practices to move from emotional reactivity to enabling examination of the “agency of an emotion, mov[ing] from a self-referential perspective to a position of openness.”[41]

Describing the process of utilizing the teaching of selflessness in the context of “integration,” “sensitivity,” and “openness” can seem like a far cry from Theravāda’s historically more renunciatory language. For example, Harvey observes how the “tone” of the Theravādin teaching of selflessness is of stark denial: “Anything subject to the ‘three marks’ [i.e., impermanence, suffering, and selflessness]” should be “dropped like hot bricks.”[42] Epstein himself recognizes the contrast in Psychotherapy Without a Self, a collection of his essays published before and after Thoughts Without a Thinker, in an allusion to “some Buddhist circles” that hold the view that “emotions are ‘defilements’ and that the enlightened person is ‘cleansed’ of them.”[43] He calls such Buddhists “fundamentalist,” noting that their antidote to afflictive emotions is to “extinguish” them.[44]

Collins provides several descriptions and examples of how Theravāda practice sides on eschewing emotions, rather than “integrating” or “working with” them. For example, the practice of careful attention includes the “attempt to avoid producing” the disturbances that “‘assail’” the practitioner.[45] The monk is to “seek solitude, and to avoid ‘disturbances’ both without and within.”[46] Within the two-truths pedagogic, one is to train in realizing ultimate truth by impersonally analyzing all types of experience—including body, form, emotions, thoughts, beliefs—to see that there is no self to be found in any experiential manifestation. In ultimate reality, the specialist sees that “whatever is recognizably contentful is to be seen as impersonal and not to be desired.”[47] With regard to past “‘individualities’” and past “‘lives,’” the practitioner comes to understand that “memory of a sequence of such lives does not give experience of a real, reincarnating individual self or soul.”[48] Just because one remembers past events as a “person” does not mean there was a person—a unitary, separate, and generally unchanging entity—experiencing them. In fact, concern for the past and future is “castigated as a form of ‘not paying careful attention’ and is a manifestation of the ‘the conceit “I am”’.”[49] Collins cites a Sarvāstivāda[50] text that says the ability to see former lives “is not for verification of karma, rebirth, and so on, but the increase of disgust for saṃsāra.”[51] The “streams” of sense pleasures are to be “cut,” “crossed over” and discarded. Collins also points out that within the context of the practice of the specialist, Theravāda does not emphasize memory of former lives, which stands in contrast to the importance that memory has for Western psychology in understanding personal identity.

The Theravāda tradition holds the teaching of selflessness to be so challenging—requiring continuous practice, social and economic circumstance, etc.—that it is attainable, practically speaking, only by the religious “specialist,” who is typically a practicing monk. Collins notes how even most monks do not advance far enough in their involvement with the teachings and practice of the doctrine of selflessness to realize the path. Indeed, according to Sharf, historically most monks in Southeast Asia did not practice meditation—much less employ the teaching of selflessness—before the modern period, focusing on scriptural study instead. In fact, the introduction of meditation by the Theravāda tradition to laity is a very recent phenomenon. According to Gombrich and Obeyesekere, “The widespread practice of meditation among the laity is the greatest single change to have come over Buddhism in Sri Lanka (and indeed in the other Theravādin countries) since the Second World War.”[52] Among Sharf’s arguments why meditation was not offered more broadly seems to be precisely because of the psychological instability that the teaching of selflessness can bring: “Buddhists traditionally held that meditation was a risky business that should be undertaken only under proper supervision, i.e., within the confines of the saṃgha.”[53]


Indeed, using Gombrich’s ethnographic examination of Theravādin monks and laity in Sri Lanka as a proxy for Theravādins elsewhere, practitioners focus largely on studying Buddhist scripture and/or merit-making, instead of pursuing the teaching of selflessness: “It is doctrinally impossible entirely to abandon the self-restraint ideal, but it has been pushed right into the background, … [for example,] monks … are tacitly sanctioned in a course of merit-making like the laity.”[54] While restraint is held in the highest reverence by followers, only rare monks and laity actually renounce worldly ties and pursue the practice of insight meditation and the teaching of selflessness.

If Theravādin practitioners do not, practically speaking, employ the teaching, this raises the issue of whether Epstein’s prescription of selflessness is viable for Westerners, especially within the milieu of psychotherapy. Can Western psychotherapy employ the teaching successfully? Does it actually provide the relief that Epstein proposes? Is one not required to “renounce the world” to realize selflessness? While Epstein cites results as described by Mahāyāna schools, descriptions of outcomes by his patients, as well as his own personal experience to support his prescriptions, his book serves to introduce it to his field of psychology as part of an ongoing dialogue, rather than to immediately prove its efficacy. As Buddhism moves to the West through accounts such as Epstein’s, psychology and neuroscience are currently engaged in examining Buddhist practices, especially meditation, to investigate efficacy in terms of scientific inquiry. This is likely to play a significant part in authenticating or disproving claims such as Epstein’s for the Westerner. Epstein might be psychologizing the religious tradition through a reductionism that does not examine it on its own cultural, historical, and soteriological terms, and critics such as Sharf suggest that religious settings are the “proper domain in which to situate [and authenticate] the Buddhist rhetoric of experience.”[55] However, perhaps in this way Western science is co-opting the teachings and is examining them on its own terms.

With its historically conservative norms, Theravāda might question such means and results of development of Buddhism in the West. With its focus on scholarship and tradition, Theravāda serves to admonish Western Buddhist advocates and teachers of the care and skill necessary to present Buddhist teachings—and the rigor and consistency necessary with which to practice them—especially one that is so radically different to conventional thinking. There is significant opportunity of misinterpretation and misappropriation when such a teaching is presented to readers or students without requisite background and training. It is especially challenging to adequately explain the teaching in terms of another tradition, e.g., psychotherapy. To wit, ABCNews.com recently (October 2009) featured Epstein in an eight-minute video interview called “Can Buddhism and Psychology Co-Exist?” with the subhead: “Meet a doctor who thinks you can better understand the self by destroying it [italics added].”[56] The conversation demonstrates how Buddhist teachings such as selflessness can be misunderstood, especially when repackaged for into sound bites for mass consumption:

Interviewer: What you’re trying to do is kind of tricky. How do you bridge the gap between psychiatry or psychology where you explore the self, build the ego, and Buddhism, where you’re, in a sense—and this may be overly strong—trying to annihilate the self?

Epstein: Well, you don’t have to annihilate the self from the Buddhist point of view. You just have to investigate it. And as you investigate it, you find that it doesn’t exist in the way you thought that it did. So exploring the self psycho-dynamically, exploring the self Buddhist-wise, you come upon the same thing, which is, the self is very elusive. The more you look for it, the more you think you can touch it, the more it moves away.[57]

Like the Theravāda convention of attabhāva, Epstein’s response seems to be an attempt to meet the conventional viewer half-way: He does not want to deny the sense of a self that is overwhelmingly accepted by conventional thinking, but he suggests that under observation, the self is difficult to find. The implication is that there is no actual self to be found in the first place—but because he does not explicitly state it, the interviewer is left to reify his own belief:

Interviewer: I think of myself as a pretty concrete thing.

Epstein: Everybody does.

Interviewer: I am who I am, I’ve accumulated years of experience and education, me, out there, operating in the world. So you’re telling me, the self that I wake up with and go to bed with every day is not as real as I think it is?

Epstein: The self you wake up with and go to bed with everyday is real, but you think that it’s more real than it actually is. That’s what I’m telling you. You think it’s really real when it’s really just real.[58]

While “real” and “really real” could be interpreted in terms of the two-truths pedagogic, it creates what seems to be a shell game of terms—for which the interviewer asks clarification:

Interviewer: So how do we take it down a notch from “really real” to just “real”?

Epstein: By trying to find it as it actually appears to you—by looking for it, either in therapy or in meditation. By actually discovering that it is much more elusive, much more evanescent than you thought it was. Then it puts you into a state of confusion, and that state of confusion is very healing.[59]

The “confusion” Epstein notes is likely the destabilization that one experiences when questioning the agency of the self-entity construction through insight meditation, which—through thorough training and cultivation of concentration and mindfulness—can ultimately lead to “healing” or relief from painful emotions based on narcissistic reifications. However, to a viewer who has no understanding of the teaching, his comments only seem to continue the shell game by asserting that “confusion” is equivalent to “healing.”

Epstein later adds a helpful explanation about how meditation and therapy develop “willingness to look without judgment at our minds, at our experience, at our emotions, and to develop that capacity to not push away what we don’t like, and to not cling to what we’re attached to.”[60] But by the end of the interview, the viewer is effectively left with some scant advice about introspection and an association of Buddhism with both personal self-destruction and confounding psychobabble. While the video segment might lead some to read Epstein’s more thorough and counseled treatment of the teaching of selflessness provided in Thoughts Without a Thinker—and a bald denial of self itself could be quite useful in shocking one into exploring the non-existence of one's cherished object of belief[61]—it is likely to mislead others away from opportunities the tradition offers. In either case, the segment serves as an example of how Theravāda’s conservative approach can be applicable for a measured development of Buddhism in the West.

[1] For example: “The function of meditation practice is to get rid of, or at least, to repress any form of resentment” and “our duty is to develop and make progress” ((Phra Sobhana Dhammasudhi, Insight Meditation (London: Committee for the Advancement of Buddhism (London), 1968), 11); “passions should be shunned and defilements or impurities of mind should be cleansed and purified” (Ibid., 12), etc.

[2] Theravāda is a single, representative school of Nikāya Buddhism, also known as Hīnayāna Buddhism. “Hīnayāna” is Sanskrit for “low vehicle,” a pejorative term in the context of Mahāyāna (“great vehicle”) Buddhism. Hīnayāna Buddhism is thus sometimes described by Mahāyānists as a “lesser” tradition in terms of various factors, including its renunciatory language.

[3] Mark Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 18. Generally, Theravāda would not teach that “nirvana is saṃsāra,” rather, saṃsāra is that which is renounced to attain nirvana (saṃsāra is the Sanskrit term for the karmic cycle of rebirth).

[4] Epstein draws from a range of theorists, including Michael Balint, Wilhelm Reich, and D. W. Winnicott, but predominantly from Sigmund Freud.

[5] “No doubt fate would find it easier than I do to relieve you of your illness. But you will be able to convince yourself that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health you will be better armed against that unhappiness” (Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, Studies on Hysteria, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: Avon Books, 1966), 351).

[6] Sutta is Pāli for an individual sermon by the Buddha (Sanskrit: sūtra).

[7] Dhamma is Pāli for the doctrine or teaching of the Buddha (Sanskrit: dharma).

[8] “The Second Noble Truth … is that the cause of suffering is craving or thirst. The Buddha describes two types of craving, each of which has a counterpart in psychodynamic thought. The first, the craving for sense pleasures, we can grasp immediately. … The second, what the Buddha called the craving for existence and nonexistence, is what we would today call narcissistic craving: the thirst for a fixed image of self, either as something or as nothing. It is the craving for security wherever it can be found: in becoming or in death [Epstein’s italics]” (Epstein, 1995, 61).

[9] Ibid., 6.

[10] Without mentioning them by name, Epstein is describing here the Buddhist meditation practices widely known as samatha and vipassanā (Pāli), which correlate to “concentration” and “insight.” Epstein effectively categorizes “mindfulness” as samatha, although some Buddhist texts classify it as vipassanā (see Tse-fu Kuan, Mindfulness in Early Buddhism: New Approaches Through Psychology and Textual Analysis of Pali, Chinese and Sanskrit Sources (Abington, U.K. and New York: Routledge, 2008), 142).

[11] Epstein, 1995, 136.

[12] Ibid., 135.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Steven Collins, Selfless Persons (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 87.

[15] Buddhist philosophy might point out, however, that calling conventional norms “truth” must be posed within the context of the two-truths system. From the point of view of ultimate truth, “conventional truth” is not actually “truth” by itself, but rather a stepping stone to realize ultimate truth, i.e., soteriological liberation.

[16] Collins, 154.

[17] Ibid., 12.

[18] Pāli for nirvana.

[19] Collins, 152.

[20] Ibid., 160.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 163.

[23] Ibid., 251.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Epstein asserts that psychological issues are rooted in one’s past development—i.e., childhood—and that psychotherapy and meditation can help identify them. And yet, he does not provide an interpretation of the Buddhist process of looking at “past lives”—an act ascribed even to the Buddha during the night before his enlightenment (although Epstein does make reference to “remembering of childhood” in “the Tibetan Buddhist tradition,” but he does not explain it further (Epstein, 1995, 174)). I cannot help but think that this act is at least analogous to psychotherapy’s process of looking at childhood experiences of a patient, where childhood effectively represents a series of “past lives.” This kind of understanding would require interpreting past moments or past experiences within one’s current lifetime as “past lives,” but Buddhism provides precedent for this in its teaching of dependent origination. This teaching, which is fundamental to all Buddhist schools, accounts for a person’s experiences from both one life to another (i.e., after death leading to a new birth), but also within the same lifetime, i.e., moment to moment, day to day, year to year, etc. At each moment a new “person” arises, based on past momentary “persons” and all other causes and conditions (e.g., previous actions, current environment, etc.) that lead to its arising. The examination of past lives in Buddhism is seen to provide insight into dependent origination—i.e., the nature of cause and effect—specifically, the pattern of how ignorance, desire, and aggression lead to suffering, and how to undo that process in one’s current life, in future lives, and in relationships with others. I would suggest that this is precisely what psychoanalysis seeks to provide: a method for examining one’s “past lives” to recognize the psychological patterns that one has, and the causes and conditions—e.g., trauma, neglect, latent behaviors, etc.—that lead to painful patterns. Collins recognizes how “memory-of-former-lives” is part of the stock tale of the Buddha’s enlightenment, although he notes some suttas say it is “by no means necessary for every person’s enlightenment” (Collins, 189).

[26] Ibid., 160.

[27] George D. Bond, “The Gradual Path as a Hermeneutical Approach to the Dhamma,” Buddhist Hermeneutics, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988), 33.

[28] Bond, 36.

[29] “In my view, the origin of the basic fault may be traced back to a considerable discrepancy in the early formative phases of the individual between his bio-psychological needs and the material and psychological care, attention, and affection available during the relevant times. This creates a state of deficiency whose consequences and after-effects appear to be only reversible. The cause of this early discrepancy may be congenital, i.e., the infant’s bio-psychological needs may have been too exacting... or may be environmental, such as care that is insufficient, deficient, haphazard, over-anxious, over-protective, harsh, … indifferent [et. al.]” (Balint, 22).

[30] Epstein, 1995, 198.

[31] Ibid., 210.

[32] Epstein, 1995, 217.

[33] Ibid., 154.

[34] Ibid., 209.

[35] Ibid., 211.

[36] Epstein, 1995, 94.

[37] Ibid., 220.

[38] Ibid., 45.

[39] Ibid., 19.

[40] Ibid., 155.

[41] Ibid., 217.

[42] Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind (Surray, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1995), 43.

[43] Mark Epstein, Psychotherapy Without the Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 99.

[44] Ibid., 157.

[45] Collins, 142.

[46] Ibid., 139.

[47] Collins, 114.

[48] Ibid., 164.

[49] Ibid., 189.

[50] Sarvāstivāda was a Nikāya school that, when extant, had been a contemporary of Theravāda.

[51] Ibid., 189-90.

[52] Richard F. Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere, Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1990), 237.

[53] Robert H. Sharf, “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience,” Numen 42 (1995), 256. Saṃgha is Sanskrit for community or group, typically of monastics.

[54] Richard F. Gombrich, Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rurual Highlands of Ceylon (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), 325.

[55] Sharf, 270.

[56] Dan Harris, “Can Buddhism and Psychology Co-Exist?” online video, ABC News Now, October 27, 2009, http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=8926421.

[57] Harris.

[58] Harris.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Harris.

[61] As noted by Philip Stanley, personal communication.


Balint, Michael. The Basic Fault: Therapeutic Aspects of Regression. New York: Brunner/Mazel, Inc., 1979.

Bond, George D. “The Gradual Path as a Hermeneutical Approach to the Dhamma.” Buddhist Hermeneutics, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr., 29-45. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1988.

Collins, Steven. Selfless Persons. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Dhammasudhi, Phra Sobhana. Insight Meditation. London: Committee for the Advancement of Buddhism (London), 1968.

Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without a Thinker. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

———. Psychotherapy Without the Self. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Freud, Sigmund and Josef Breuer. Studies on Hysteria. Translated and edited by James Strachey. New York: Avon Books, 1966.

Gombrich, Richard F. Precept and Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands of Ceylon. London: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Gombrich, Richard F. and Gananath Obeyesekere. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, 1990.

Harris, Dan. “Can Buddhism and Psychology Co-Exist?” Online video. ABC News Now, October 27, 2009. http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=8926421 (accessed December 17, 2009).

Harvey, Peter. The Selfless Mind. Surray, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1995.

Kuan, Tse-fu. Mindfulness in Early Buddhism: New Approaches Through Psychology and Textual Analysis of Pali, Chinese and Sanskrit Sources. Abington, U.K. and New York: Routledge, 2008.

Sharf, Robert H. “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.” Numen 42 (1995): 228-283.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Fight Club: Violence as Yoga

(Please note that this article is a movie spoiler. It also needs some editing. So read at your own risk!)

By Dzintars Dzilna

Abstract: This essay is an interpretation of the movie Fight Club as a Zen Buddhist allegory, specifically, a search for identity in a world of consumerism and abstraction. By defining himself with the illusions of a consumerist lifestyle—foisted on today’s modern society by an advertising machine that perpetually imposes unattainable desires—the protagonist Jack feels frustrated because he can never achieve those illusions of identity. He uses fighting and terrorism as his yoga to destroy the abstractions of maya, or illusion, that identify him. The essay draws insights about Zen from Alan Watts’ lectures and his books, most notably, The Way of Zen.

[1] Some time ago, audiences were watching Tom Cruise fight his way through The Last Samurai, a movie about bushido, the tao of the warrior—essentially the application of Zen Buddhism to the art of war. Cruise’s character is told he fights with “too many mind” and trains with the villagers. By the end of the movie, he is transformed from a drunken mercenary to noble warrior. Both discipline in fighting and an understanding of the samurai way of life provide him the means for spiritual growth.

[2] Even with Westerners’ facile understanding of martial arts, the idea that spiritual growth can come hand-in-hand with disciplines of Eastern defense practices like judo or karate is plausible. But what about spiritual growth from violence itself? One should note that Buddhism does not view violence as something that is inherently evil or to be necessarily evaded. In fact, Buddhism enables the individual to see past social judgments and principles that deny justifications for violence in any form. Alan Watts,[i] an author and interpreter of Eastern traditions, describes the Buddhist experience as “liberation from conventions of every kind, including the moral conventions.”[ii] While Buddhism is not a revolt against convention, it “does not share the Western view that there is a moral law, enjoined by God or by nature, which it is man’s duty to obey.” [iii] The Buddha did prescribe precepts of conduct in his Eightfold Path, including no killing, stealing, lying or using intoxicants. But the precepts are intended only to remove hindrances from clarity of awareness, rather than impose moral retribution for violent acts that an individual commits.[iv]

[3] While The Last Samurai plays up the spirituality and honor that samurai defend, audiences will also remember Fight Club (1999), the movie that has the same theme of individual transformation, but is hidden behind the plot’s characteristic brutality. At face value, Fight Club—based on the eponymous 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk—is a slick Hollywood story about a guy who is tired of his 9 to 5 job and life revolving around Ikea catalogs, so he blows up his apartment, starts a fist-fighting club, moves on to become a terrorist mastermind revered by all other men and gets the girl in the end—while his super-cool alter ego fucks with latex gloves on and lets him know that he was the cool guy the whole time. He even tells off his boss and extorts a free salary from a despicable carmaker that lets people die to save money on recalls.

[4] But another interpretation of Fight Club, as spiritual allegory, gives a different view: the guy gives up all his possessions, gains a following of monks and then shoots himself and lives—at the same time destroying his illusion of himself and becoming liberated from samsara, which translated from the Buddhist term, is the vicious circle of suffering that people experience in life. While getting rid of possessions and finding liberation is not limited to Zen Buddhism, the tradition’s openness to make use of violence as a means for spiritual growth may be, indeed, uniquely Zen Buddhist. The central character Jack uses fighting and terrorism as his yoga to destroy the abstractions of maya, or illusion, that he uses to identify himself. By constantly defining himself with the illusions of a consumerist lifestyle—foisted on today’s modern society by an advertising machine that perpetually imposes unattainable desires—he feels frustrated because he can never achieve those illusions of identity. With insights about the Zen Buddhist tradition from Alan Watts’ lectures and his book, The Way of Zen, we can see how Fight Club is a Buddhist spiritual journey, where the path is a search for identity in a world of consumerism and abstraction. [v]

[5] To Be Somebody
[6] Search for identity is initiated by the very first line of the movie where the narrator, spoken by actor Edward J. Norton (let’s call him “Jack,” from the quote “I am Jack’s medulla oblongata” etc.), says “People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.” We assume that Tyler Durden is not the narrator who’s got a loaded pistol wedged in his mouth. At the end of the movie we of course learn that Jack and Tyler are the same person. The line thus immediately sets up an inquiry of how an individual is identified, both by others and by the individual himself. Do you know Tyler Durden? Do I know me?

[7] At this point, whoever Tyler Durden is, Jack is not. Jack is a self-professed yuppie whose search for identity leads him to ask, “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” His identity is defined by the furniture and clothes he owns. As Jack describes to the arson investigator, “I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that was destroyed. It was me.” He wants to be someone, in the postmodern, consumer sense of “environmentally-friendly unbleached paper” and “Planet Starbucks.” Even his apartment complex is called “Pearson Towers”—one letter away from “person”—which is “A Place to Be Somebody.”

[8] But the possessions are merely representations of what he wants to be. He doesn’t really care about the actual stuff—where it came from, how it was made or what it really looks like—as long as it reflects the desires being fed to him by the “Ikea nesting instinct.” For example, the “green glass dishes with the tiny bubbles and imperfections” are “crafted by the honest, simple, hard-working indigenous peoples of… wherever.” As he scans the apartment, his mind fantasizes, populating rooms with abstractions right out of the catalog. His identity is an abstraction of his material goods lifestyle—he is what the goods represent, and not what they actually are. The stuff represents a type of consumerist spirituality for Jack, as when he pines for his sofa destroyed in the blast: “I was so close to being complete”—the same completeness that he feels later when crying in the bosom of the Big Moosie, played by Meat Loaf Aday, when he feels “lost in oblivion, dark and silent and complete.” Even his work is based on formulas (which are simply mathematical symbols) for deciding who lives and who dies: “If A times B times C is less than X, we don’t do a recall.”

[9] By seeking identity from abstractions, Jack is not really a person—he is just a representation of one, like the color pictures of furniture in the catalogs he reads. He literally sleepwalks all day, “where nothing is real” and “everything is just a copy of a copy.” In Buddhist terms, Jack’s state is samsara, which is the cycle of birth and death, also known as wandering—the perpetual daze that Jack finds himself in. Watts puts samsara in more modern terms: “a squirrel cage … the rat-race,” “a vicious circle.”[vi]

[10] According to Buddhism, samsara is caused by desire in any form: desire for wealth, sex, love and, indeed, identity—the need to define one’s self. People desire because of maya, a Hindu term that, generally speaking, means illusion.[vii] According to the Hindu tradition,[viii] maya is that which overlies Brahman, which Westerners might conceive of as God. In terms of identity, maya leads people to come up with ideas about themselves. Indeed, consumerism is a form of maya, leading individuals to desire beautiful but unattainable images, such as the body by Calvin Klein. “We’re by-produces of a lifestyle obsession,” as Tyler observes. “We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'll all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars—but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” In not measuring up to the abstractions that an individual identifies with, one feels frustrated and suffers.

[11] Buddhism is to help people find freedom from maya and samsara—to become liberated from endlessly needing to define one’s self and measuring up to that definition. In Sanskrit, the title “Buddha” literally means “the awakened one”—one who is released from the very sleepwalking rut that Jack is stuck in. As Watts observes, liberation can be seen as “the discovery of who or what I am, when I am no longer identified with any role or conventional definition of the person.”[ix] Jack can be liberated when he does not need to define himself with any abstractions, such as those represented by material possessions.

[12] At this point, however, Jack is a “consumer,” and to deal with his suffering, reaches for an opiate of today’s masses: sleeping pills. But his doctor refuses to prescribe them. Instead, the doctor sends him to, of all places, First Methodist, a church where self-help groups will show Jack “real pain.”[x]

[13] Initially, the meetings help. Jack is able to sleep soundly and has feelings of liberation: “I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.” Participants are told to “really open ourselves up,” which is to say, become open to who you are, and let go of the abstract standards and conventional thinking about whom you are supposed to be.

[14] But Jack isn’t really liberated. He is identifying himself with another representation, this time a poor, sick little “me” that gets recognition because of a lie that he has testicular cancer, AIDS or tuberculosis. He only pretends to be the identity of Rupert, Cornelius or “whatever name he gives himself each night,” as Marla points out. The liberation Jack experiences, when “every evening I died and every evening I was born again, resurrected,” is just a vacation from samsara. He is a tourist who is “addicted” and “needs this.” Jack also starts desiring Marla, whose chicanery of identity—by attending the testicular cancer group, she even feigns gender—reflects Jack’s.

[15] Single-Serving Friend
[16] Once Jack confronts Marla and exposes his own lie to himself, he considers the question, “If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” The question is significant because it involves a discussion about how the past is another abstraction of identification that Jack must be unburdened from to realize liberation from samsara.

[17] As if to answer Jack's question, Watts points to a few lines from T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets which echo Jack’s inquiry: “When the train starts, and the passengers are settled… You are not the same people who left that station/Or who will arrive at any terminus.” The individual who gets on a train—or a plane, in Jack’s case—is not the same person who gets out at the next stop. Who someone was 10 years ago, a month ago, yesterday and even two minutes ago are long gone and not the same person he or she is right now.

[18] But people don’t see that. They see the illusion, the maya, that the individual who got on the plane is the same one now stuffed into the economy-class seat. Belief in the continuity of one’s self from one moment to the next is based on the need to define and hold one’s own identity. “The desire for continuity is the desire for the perpetuation of a past self or a string of selves, with which we identify ourselves,”[xi] Watts observes. “To identify one’s self with [the past] is to perpetuate an illusion, resulting in incessant frustration—resulting, indeed, in that very vicious circle, which the symbol of the wheel [of samsara] represents.” If you can dig it, Watts contends that Buddhism recognizes the past as perpetually vanishing, so that “there really is no past to continue—and therefore to cling to it.”[xii]

[19] Thus, liberation from samsara is also freedom from clinging to the abstract past, which is another source of false identity. To get onto the path of liberation, Jack asks “Can you wake up as a different person?” and literally creates Tyler Durden. Indeed, just as Jack considers the question, Tyler—played by Brad Pitt—makes his first appearance as a fully materialized form.[xiii]

[20] Tyler is effectively Jack’s guru—his “liberator” who will “realign” Jack’s “perception.” As a guru, Tyler is a “single serving friend,” whose one purpose is to lead Jack out of the illusion that identification with abstractions brings. At Jack’s first meeting with Tyler, Jack is asleep, praying for death, and metaphorically "wakes up" just as Tyler is sitting next to him. Tyler immediately starts debunking abstractions. Emergency evacuation procedures at 30,000 feet and airplane information cards provide the “illusion of safety”—maya that individuals can survive even a plane crash. Ironically, Jack writes off Tyler’s revelations as abstractions: “That’s an interesting theory.”

[21] The first step in Jack’s path to liberation via guru is to lose the stuff. Tyler destroys Jack’s apartment so that he can “reject the basic assumption of civilization and especially the importance of material possessions.” Possessions per se are not bad or evil, but as Tyler notes, “the things you own, end up owning you.” Abstractions that possessions represent limit an individual’s identity to them. Tyler asks Jack how he knows what a duvet is, even though it has nothing to do with survival “in the hunter/gatherer sense of the word.” The need to own things to identify himself has metaphorically pulled the wool (in this case, a blanket) over his eyes.

[22] After destroying Jack’s stuff, the guru sets up Fight Club, a kind of discipline that will further destroy the abstract identifications that Jack has. Fighting is a way to literally smash Jack’s conceptions of who he is: “How much can you know about yourself without having been in a fight?” Participants find freedom from the illusory identifications of everyday life: “You weren’t alive anywhere like you were there. Who you were in Fight Club was not who you were in the rest of the world.”

[23] As part of the discipline, Tyler asks Jack a string of hypothetical questions—which double as koans, or ‘problems’ that Zen masters use to tease students out of illusion—of who he’d fight. For example, Tyler asks, “If you could fight any historical figure, who would it be?” Jack’s chooses Gandhi, Tyler chooses Abraham Lincoln—two liberators who are heroes of Eastern and Western civilizations, respectively. By evoking responses to questions about who Jack would fight, and Tyler’s responses count as Jack’s because they are the same person, Tyler is going after Jack’s idols—images that he identifies with—enabling Jack to recognize idols for the abstractions they are. Jack will be able to see these “figures” literally as figures, in the abstract sense of the word. In addition to being illusion, maya is also a way of measurement, of “figuring.” Fighting itself is a way to make the most basic and concrete comparison of who an individual is compared to another. Tyler’s questions enable Jack to see himself mano a mano with his idols—without abstract ideas about their greatness–to literally knock them off Jack’s pedestal.

[24] Fight Club is effectively Jack’s yoga. Not the way a typical Western audience might understand yoga, for example, sitting quietly and concentrating on something. Rather, yoga is a way to suspend conception or thinking in abstractions. In the Yogasutra, yoga is defined as “citta vritti nirodha,” which as Watts points out, in Sanskrit means “the cessation of turnings of the mind. These ‘turnings’ are the thoughts whereby the mind endeavors to grasp the world and itself. … In other words, the attempt of the mind to catch hold of itself, which is what we call thinking. Worrying. So you could say loosely, yoga is the cessation of thinking. It’s not the cessation of awareness, but of symbolizing, trying to catch, clutch reality in terms of thoughts, symbols, descriptions, definitions.”[xiv] Fight Club enables participants to end clutching at abstractions, and to literally feel the concrete—like the basement floor with fists flying. As Jack describes, “The club wasn’t about winning or losing. It wasn’t about words. Nothing was solved but nothing mattered.” Winning, losing, words—they are abstractions that bind individuals to the suffering that comes from comparison of reality with pre-conceived, illusory notions of identity and time.

[25] Indeed, Zen Buddhism is distinguished from other types of Buddhism in that its “flavor,” as Watts portrays, is a certain “directness.” Whereas awakening seems almost superhuman in other schools of Buddhism, “something to be reached only after many lives of patient effort,” Zen has a feeling that awakening is something quite natural, something startlingly obvious, which may occur at any moment.”[xv] Zen’s way of teaching points directly to the truth of reality, not trifling with symbolism, describes Watts.

[26] However, Zen and yoga are not to be considered as a system of self-improvement, “for all ideas of self-improvement and of becoming or getting something relate solely to our abstract image of ourselves,” as Watts points out. "To follow them is to give ever more reality to that image.”[xvi] Once an individual starts ‘doing’ yoga to improve one’s self, it’s another form of grasping for identity. As Tyler says, “Self improvement is masturbation. Self destruction…” Tyler leaves it at that, because he does not want to give the show away. “Hitting rock bottom is not a weekend retreat. It’s not a goddamn seminar”—like so many yoga sessions offered today.

[27] Instead of being means for self-improvement, Watts proposes that yoga could be simply done for fun. According to Watts, when Suzuki Daisetz, a Japanese scholar of Buddhism, was asked what it was like to have satori—Zen awakening—he answered, “Just like ordinary everyday experience, except about two inches off the ground.” Indeed, Fight Club is a spiritual celebration that is far more satisfying than any rote church service that drags on with long hymns and longer faces. “The hysterical shouting was in tongues—like a Pentecostal church,” Jack observes. After fighting, “We all felt saved.”

[28] But the yoga of Fight Club is not complete for Jack. He still is frustrated by emotions, namely anger and jealousy. Marla has become Tyler’s sex partner and has “invaded” Jack’s “home.” And Jack continues to identify himself with abstractions in bodily form, “I am Jack’s Raging Bile Duct,” but now also in spiritual terms: “I became the calm, little center of the world,” “I was the Zen master,” “I wrote haikus.” His newly found spirituality becomes a way to protect his bruised ego. “I got right in everyone's hostile little face. Yes, these are my bruises from fighting. Yes, I'm comfortable with that. I am enlightened.”

[29] In response, the guru hammers at Jack’s spiritual abstractions, applying lye to Jack’s hand. Jack tries to deal with the pain by thinking of a forest scene and “going to my cave,” i.e., the guided meditation he had at the support group. His mind even forms abstract pictures of “seering” and “flesh” written in a dictionary. But abstractions such as a nice, far-off place and book knowledge are not real. They will not effectively solve the concrete, non-conceived suffering of lye on his hand, burning a kiss-shaped scar. “This is your pain. Don’t go to your cave. Don’t deal with it like those dead people do.” And more useless are abstractions about spirituality that bind individuals to moral principles, for example. “Fuck hell and fuck redemption,” Tyler barks. Faith in the typical Western image of God the Father, a benevolent old gentleman who loves us is similarly futile: “Our fathers were our models for God. And if our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? You have to consider the possibility that God doesn't like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you. We don’t need him.”

[30] The lye scene also sets up Tyler’s break down of Jack’s conceptions of death as another means to liberation. Tyler will give him vinegar as neutralizer only when “First you have to know, not fear, know that someday you’re gonna die.” Fear itself is another form of abstraction, worrying about one’s conception about the future. The terror of death keeps individuals clinging, as Watts observes, “to ourselves and our lives in chronic anxiety, however pushed into the back of our mind. But when the time comes where clinging is no longer of the least avail, the circumstances are ideal for letting go of oneself completely. When this happens, individual is released from his ego-prison.”[xvii] Jack feels “premature enlightenment” because he is “one step closer to hitting bottom,” Tyler notes.

[31] Tyler uses the same gambit on the deli clerk, played by Joon B. Kim, by putting a gun to his head. “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day in Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal than you and I have tasted.” It will be the best because Raymond K. Hessel has experienced death and knows that it can happen at any moment. Life is to be lived right now, instead of living for future, conceived hopes and dreams. “Even the Mona Lisa,” an icon of Western beauty, “is falling apart.”

[32] Thus, the practice of Buddhism is to relieve the individual from possessions, idols and beliefs, because they all represent abstractions with which an individual frustrates himself. As Watts notes, “The practical discipline of the way of liberation is a progressive disentanglement of one’s Self from every identification. It is to realize that I am not this body, these sensations, these feelings, these thoughts, this consciousness. The basic reality of my life is not any conceivable object. Ultimately it is not even to be identified with any idea, as of God or atman.”[xviii]

[33] On the other hand, Watts points out that the act of breaking down abstractions presents its own vicious circle: “So long as we turn over ideas in our minds about ‘symbol’ and ‘reality,’ or keep repeating, ‘I am not my idea of myself,’ this is still mere abstraction.”[xix] So Zen masters are glib and cagey about their disciplines, instead aiming Zen’s concrete reality straight at students. Indeed, the first two rules of Fight Club are: you do not talk about Fight Club.[xx] Disciples are to see things just as they are, “nothing good, nothing bad. There is no symbolic self to be forgotten and no need for any idea of a concrete reality to be remembered.”[xxi] As Tyler observes, “It’s only when we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” "Things" themselves-one's self, feelings, conceptions of time and fear-are created by the illusion of maya.

[34] In Project Mayhem, We Have No Names
[35] Tyler’s method of breaking down Jack’s abstractions echoes the Hindu who says “Neti, neti,” translated “not this, not this” or simply “no, no”. There’s a certain logic to it: if everything an individual senses, understands or believes is maya, then one way to realize enlightenment beyond them is to deny the illusion. As Tyler teaches, “You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.”

[36] Tyler also borrows from Nagarjuna, a teacher in the second century who founded the Madhyamika school of Buddhism. Madhyamika is also known as the “middle way,” which uses Buddhism’s dialectic style of teaching. As Watts describes, Buddhism can essentially be seen as a dialogue between a teacher and student, where the teacher would counter any concept the student has with its opposite. For example, when an individual seeks happiness in life, the Buddha would teach the opposite, that life is suffering. When an individual believes in a permanent and eternal self or soul—and clings to that self—the Buddha would teach that there is no fixed self, no ego.

[37] This method of dialogue is not simply a discussion between teacher and student. The teacher imposes a discipline of meditation, prayer, etc. to make the student experience reality—without conceptions, beliefs or desires that maya creates—firsthand. An individual cannot be simply told that there is or is no ego—he must experience it through discipline for himself. Watts gives an example of how someone who believes the Earth is flat cannot possibly be talked out of believing the supposition because the flat-Earthist says, “Look out the window and see, it’s obvious—it looks flat.” The only way to convince him is to literally bring him to the edge that he believes exists. But to get to the edge, the individual needs to use a discipline, a method, so that he does not walk around in circles. So the flat-Earthist is led by the teacher along Latitude 40, for example, strictly and rigorously. When he goes around the world and winds up at the place where he started, the individual sees that the Earth is at least cylindrical—and then go through other rigors to find out the Earth is indeed round.

[38] Project Mayhem—Tyler’s organized underground terrorist group—is the discipline that, as Nagarjuna did, Tyler uses to bring Jack and the “space monkeys” to the edge.[xxii] Lye, demoralizing epithets through the megaphone, manual labor, even having no names to identify one’s self with are all part of the discipline as Watts describes Nargajuna’s method “to undermine, to cast doubts on, any proposition to which his student will cling—to destroy all intellectual formulations and all concepts of the nature of reality or the nature of the self whatsoever.”[xxiii] Students are left without a single concept or abstraction to identify with. In like fashion, Tyler is bringing Jack to “Ground Zero.”

[39] Even the acts of terrorism, e.g., destroying corporate art, blowing up computer stores and smashing car lights with bats, are to bring the disciples to the extreme to challenge their ideas about social conventions of morality. When Jack awakes from his coma, he has become wise to game and sees the acts of terrorism as unnecessary: “You morons! You’re running around in ski masks, trying to explode things. What did you think was going to happen?!” Indeed, Jack’s creation of Tyler is the same gambit of going to the edge. “People do it everyday—they talk to themselves, they see themselves as they’d like to be. They don’t have the courage you have to just run with it,” Tyler explains. “You were looking for a way to change your life. You could not do this on your own. All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me.”

[40] By making the journey to Ground Zero, Jack is slowly becoming… Tyler Durden—himself, without abstractions and conceptions of who he desires to be. Ironically, Jack’s final discipline comes in a car accident-even though all the while as a car insurance assessor he has never been in an actual crash: “This must have been what all those people felt like before I filed them as statistics in my reports.” With the car weaving in and out of oncoming traffic, Tyler barks, “Fuck what you know. You need to forget what you know. That’s your problem. Forget about what you think you know about life, friendship and especially about you and me.” By being brought to the edge of death, where his abstractions of identity—how he has lived, his relationships, his beliefs and desires—are destroyed, Jack has “a near-life experience.” Jack is on the road to living. And he can live because he knows—not fears—that he will die.

[41] This conversation is over
[42] When Jack awakes from his coma—and this time it’s a real awakening—he faces the loneliness of enlightenment. As Watts describes: “The loneliness of liberation, of no longer finding security by taking sides with the crowd, of no longer believing that the rules of the game are the laws of nature. It is thus that transcending the ego leads to great individuality.”[xxiv] Tyler is gone and he is “all alone. My father dumped me, Tyler dumped me.” Jack realizes that Fight Club has spiraled out of control. Just as his father before, Tyler has left to “set up franchises all over the country.” Like “Planet Starbucks,” the house is “Planet Tyler.” Just as yoga that is generally sold today with exercise tapes, cushioned mats and giant exercise balls, Fight Club is using the means of consumerism to spread. Even pictures of soap with the Fight Club brand are used in the movie’s marketing. (Ironically, scenes that speak directly to the audience, such as the description of “cigarette burns” seem to say, ‘Hey, this is a twisted movie about a guy named Tyler Durden. But it’s also about you and the illusions of commercialism foisted on you. You are involved.’)

[43] He also sees through the abstractions that formalized religion can lead to. When Jack’s friend and Project Mayhem space monkey Big Moosie dies, the monkeys conclude, “In death, a man in Project Mayhem has a name,” that is to say, he has an identity. They are effectively applying the abstraction of identity as a life after death—deluding themselves that there is something higher, something better in an afterlife. As Watts notes, they “transpose the future into a spiritual dimension, figuring that this material world is not the real world, but that the spiritual world is the real world. And there will be somewhere, somehow an eternal life for [them].”[xxv] Notions about an afterlife are the same abstraction that followers of traditions—Western and Eastern—fall into the grasp of. As Watts observes, “This hope for the future is a hoax. It’s a perfect hoax. Maybe we will make spiritual progress. [But] everybody puts it off. Maybe if I work at yoga for 10 years, 20 years, I will eventually make it to moksha, to nirvana, whatever. That’s nothing more than a postponement. Because you’re not fully alive now, you think someday you will be.”[xxvi]

[44] In the end, Jack has been transformed from an individual who is a victim of abstractions to a man of virtue. When he realizes Project Mayhem’s plan to blow up several financial-services buildings, he tries to stop the plot. In his loneliness, he declares, “I am Jack’s broken heart.” Notice the transformation: Jack started his yoga training as “Jack’s medulla oblongata,” the brain function, representing how individuals are plagued by conscious thinking and worrying. He ends as Jack’s “heart,” or hsin—roughly translated from Chinese as the “heart mind”—regarded by Easterners as human’s center. Appropriately, the soundtrack ends the movie with the Pixies’ song, “Where Is My Mind?” As a man of virtue, Jack is, as Watts points out, “a human hearted man. And the meaning of this is that one should, above all, trust human nature in the full recognition that it’s both good and bad. That it’s both loving and selfish.”[xxvii] However, Zen enlightenment does not simply end with becoming a virtuous person as Jack does. On the contrary, the life of Zen just begins with “a disillusion with the pursuit of goals which do not really exist—the good without the bad, the gratification of a self which is no more than an idea, and the morrow which never comes.”[xxviii] In language characteristic to Zen simplicity, Jack is now “okay. Everything’s going to be fine.”

[45] In a final gambit to Ground Zero, Jack pulls the trigger on himself, in effect, getting rid of his abstraction in Tyler. “By dying to yourself and found that you don’t exist, you are reborn,” Watts observes of enlightenment.[xxix] Jack is free of the last abstraction that bound him to a self-frustrating identification. Just like “the true, nonconceptual self is already the Buddha and needs no improvement,”[xxx] he is who he was in the first place, Tyler Durden.

[46] For a more complete discussion of Watts’ interpretations of Buddhism and Zen, check out his lectures and books, especially The Way of Zen.

[i] Watts (1915-1973) wrote over 20 books and recorded over 50 lectures.
[ii] The Way of Zen, 1989 printing, p. 107
[iii] The Way of Zen, p. 52.
[iv] On bushido, Watts writes, “The association of the peace-loving doctrine of the Buddha with the military arts has always been a puzzle to Buddhists of other schools. It seems to involve the complete divorce of awakening from morality. … [While] Buddhism is not a revolt against convention, and in societies where the military caste is an integral part of the conventional structure and the warrior’s role an accepted necessity Buddhism will make it possible for him to fulfill that role as a Buddhist. The medieval cult of chivalry should be no less of a puzzle to the peace-loving Christian.” (The Way of Zen, p. 107)
[v] Dhyana Buddhism------need explain what dhyana and zen are?? p. 80 and 85
[vi] Zen Bones and Fundamentals of Buddhism
[vii] According to Watts, the word maya is “derived from the Sanskrit root matr-, ‘to measure, form, build or lay out a plan,’ from which we obtain such Greco-Latin words as meter, matrix material and matter.” (The Way of Zen, p. 39) So saying that the world of facts and events is maya is to say that ideas of any kind are just terms of measurement—rather than realities of nature.
[viii] ----need to explain connection between Hinduism and Buddhism???
[ix] The Way of Zen, p. 36
[x] The Buddha can also be seen as doctor, especially in the summary of his teachings, called the Four Noble Truths. As Watts observes, the Truths are “patterned on the traditional Vedic form of a physician’s diagnosis and prescription:” the identification of the disease, the disease’s cause, a prognosis whether the disease may be cured, and the prescription for the remedy. (The Way of Zen, p. 46)
[xi] Fundamentals of Buddhism
[xii] Fundamentals of Buddhism
[xiii] Up to now, we have seen glimpses of Pitt/Tyler in key parts of the movie’s development, foreshadowing his symbolic significance: first when Jack describes insomnia, then when the doctor says, “if you want to see pain” and finally when Jack looks at Marla longingly. Tyler is thus literally the embodiment of illusion, pain and lust. Tyler is who Jack wants to be when he is under the influence of samsara.
[xiv] The Way of Zen, p. 50 and Symbols and Meanings
[xv] The Way of Zen, p. 77
[xvi] The Way of Zen, p. 125
[xvii] The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, p. 34
[xviii] The Way of Zen, p. 48
[xix] The Way of Zen, p. 126
[xx] Indeed, part of the genius of the movie is that the yoga it presents is concealed by its graphic nature, so that its opportunities are not imposed onto viewers as dogma, but revealed to those who are searching, in the same spirit as Watts observing, “Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist, ought to have his head examined.” (---get lecture----)
[xxi] The Way of Zen, p. 127 (new version)
[xxii] The house on Paper Street is essentially a Buddhist monastery. Just as Watts describes monasteries of the East centuries ago, disciples or “applicants” in the movie must stand outside the door for several days before they are allowed to enter. And like the Buddha’s Eightfold path, a set of precepts for ending self-frustration, Fight Club has eight rules.
[xxiii] Buddhism as Dialogue
[xxiv] Psychotherapy East and West, found towards the beginning of chapter 5-----
[xxv] Symbols and Meanings
[xxvi] Symbols and Meanings
[xxvii] Man in Nature
[xxviii] The Way of Zen, p. 125
[xxix] Symbols and Meanings
[xxx] The Way of Zen, p. 125