The Wonder of Intrinsic Motivation

March 25, 2020

During my days in graduate school, where I studied theoretical linguistics (of all things), I happened to have a conversation with a young man outside my normal circle that went something like this:

“So, what do you do?”

“I am a linguistics graduate student.”

“Oh? What is linguistics?”

“Well, …,” I very briefly explained that linguistics is the science that studies human language as a natural phenomenon and how much it fascinated me.

“Is it, um, something you can make a lot of money doing?” he asked.

“Hmmm, I’ve never thought about it. I suppose not.”

“Why would you do something that takes so much work if you can’t make a lot of money? And why would you not think about it?”

Why indeed? Nothing I said from that point on made the least sense to him. What he said made sense to me, but had a twisted logic to it, and the conversation quickly devolved into mutual bewilderment. For me, after all, this was human language we were talking about. Where was this guy’s sense of wonder?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the two of us were talking from opposite sides of a chasm, a deep gash through the middle of our culture with profound implications for human psychological and spiritual well-being, for the very direction of people’s lives, for the structure of our economy, and for the way children are brought up and educated. This guy represented what seems to be the dominant, utilitarian view in our culture, one that speaks of maturity, rationality and purpose. Mine was the more foolhardy, silly view that something can be worth doing for its own sake. I consider myself fortunate to have since lived a life of “silliness,” which, many years later as a rather elderly, scholarly Buddhist monk, I continue to live to this day.


New Buddhism Video Course

March 22, 2020

I have completed a five-part video course and uploaded it to Youtube just in time for the wave of social distancing that is driving people out of Buddhist centers among other public gathering places. The videos are based on my new book Mindfulness, where Dharma meets Practice.  Click here for access:

Screenshot from 2020-03-18 16:37:35

I have plans for putting up more videos and also for starting a podcast in the near future.

I hope that all readers and your loved ones are healthy and that your lives are not too burdened socially or economically during this pandemic.

New introduction to Buddhism

October 7, 2019

Mindfulness, where Dharma meets Practice

I am releasing in draft form a textbook for a five-week course on Buddhism based on early sources. I am currently using an earlier draft to teach a class in Minnesota and will use it in the next two months to teach in Austin and Houston, Texas. This was originally conceived as a more concise version of my Buddhist Life/Buddhist Path, but, as these things go, it became a distinct work, with mindfulness as the central theme.

This book is about Dharma, practice, and how they intersect in mindfulness. It is a nutshell introduction to Buddhism based almost exclusively on the earliest Buddhist sources, which are the historical basis for all of the diverse later schools of Buddhism, and which represent what the Buddha actually taught, as best as we can determine. It is a textbook that has been used to supplement about ten hours of class time.

In spite of its conciseness, this text provides a comprehensive overview of the range of Buddhist practice and understanding and contains practical advice on how we can integrate Buddhist practice into busy modern lives. It begins from the premise that Dharma serves solely as a support for practice and that the role of mindfulness is to enable Dharma effectively to inform practice.

I will distribute hard copies locally, but a pdf can can be downloaded here:

Book: With Needle and Thread

August 5, 2019

essays in early Buddhism

needleAndThreadCoverThis volume presents a set of essays, each of which is intended to put a few stitches in what the author regards as a common traditional or modern mis­understanding of an important point of Dhamma, or (in the case of the first es­say) Vinaya. In each case it advances an alternative interpretation, at least as a way of encouraging further discussion. Of the six essays in this volume, the first concerns the role of women in the Buddhist community, the second con­cerns issues of faith and belief, the third a seemingly small doctrinal point that has led, I maintain, to great misunderstanding of a significant portion of early Dhamma, and the final three with aspects of meditation: mindfulness (sati) and concentration (samadhi).

The book can now be downloaded in various formats:


lulu_logo_retina_smallPrint copies are available for the cost of printing HERE, or will be available for free in the Sitagu Buddha Vihara library.

With Needle and Thread

June 25, 2019

Essays on early Buddhism

In this new book (pdf linked below) I present a set of essays, each of which is intended to put a few stitches in what I have come to regard as a common traditional or modern mis­understanding of an important point of Dhamma, or (in the case of the first es­say) Vinaya. In each case I advance an alternative interpretation, at least as a way of encouraging further discussion. Of the six essays in this volume, the first concerns the role of women in the Buddhist community, the second con­cerns issues of faith and belief, the third a seemingly small doctrinal point that has led, I maintain, to great misunderstanding of a significant portion of early Dhamma, and the final three with aspects of meditation: mindfulness (sati) and concentration (samādhi).

256px-A_needle_with_threadHere is an abstract of each:

What did the Buddha think of women?: the story of the early nuns. This challenges the common view that the Buddha’s intentions in establishing the nuns’ sangha were biased by the patriarchal and ofttimes misogynistic attitudes of the dominant culture. It argues that the Buddha did all that he could to se­cure equal opportunity for practice for women as for men, while, always the pragmatist, maintaining the outward propriety of the Saṅgha within the con­straints of the dominant culture. Subsequent tradition has not always been so kind.

Take seriously and hold loosely: faith without beliefs. Unlike a “belief sys­tem,” the Dhamma represents faith with wiggle room. Teachings are to be taken seriously, because they have important practice functions, to be realized in beneficial results for the practitioner and for the world at large. At the same time, the Buddha’s teachings are to be held loosely, as flexible working as­sumptions, because teachings need to be meaningful and acceptable by the in­dividual practitioner in order to fulfill their practice functions.

The Buddha as biologist: true to practice. This challenges the view that three of the twelve links of dependent co-arising, so central to the Dhamma, are about conception and development in the womb. Biological pro­cesses are sub­stantially beyond immediate ex­perience and therefore not significant factors of practice, and therefore have no substantial role in Dhamma. This traditional in­terpretation of these critical links has only served to mask their true function.

Sati really does mean memory: the Buddha’s take on mindfulness. The word we translate as “mindfulness” has been interpreted various ways in later traditions, often as a kind of mind state. However, the word literally means memory or recollection. I argue that in the EBT the word rarely wanders too much astray from recollection of the Dhamma (or Vinaya). The Buddha meant what he said. This has implications for how we practice this central teaching.

Seeing through the eyes of the Buddha: samādhi and right view. This chal­lenges the traditional and modern ways in which samādhi has become disasso­ciated from right view through the assumption that the stillness of samādhi cannot carry the cognitive load of right view. It then explores how samādhi is properly understood precisely as the most effective instrument for internaliz­ing right view, as an entryway to knowledge and vision of things as they are.

How did mindfulness become “bare, non-judgmental, present-moment awareness”? This companion essay to “Sati really does mean memory” dis­cusses the genesis of the widely accepted but very modern understanding of the term “mindfulness,” which is quite distinct from the use of sati in the EBT. The shift in meaning is attributed in part to a modern retreat from concern for virtue and right view.

These essays are revised versions of essays I have posted on-line over the past seven years. Some of them are much shorter.

EDIT: Please go HERE for pdf and hard copy.



How did mindfulness become “bare, non-judgmental, present-moment awareness”?

December 20, 2018

256px-Cartoon_Meditating_Man.svg“Mindfulness” in modern discourse – whether among meditation teachers or clinicians – is defined in various ways, but generally circle around “bare, non-judgmental, present-moment awareness.” Nonetheless, although mindfulness (in Pali, sati) is one of the most fundamental concepts in the Early Buddhists Texts (EBT), one would be hard-pressed to find a definition or description of mindfulness there that remotely resembles such circulations. In this essay I will try to account for our modern definitions of mindfulness and how they might be reconciled with the EBT.

My intention is not to delegitimize these modern definitions; words come to be used differently with time and, hey, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other word would smell as sweet!” The modern definitions have clearly proved useful and resonate with modern meditative and clinical experience. My intention is to explore what the shift in the meaning of mindfulness tells us about the shift from early Buddhist concerns to modern concerns as we pursue “mindfulness,” and then to ask the important question, What might we have left behind?




Sati really does mean ‘memory’

November 8, 2018

“Mindfulness” as we now understand it is the result a history of semantic change. This began in ancient times with the Pali word sati, which in origin means ‘memory’, and has somehow given rise to the modern term ‘mindfulness’, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” Moreover, modern scholars have perhaps been far too hasty to dismiss ‘memory’ as its central meaning in the EBT. I hope to show here that sati barely strayed in the early times far afield from this central meaning.



Consciousness in the EBT

September 6, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

Thus, Ānanda, for beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving, kamma is the field, consciousness the seed and craving the moisture for their consciousness to be established in an inferior [… repeated also for middling and superior] realm. (AN 3.76)

Consciousness (viññāṇa) as represented in the early Buddhist texts (EBT) has received relatively little attention in modern Buddhist literature, in view of its centrality in human cognition. It is highlighted in the EBT as the third of the twelve links of dependent co-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda), to which I will make frequent reference in this essay:

(1) ignorance → (2) formations → (3) consciousness →
(4) name-and-form → (5) sixfold-sphere →
(6) contact → (7) feeling → (8) craving →
(9) attachment → (10) becoming → (11) birth →
(12) old age, death, this mass of suffering.

In this role consciousness and name-and-form are said to whirl continually around each other to produce our whole conceptual world. In fact, in the seminal Mahānidāna Sutta , which omits the two links prior to consciousness consciousness, we learn that consciousness and name-and-form are mutually conditioning:1

(3) consciousness ↔ (4) name-and-form.

Therefore, consciousness actually depends on two conditioning factors, formations and name-and-form. Through form, according to the same sutta, it is also subject to the impingement of new sense data.

Consciousness also appears as the last of the five aggregates (khaṅdha) – which are form, feeling, perception, formations and consciousness – that represent aspects of phenomenal experience, to which we will also make frequent reference in this essay. We will also see that consciousness tends to arise in the presence of craving. Consciousness is also mentioned as a dependent component of (6) contact.

This essay attempts a coherent overview of consciousness based on earliest texts, but also from the perspective of a (retired) cognitive scientist. I will begin with an illustrative example, then point out the various properties attributed to consciousness in the EBT, and finally outline how consciousness gets us into trouble and what we do about it.

Read More …

The Buddha as Biologist

June 26, 2018

Dhammānupassanā Series

babySwimmingThe Buddha taught suffering and the ending of suffering. His teachings were stringently parsimonious and practical. It made sense that he would teach us about craving the origin of suffering, because understanding those factors and internalizing their under­standing through practice makes a difference in how we deal with these factors in everyday experience: we see the dangers in crav­ing, we become dispassionate about craving, experience revulsion with regard to craving, abandon craving, and suffering ends. These are factors of phenomenal experience that we can learn to respond to directly as they arise, in more skillful ways. Such phe­nomena are the stuff of dhammānupassanā, examining phenom­ena as they arise in our experiential world through the lens of the Dhamma.

So, why would the Buddha teach biology? It appears that he had important things to say about the nature of conception in the womb, and about the composition of the psychophysical organ­ism, and that he gave these things prominent roles at key junc­tures in his teachings. Or did he? Biology lies within the pro­cesses of the natural world that are largely beyond immediate ex­perience but that generally continue to play out, at least within this life, regardless of our practice or how we might respond to them. Such things, if they are valuable at all, belong to theory and not praxis.

I don’t think the Buddha was a biologist, and hope to show this in this brief essay.

MORE … (BuddhaBiologist.pdf)



May 31, 2018

Seeing through the eyes of the Buddha

Samādhi (concentration) is the dominant factor of the higher training toward awakening in the early Buddhist texts (EBT), and yet it is lamentably misunderstood. It folds all of the energies of the previous seven path factors into a unified whole:

There are right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right mindfulness. The unification of mind equipped with these seven factors is called noble right concentration with its supports and accessories. (SN 45.28)

It then provides the incubator for that liberating knowledge that may burst forth into awakening.

Bhikkhus, develop concentration. A monk with concentrat­ion under­stands in accordance with reality. (SN 22.5)

Yet many have doubts that samādhi can possibly fulfill these functions. The problem seems to be that the tight integration of (1) Dhamma, of the contemplative disciplines of (2) mindfulness and (3) samādhi, and of (4) liberating knowledge, as put forward in the EBT, seems to have come apart, for many maintain that the Dhamma cannot reach the stillness of samādhi and that samādhi does not have the cognitive strength to produce liberating knowledge with any kind of meaningful content.

Dhammānupassanā (watching or observing of phenomena) is at the center of this issue. It is the practice of examining phenomenal experience in accordance with the categories of Dhamma – in this sense, seeing through the eyes of the Buddha – articulated most prominently as the fourth establishment of mindfulness (satipaṭṭhāna). But, as we will see, it functions almost entirely in samādhi, and leads to an array of liberating insights. It is here where the full integration of Dhamma, mindfulness, samādhi and liberating knowledge is realized.

MORE (pdf)