IS ECKHART TOLLE BUDDHIST?
New project – is Eckhart Tolle Buddhism?
When I began this I was seeking clarification for myself as I sometimes commented on an ET facebook group. To me it felt certain that ET was Buddhist without the dogma, and that is quite reasonable. Buddhist without dogma is spiritual as is Christian without dogma etc. But I am a little concerned that ET does not want to present himself that way. I have no wish to misrepresent so will avoid the question as to how he sees himself in terms of Buddhism - and other religions for that matter.
So I am only going to write this in terms of how I see his connections with Buddhism. This helps (helped) me in how I answered in the facebook group, and that is all that matters. This is not a ditthi-mana contest - my view is better than your view - it is about understanding and intended clarity.
This is difficult to approach but it is worthwhile. In the past I have measured off different teachings and through the comparison gained understanding. This is not supposedly different teachings but when you consider the proliferations in Buddhism and the myriads who source in Buddhism then tying this down could be interesting.
Buddhadasa’s 4 Systems
I know little of both Buddhism and Eckhart so how will I make the comparison? In some ways Buddhism is straight forward – Buddhadasa. He spent his life being a “slave to the Buddha”, he studied all the dhamma, yet somehow he moved beyond dogma – I wish I knew how. Did Buddhadasa ever have a self? Is that possible to have never had a self?
According to this Santikaro talk Buddhadasa ended his life with the following understanding of systems:-
I intend to measure Eckhart against this.
Let me elucidate what I like about this to begin with, it seems core to me. There is the Unity that is Sunnata (emptiness), and within Unity there are people manifest. This manifestation is the 5 khandas, in other words we are part of the Unity – absolute, whilst at the same time being manifest as the 5 khandas – the relative. In the relative world we act through the 5 khandas, and this is what Eckhart talks of as the drama. The 5 khandas explains the interactions in this normal relative world.
Why is this bit of dogma important? Because for me it explains how we interact in this relative world of drama, and how we can have a relationship with the absolute – sunnata – or what Eckhart calls Being. The 5 khandas are rupa – body, vedana – feelings, sanna – perceptions/memory, sankhara – mental formations, and vinnana – consciousness. The relative world – the drama world is the 4 khandas (4 drama khandas) of rupa, vedana, sanna, and sankhara. These khandas can simply relate without our being aware eg we are not aware of the blood flowing in the body we just know that it does. But for us to be aware of the 4 drama khandas interacting there has to be consciousness – vinnana.
And here begins the problem, what happens to that consciousness? Clinging – it becomes attached. Complete attachment is when we think we are the 4 drama khandas, “this is who I am”. We identify with these 4 khandas, and call it I. That consciousness (of the 4 khandas) becomes the self, Eckhart calls this the ego.
But consciousness needs to be free of attachment to the 4 khandas in order to relate to sunnata – to manifest sunnata – to manifest Being –Eckhart describes it as Presence if there is awareness of it. This is inner space consciousness according to Eckhart, consciousness that is free of attachment to the 4 drama khandas is inner space consciousness.
Consciousness being attached has created a self, the I that identifies with the 4 drama khandas. This becomes an entity, in the drama world we think we are this I. By recognising that in this drama world there are only the 4 khandas and that is all that is needed to explain drama interactions we can start to unravel this self, and see that there is no need for self – that there is no self only consciousness attaching to the 4 drama khandas. If we detach that consciousness from the 4 drama khandas so that there is only the necessary consciousness for the 4 drama khandas to function, then consciousness – inner space consciousness – is free to relate to sunnata – Presence. This Presence is the Emptiness system. Understanding the way the 5 khandas form the body, psyche and self systems frees consciousness to relate to the Emptiness system – and feel Presence.
It is my view that Buddhadasa understands that mind is the 5 khandas, and that the freed consciousness that relates to the emptiness system is part of mind. Buddhadasa uses the word psyche for the 3 khandas of vedana, sanna and sankhara and the necessary consciousness as a way of distinguishing from that free consciousness. I think Eckhart uses mind for what Buddhadasa calls the psyche system, and does not use inner space consciousness as part of mind. Does this matter?
I was forced up early to write this, and felt good - clear; but after sleeping for 3 hours and reading it again it seems tortuous. I suppose it has got to feel that way if I am matching two sets of dogma language.
Eckhart uses the term “pain body”. The psyche has felt pain, vinnana clings to that pain, and consciousness gives that clinging a “life” of its own by attachment – in much the same way as self was described as giving “life” above. To free ourselves from pain we have to let go of the clinging – the attachment, and once that consciousness is free we can feel the Presence. The pain body takes up the space of consciousness, and once freed from it we have the inner space consciousness that enables us to relate to sunnata – Presence. This pain has happened in the past, and we continue to relive that pain in our minds – vedana, sanna and sankhara, and this reinforces the pain body. This “life” wishes to survive as do all selves so it creates situations where we relive the pain thus fortifying the pain body – more clinging. By living in the present moment – the Power of Now, there is none of the mind’s re-creation of pain and we let go of the attachment that creates the pain.
It is also interesting to consider the pain body in terms of the 4 Noble Truths discussed at length here; dukkha – suffering, tanha -clinging, nirodha – freedom from or cessation of suffering, magga – the 8-fold path. Pain is part of suffering, there is suffering all around and pain is part of that. Once we have felt pain that pain-self wants to feel more pain. There is desire for pain. If we live in the present moment then we don’t have the desire but if we recreate the past through sankhara then we have re-created the pain – clung to the pain. Freedom – nirodha – cessation of suffering comes from letting go of the clinging – tanha, (and the way to do this is magga but as yet I have not seen Eckhart discuss this except through meditation - stillness). For Eckhart the way to let go is to live in the present moment – his magga?
This is my old enemy, and it functions in much the same way as the pain body. By intellect I mean sankhara, the mental proliferations, which Eckhart talks of as mind and its theories. The pain body wants to survive, pain is felt, develops a self and desires pain to survive. The intellect, or sankhara body, functions in much the same way. There is necessary consciousness attached to some form of learning so unlike pain intellect starts favourably. But once learnt such attachment must be let go, however as with all selves the intellect or sankhara-body wants to “survive” so we cling to intellect.
For intellect it is much harder to let go because it is an acceptable part of social conditioning to have an intellectual self. The intellect is institutionalised in academia, so the sankhara-body can survive in academia. For learning to occur we have to move beyond academia, we have to remove attachment to intellect – to sankhara, cease the desire for intellect. There is a necessary consciousness to attach to reasoning and intellect – sankhara, but consciousness must be freed to experience the emptiness system. I have often contrasted insight with intellect as sources of understanding. Vipassana as a meditation system frees consciousness so that it can relate to sunnata – suchness, unborn; there are insights and Presence has been enabled. Insight (Stillness speaking) as Presence comes from relating to the emptiness system – the unborn, suchness; and intellect as sankhara-body starts as part of the psyche – mind – and we cling to these thoughts as making a self of the sankhara-body – the intellect. If we live in the present moment thoughts come and go, there is no clinging – attachment, and there is insight that comes from Presence.
I like this word “presence” as it absolutely describes what I have looked at in my blog (Experiences).
To understand it properly starts to get difficult. Again I like the way that Eckhart delineates Presence from Being. For Buddhism there is suchness, emptiness, sunnata, unborn, unconditioned and other words, all of which cannot be experienced. The word, Being, sounds different, if you can be surely you can experience it – be it. So that is difficult – not dismissed, but I don’t use it because of this potential confusion.
Now Buddhadasa talks of an emptiness system, and this I connect to Presence – note the use of the non-descript word “connect”. Once the emptiness system is in place I talk of a relationship with emptiness, and the word relationship is also non-descript because emptiness cannot be experienced.
So what are experiences, what is this presence? It has to be something that is manifest – human, and that is consciousness – Eckhart calls it inner space consciousness (distinct from mind). I see it as vinnana-consciousness (part of mind), vinnana that is free from the shackles of attachment to the khandas. As humans we can free up consciousness through good practice such as magga, such as being in the present moment. Once this consciousness is freed up it is free to relate to sunnata. In the end that is somehow presence.
The Buddha talks of jhana (as discussed here), and in magga this would be accessed by right concentration. With this right concentration we experience, and in the Buddha’s description of jhanas included in this long blogpost or SN45.8. Somehow Presence rapture and bliss are the same. But this is confusing. How is concentration what Eckhart experienced in his introduction to Power of Now, how is concentration jhana, how is concentration that we have sometimes not jhana? It is a melting pot, however it is a Buddhist melting pot.
Above I said I don’t know Buddhism but am comfortable with Buddhadasa’s understanding of Buddhism. I don’t know Eckhart Tolle either. So far I have discussed his teachings that have arisen from this clip on the pain body. But there is much more!! My contact with Tolle began with his books The Power of Now and New Earth, and I spent a while looking at New Earth with he and Oprah, but am I up-to-date? So unfortunately it will have to be a haphazard process of looking at clips and comparing his teachings with Buddhism – Buddhadasa’s Buddhism.
I am going to begin with this clip mainly because I want to find time references.
Following the path
Above I discussed 4 Noble Truths, and the 4th truth is magga, the 8-fold path, one translation of which is Right Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Determination, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. Historically I have looked at the Buddha contextually as a person who examined Hinduism, the religion of his culture, and attempted to remove the proliferations that were in Hinduism. In doing this under the Bodhi tree he came up with the 4 Noble Truths which were new – they were not part of Hinduism. If we look at the core of what the Buddha taught then, these 4NT, what is new, has to be important. When Tolle talks about “Freedom from pain is possible now” (4.34), to me he is talking about the 4NT – dukkha, tanya, nirodha and magga, same framework but a different angle.
“Not being present at the present moment (4.56)” is simply right mindfulness, the 7th of magga. “When you accept what is, a new state of consciousness is present.” (5.05) With mindfulness there is no attachment to the khandas, and there is a level of concentration that frees consciousness to connect with sunnata – presence. Ajaan Buddhadasa taught anapanasati – mindfulness of breathing (anapanasati means mindfulness), with good meditation (mindfulness breathing) there is the Power of Now – mindfulness.
I am using too much terminology (Pali) but that is the Buddhadasa in me but the more this goes on the more I feel I am integrating Tolle and Buddhadasa, for me Tolle and Buddhism. And why do I think this is so easily integrated? Because of the presence of awakening. Through this pain and awakening there is a kinship with Tolle. Through my own studies I have tried to move beyond dogma leading me to Buddhadasa, and whilst Buddhadasa with his methodology of study has much of the traditional Buddha dogma - symbolised by the Pali, somehow he has moved beyond all the conditioning and is saying the same thing. That is why they integrate so easily – for me. It still leaves the Buddhadasa question I have never been able to understand or answer, how, without awakening – painful or otherwise, has he moved beyond conditioning? Without awakening did he ever have a self?
Mindfulness – Accepting what is
Mindfulness is sometimes described by Buddhists as judgement-free awareness. But where does that judgement come from? Attaching consciousness to the 4 drama khandas. If we are indulging emotion (vedana), remembering (sanna) or proliferating thought with theories (sankhara) we are not mindful, we are not present in the present moment – we are judging. Once free of any such judgements consciousness is aware, it can accept presence. It cannot understand what is but can accept what is for what is. The emptiness system is not concerned with understanding, we cannot understand. Awareness is just acceptance of what is, the emptiness system is just acceptance of what is. And we can only be aware by being mindful, by not attaching to the 5 khandas.
Yesterday I made an error, I call it a fantasy error. It is an error of trying to understand that which cannot be understood. Mind is part of the manifest, mind cannot understand the unmanifest. That is a simple logical truth. But discussion of emptiness, of what is, is a discussion of that which we cannot understand. Do I understand the experiences I have had? No. Have I experienced them? Yes. Have I been aware of these experiences when having them? Yes. That is presence, I can be aware but not understand. But I can begin to understand and control the conditions that I can establish to enable awareness. That is mindfulness, being present in the present moment, not being attached to the 4 drama khandas. The fantasy error I made yesterday was trying to understand what is. Mind will always try to do this, the intellect thinks it can understand everything, and intellect has a converse if it cannot understand it tries to devalue. Mind, the inner state of consciousness – consciousness free of the drama khandas, can be aware but it cannot understand – intellect, sankhara. The error I made was trying to intellectually understand that which we can only be aware of, and trying to develop intellectual systems for this supposed understanding.
This is nowhere near complete but the question has been clearly answered. I have been watching two of Eckhart’s videos – “Reality is beyond thought” and “Waking up to the Reality of One’s True Nature”, and both just seem Buddhadasa Buddhism. What is so important about the question is to use Eckhart to confront the dogmatism that I have followed – and battled. Tolle confronts the dogma, and that is a great help to me in coming to terms with it. Ajaan Buddhadasa also confronts Tolle so that I can avoid a trap of Tolle’s dogma – presence, now etc. The issue I most want to confront is awakening, where and how does genuine Buddhism deal with it? I think my Buddhist answers are Anapanasati Bhavana (click download link) – Mindfulness with Breathing by Ajaan Buddhadasa. Examining Anapanasati a bit I came up with this on Following the Path – not Awakening, and I am left with mindfulness – living as no self.