Buddhism versus creative visualization

Probably like a lot of other self-improvement junkies I have always been mildly interested in the idea of Buddhism if not the actual practice of Buddhism. I have not really been exposed to it very often, and honestly most of my knowledge of it comes via movies like Seven Years In Tibet and Little Buddha. I also was very fond of a book, Zen Buddhism, which helped me learn the practice of clearing my mind before sleeping. I don’t think that was the point of the book, but the ability to fall asleep in 5 minutes or less every evening has been a great gift throughout my adult life.

There are a number of things that appeal to me about Buddhism. There are, however, just as many aspects of Buddhism that don’t appeal to me. Buddhism still has its feet firmly planted in the supernatural, an area that I more or less completely reject. I find that the Great Story, for example, is a million times more awe-inspiring. I look at the Pillars of Creation and think that if something like that is the result of the unimaginable complexity of the universe rather than simply the plot and plan of a supreme intelligence it’s actually more amazing rather than less so. That’s my own interpretation.

The current Dalai Lama – who for all intents and purposes is the Pope of the Buddhists to someone like me – seems to be a man of the political/temporal world rather than a truly religious person. The idea of a truly religious person, to me, summons up a hermit. If you truly believed in prayer/meditation/etc. as the instrument of God, why would any fundraising or speeches or anything like that be necessary? Specifically for the Dalai Lama, why should he care about Tibet’s independence as a political entity? It seems to me that freedom of religious practice for all people would be a better cause, even if Tibet remained part of China, or an autonomous region like Hong Kong or Macau. In any case, the Free Tibet movement, to me, is about as meaningful as a Free Texas movement. That ship has sailed on off into the sea of history.

That having been said, the Dalai Lama has some great quotes. I first read this one a few years ago and wasn’t impressed, but for some reason recently it has spoken to me a lot more:

Today I am fortunate to have woken up, I am alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, I am going to have kind thoughts towards others, I am not going to get angry or think badly about others, I am going to benefit others as much as I can.(link).

That’s a nice thought. It’s probably as much as many of us can hope to achieve, and really other than maybe throwing in a little more family-specific phrase to be a good father and husband and son and brother and grandson and whatnot, there’s not a whole lot more to say. I think enlightenment for the benefit of all beings is a pretty tall order out of that list. I think it encompasses vegetarianism and pacifism, achievable goals, and maybe some sort of benign spiritual missionary type thinking, which for me isn’t so achievable (or desirable).

Buddha himself had a great quote which irritates Bubelah to no end (I paraphrase): “Desire is the root of all suffering.” I think about this quote a lot. It directly contradicts the fundamental premise of creative visualization, a school of thought she follows. Creative visualization refers to the practice of seeking to affect the outer world via changing one’s thoughts. Although various spiritual traditions claim that our thoughts affect the outer world, the phrase “Creative Visualization” came from the New Age Movement. (from Wikipedia)

Any way you look at that, it’s certainly not saying that desires (for love, for health, for security, for wealth, and so on) are something to be avoided and put aside if possible. So to my mind it more or less contradicts the Buddhist ideal. The question then becomes whether you can integrate these two philosophies into your life, or whether you should strive to attain one and reject the other.

I look at it this way (today). Ask me a year from now and my mindset may have changed. I apply the Buddhist principle to the concept of wealth, and the creative visualization to health, lifestyle, goals and so on. I try not to desire material things. I do, because I buy new shoes or get Netflix or any one of a number of things. But I do make an effort to consume out of necessity (or what I perceive as necessity) rather than out of pure and simple desire.

On the flip side, I may want a bigger house, or a different job or a stronger ankle. These aren’t bad things to want. Buddhism just argues that WANTING them is bad. Maybe the Nike “Just do it” slogan is most applicable – rather than desiring health, go exercise. Rather than desiring wealth, go invest or be frugal or whatnot.

Everyone has to get to a point where they are comfortable with their desires (or lack thereof). Failure to do this will just make you miserable. I have desires which are somewhat unrealistic that cause me a great deal of stress, and I try to eliminate them. Some are very petty – I’d like a neat handheld computer or the full HBO package. Those desires cause a great deal of stress, since you know they are “doable” and only your own self-discipline prevents them from becoming reality. Other desires, like the desire to be fit, may actually be good since the stress derived from them could drive you to overcome obstacles.

To separate desires, there are a few tests you could apply (bad desire, good desire):

  • Is this something other people would consider selfish or altruistic to desire? (a CD of music your family doesn’t like vs. a CD of singalong songs)
  • Does this desire require a material thing or an action in order to be fulfilled? (wanting to buy a new chair versus learning for yourself how to upholster an old one)
  • Does fulfilling this desire create a new desire, or will it end this ‘type’ of desire? (wanting a new video game machine, creating an unlimited desire for new games for it, vs. buying a book you’ve wanted for a while)

I’m sure there are other tests, but I think the pattern is clear.

5 comments

  • Chris Thompson

    I wasn't sure if you wanted us to comment here or on the 2008 entry, so I'll comment here to keep it with the bulk of the content.

    Your points are interesting, but each of them are ever so slightly misinformed.

    The Dalai Lama is, as the Pope is to Catholics, the highest holy man to the TIBETAN Buddhists. But equating Tibetan Buddhism to all Buddhism is like equating fundamentalist southern baptists to all Christians.

    Buddhism, in it's original form, makes no claims as to the nature of the afterlife, nor anything “supernatural”. The closest organized form of Buddhism to this today is the Theravada school.

    As the original teachings of Gautama Siddhartha spread out from their source, they became intermingled with the cultures they overtook.Tibetan Buddhism assimilated the reincarnation religion of the tibetans. No other school of Buddhist thought, to my knowledge, proclaims any belief in reincarnation. I've found that most Buddhist schools of thought take the original core tenets as stated by the Buddha and wrap them in some sort of dogma I can't fully agree with.

    Also, your description of desire being the source of suffering is technically correct, but wholly misses the nuance that makes it sensible.

    The second noble truth says that suffering stems from X. Translation is a tricky business, so there are several words used for X. You use desire. I prefer Attachment. Both are right, but there is a subtle difference.

    I am not a fan of Koans, those enigmatic little sayings from zen buddhism that make no logical sense, but are supposed to make you think. (What's the sound of one hand clapping?).

    But one koan in particular really cemented for me what the Second Truth means.

    A monk asked Tozan, “How can we escape the cold and heat?” Tozan replied, “Why not go where there is no cold and heat?” “Is there such a place?” the monk asked. Tozan commented, “When cold, be thoroughly cold; when hot, be hot through and through.”

    Yes, gibberish. But it was an effective tool in helping me work through what it all meant.

    If you're cold, standing outside in the snow storm, it's not the cold that's making you suffer, it's your attachment to it. You can have a desire to be warm, that's logical, and doesn't make you suffer.

    But Standing there obsessing “Oh God I'm cold. So Cold, I wish I was inside. This is ridiculous, why am I out here in this blizzard when I could be warm inside?” is the suffering. It doesn't accomplish anything towards making you warmer, it just puts your mind in a “suffering state”. If you just accept that you're cold, shiver if you need to, stamp your feet and breathe into your hands, but remain calm and centered, you are cold, but not suffering. I've tried it. By remaining centered and tranquil, the cold is infinitely more bearable.

    For the record, I do not consider myself a Buddhist. Like you, I find the term has connotations of supernatural and dogmatic beliefs. I try to use the concepts of the original teachings of the Buddha in my life, combined with some Zen meditation practices.

    I would recommend a book called “Buddhism Without Beliefs” by Stephen Batchelor. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:BookSource… )

    His approach is to take the original teachings of Gautama Siddhartha and present them in purely secular terms. The Buddha was not, and is not, a God. He was a man who lived, figured out something important, taught it to people, then died. It's a fantastic book that seriously helps offset the supernatural nature of “Organized” Buddhism.

  • I don't think it's a bad post – critical analysis is never a bad thing. But your fundamental assumptions about Buddhism are flawed. I think this is common in people with a Western-centric focus to religion and spirituality.
    I also think it can be confusing to pick certain things and try and make them coherent – in the same way people get confused with contradictions in the Bible. You have to look at the larger picture.

    I think Chris's comment basically sums up what I was going to say, and in a much better way. But I do want to emphasize his point on desire and suffering. There is another Buddhist saying that goes: “pain is inevitable. suffering is optional”. The idea that desire is the cause of suffering is rooted in the idea that we grasp (and avoid) impermanence, and we can't deal with the idea that everything is always in flux. If instead we practiced acceptance (instead of yearning), we'd be free of a lot of suffering.

    As for God in Buddhism – in eastern philosophy, we realize that that “God” is nothing (and everything) more than the sum of all things, and that in order for us to wrap our brains around this idea, we have to bring God down to our level. So we ascribe the inascribable (did I make that up?) with characteristics that we can understand. Eastern religions are never solely theology – they are philosophy and psychology as well.

  • I don't think it's a bad post – critical analysis is never a bad thing. But your fundamental assumptions about Buddhism are flawed. I think this is common in people with a Western-centric focus to religion and spirituality.
    I also think it can be confusing to pick certain things and try and make them coherent – in the same way people get confused with contradictions in the Bible. You have to look at the larger picture.

    I think Chris's comment basically sums up what I was going to say, and in a much better way. But I do want to emphasize his point on desire and suffering. There is another Buddhist saying that goes: “pain is inevitable. suffering is optional”. The idea that desire is the cause of suffering is rooted in the idea that we grasp (and avoid) impermanence, and we can't deal with the idea that everything is always in flux. If instead we practiced acceptance (instead of yearning), we'd be free of a lot of suffering.

    As for God in Buddhism – in eastern philosophy, we realize that that “God” is nothing (and everything) more than the sum of all things, and that in order for us to wrap our brains around this idea, we have to bring God down to our level. So we ascribe the inascribable (did I make that up?) with characteristics that we can understand. Eastern religions are never solely theology – they are philosophy and psychology as well.

  • Chris Thompson

    I wasn't sure if you wanted us to comment here or on the 2008 entry, so I'll comment here to keep it with the bulk of the content.

    Your points are interesting, but each of them are ever so slightly misinformed.

    The Dalai Lama is, as the Pope is to Catholics, the highest holy man to the TIBETAN Buddhists. But equating Tibetan Buddhism to all Buddhism is like equating fundamentalist southern baptists to all Christians.

    Buddhism, in it's original form, makes no claims as to the nature of the afterlife, nor anything “supernatural”. The closest organized form of Buddhism to this today is the Theravada school.

    As the original teachings of Gautama Siddhartha spread out from their source, they became intermingled with the cultures they overtook.Tibetan Buddhism assimilated the reincarnation religion of the tibetans. No other school of Buddhist thought, to my knowledge, proclaims any belief in reincarnation. I've found that most Buddhist schools of thought take the original core tenets as stated by the Buddha and wrap them in some sort of dogma I can't fully agree with.

    Also, your description of desire being the source of suffering is technically correct, but wholly misses the nuance that makes it sensible.

    The second noble truth says that suffering stems from X. Translation is a tricky business, so there are several words used for X. You use desire. I prefer Attachment. Both are right, but there is a subtle difference.

    I am not a fan of Koans, those enigmatic little sayings from zen buddhism that make no logical sense, but are supposed to make you think. (What's the sound of one hand clapping?).

    But one koan in particular really cemented for me what the Second Truth means.

    A monk asked Tozan, “How can we escape the cold and heat?” Tozan replied, “Why not go where there is no cold and heat?” “Is there such a place?” the monk asked. Tozan commented, “When cold, be thoroughly cold; when hot, be hot through and through.”

    Yes, gibberish. But it was an effective tool in helping me work through what it all meant.

    If you're cold, standing outside in the snow storm, it's not the cold that's making you suffer, it's your attachment to it. You can have a desire to be warm, that's logical, and doesn't make you suffer.

    But Standing there obsessing “Oh God I'm cold. So Cold, I wish I was inside. This is ridiculous, why am I out here in this blizzard when I could be warm inside?” is the suffering. It doesn't accomplish anything towards making you warmer, it just puts your mind in a “suffering state”. If you just accept that you're cold, shiver if you need to, stamp your feet and breathe into your hands, but remain calm and centered, you are cold, but not suffering. I've tried it. By remaining centered and tranquil, the cold is infinitely more bearable.

    For the record, I do not consider myself a Buddhist. Like you, I find the term has connotations of supernatural and dogmatic beliefs. I try to use the concepts of the original teachings of the Buddha in my life, combined with some Zen meditation practices.

    I would recommend a book called “Buddhism Without Beliefs” by Stephen Batchelor. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:BookSource… )

    His approach is to take the original teachings of Gautama Siddhartha and present them in purely secular terms. The Buddha was not, and is not, a God. He was a man who lived, figured out something important, taught it to people, then died. It's a fantastic book that seriously helps offset the supernatural nature of “Organized” Buddhism.

  • I don't think it's a bad post – critical analysis is never a bad thing. But your fundamental assumptions about Buddhism are flawed. I think this is common in people with a Western-centric focus to religion and spirituality.
    I also think it can be confusing to pick certain things and try and make them coherent – in the same way people get confused with contradictions in the Bible. You have to look at the larger picture.

    I think Chris's comment basically sums up what I was going to say, and in a much better way. But I do want to emphasize his point on desire and suffering. There is another Buddhist saying that goes: “pain is inevitable. suffering is optional”. The idea that desire is the cause of suffering is rooted in the idea that we grasp (and avoid) impermanence, and we can't deal with the idea that everything is always in flux. If instead we practiced acceptance (instead of yearning), we'd be free of a lot of suffering.

    As for God in Buddhism – in eastern philosophy, we realize that that “God” is nothing (and everything) more than the sum of all things, and that in order for us to wrap our brains around this idea, we have to bring God down to our level. So we ascribe the inascribable (did I make that up?) with characteristics that we can understand. Eastern religions are never solely theology – they are philosophy and psychology as well.