Further to our discussions of modernism and so on, here‘s a classic example of post-modern academic thought on Buddhism, Robert H. Sharf’s “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience.” While I think his major thesis is overblown, there’s no doubt he makes many interesting and pertinent observations about how modern Theravada meditation has developed.

For the next week, we’re holding a Vinaya seminar here at Santi for the Australian Sangha Association. i won’t have a lot of free time, so don’t worry if it’s a bit quiet for a while. Meanwhile, what do you think of Sharf’s ideas?


40 thoughts on ““Experience”

  1. Very interesting article, with much to reflect on,and much to commend Sharf’s approach IMHO —

    A big question mark for me though — I wonder though, if some of the analysis might serve to alienate people from actually taking any interest in Buddhism at all, since Sharf’s analysis introduces so much massive scepticism as to what ‘real’ practice and method actually is. With all these ( very valid ) questions raised, how can we know then, when we are actually practising ‘real’ Buddhism, and not some culturally ‘skewed’ take on it ? After all, maybe the more thoughtful and naturally sceptical might think — why should I even begin to study these supposedly Buddhist meditation methods, if what I am being asked to practice, think, do and study isn’t really Buddhism at all — but rather the take on Buddhist methods of a Victorian aesthete from 1920’s London, an alienated monk from a small rural village,or a scientifically educated reformist, all of whom came to the Suttas with their own prejudices and cultural baggage?

    Sharf’s approaches raise many pertinent, but also worrying and alienating questions that may be challenging and stimulating, but also detrimental to those interested in taking meditation seriously and wanting to devote themselves to the Dhamma . I am not sure what I think overall. (But I suppose once the cat is out of the bag….)

    I have really enjoyed reading these board articles and debates, but I also have to say that much of what I read has honestly made me question if I am a Buddhist anymore, and if I am , on what grounds? I always considered that I could judge that by the Suttas — but even the Suttas, we are told by Oxford University’s Professor Gombrich, need to be re translated because the ones we have are so poorly rendered in English. I also thought I could judge my ‘Buddhist-ness’ by the meditation methods I had learnt for the past two decades — but even much of that has been questioned ( with some great validity ) by the ideas I have recently read on these threads.

    Anyone else also involved in similar reflection?

    • Hi Greg,

      Very valid thoughts, and a big reason why such studies tend to be ignored in Buddhist circles… It’s important to remember that this is only one very particular means of analysis. Sharf ignores, for example, the demonstrable fact that meditation actually works. While he’s going on attacking the theoretical claims of modern meditation techniques, the psychologists are equally busy, in fact much busier, proving that meditation is very effective, even for some things that it was never meant for, like treating certain kinds of mental disorder. And of course the psychologists are simply putting in an academically acceptable form what we already know.

      I felt challenged by Sharf’s work, but ultimately it pursued similar lines to my own: that our ideas about Buddhism are fairly recent constructs, influenced by by not identical with what the Buddha taught. The thing about post-modernism is that it’s very largely a means of clearing out certain misconceptions and delusory ways of thinking. When that very limited task is done, there’s still life to lead. The more basic existential questions remain; and the Dhamma is still the best way to deal with those things (IMHO…)

      even the Suttas, we are told by Oxford University’s Professor Gombrich, need to be re translated because the ones we have are so poorly rendered in English.

      This would apply to much of the older generation of translations, not to the later work by Bodhi, Nyanamoli, Norman, Horner… Actually, we have a reasonably good range of pali texts in English now; the real challenge is to translate the Chinese and other early material.

    • Dear Bhante Sujato and Greg

      Sharf makes a valid point that the exegetical commentaries do not give first hand accounts of meditation experiences, instead rendering them in the third person. Of course he goes on further in his scepticism of the validity of such experiences to the point of doubting the soteriology of Buddhism.

      There is a recent book by Daniel Ingram “Mastering The Core Teachings of The Buddha” published 2008 in which he relates his own detailed personal experiences following Mahasi Sayadaw’s vipassana methods until Nibbana. Yes he claims arahantship but before you dismiss him outright please read his account. I find his story credible and as pointed out by Sharf he encountered a disconnected emotional and perceptual stage which he called Entrance to The Dark Night. This seems to happen more with the vipassana method than the jhana method.

      Professor Richard Gombrich in his recent publication of 2009 entitled “What The Buddha Thought” has a central argument that the Buddha taught in a rather hostile environment of brahmins and had to use brahminical terms but he adapted and modified them. Some of the Buddha’s main concepts relate to concepts in the Upanisads and Gombrich believes that interpreters both ancient and modern have taken little account of the historical context of the Buddha’s teachings. Relating them to early brahminical texts and also to ancient Jainism gives a much richer picture of their meanings.

  2. Also, on a second point, some of Sharf’s work lacks wider context, which can certainly prove misleading — I refer here, to Sharf’s mention of Sangharakshita’s attack on some Theravadin practices, which, Sangharakshita says, can lead to mental imbalance and even schizophrenia. I remember the heated argument and controversy surrounding these issues at the time ( late 80’s perhaps? ), and if readers don’t know the context, it could give the wrong impression.Basically, the facts are that all through the late 80’s and all through the 90’s, ( and maybe before then and up till now , I have lost touch with it ) there was an existential struggle, if not all out war between the FWBO and the Theravadins in the UK, with both sides doing all they could to undermine and discredit the other sides’ claim to validity and to being genuine. It is no exaggeration at all to say that both sides would probably have been perfectly happy with the others organisational/structural total and utter destruction. The end game was very much to see one or the other organization wiped off the ‘Buddhist map’ in UK, ( and elsewhere ) and put out of business.

    All of Sangharakshita’s criticisms of Theravada have to be read with that very much in mind. Sharf doesn’t tell us that. I wonder what other contextual background is lacking in his work?

  3. It’s a real bad idea to throw Mahayana stuff into any general analysis of ‘Buddhism’, and here is why: the farther one gets from what the Buddha taught, the greater the chance one is going to find some contradiction or problematic statement or other, and who disputes the scholarly consensus that the *earliest* Mahayana texts date (at best!) to the 1st century B.C.E.? The Pali Canon dates to this time conservatively, and if we give these texts the same leeway as given to the Mahayana, large portions of the Majjhima, Samyutta, and Anguttara NIkayas date to 350 B.C.E., roughly fifty years after the Parinibbana. No Mahayana text can claim this level of proximity and authority.

    This sort of research puts the non-Dhamma stamp on certain historical/traditional/cultural Vinaya hermeneutics and institutions, but the Dhamma (as recorded in the earliest texts) is largely intact.

    • Dear david,

      I would agree that one of the problems of post-modern Buddhist study has been to blur the genuinely useful findings of the modernist scholars. As you rightly imply, it’s one thing to argue that not everything in the Pali canon is 100% Buddhavacana, and quite another to treat the Agama and mayahana texts as if they were on an equal footing as regards their relationship with what the Buddha actually taught. An unfortunate consequence of post-modern criticism has been the decline of serious textual study, and a consequent impoverishment of knowledge. I wrote about this some time ago in an essay called ‘A Higher Criticism of Archeology’.

    • Post-modernism, and critiques thereof, don’t seem to me to be much of a problem. What happens, however, is that this higher criticism (spanning, as it does, so many different milieu) becomes misconstrued as a form of cognitive relativism, and it is THIS idea which I blame for a drop in textual studies; cognitive relativism is, in essence, a carte blanche for “academically” validating any prevailing view one wishes to hold, while at the same time providing a handy way to ignore any views to the contrary. (The stress on the emptiness of language in Zen is partly to blame for the promulgation of this erroneous view.)

    • I’m not sure that they’re different things. I would think of ‘cogntive relativism’ as a characteristic of some kinds of post-modern thought – but please correct me on this. But in terms of Buddhist studies specifically, could you give any examples of cognitive relativism?

    • Dear Bhante,
      Please forgive me if this sounds irreverent; my intention is the opposite. But, wasn’t the Lord Buddha a cognitive realist?

      Isn’t that what the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path implies? How to be cognitively pure: Right view, Right intention, Right Speech, Right Action …etc?
      Metta 🙂

    • Descriptively, cognitive relativism is postmodern critique without scholastic collaboration. (Philosophically, in claiming that objectivity is utterly impossible, the relativist is led to an equally bankrupt extreme, that subjectivity is ‘all that matters’ – but as anyone can see, it fails to live up to its own criteria.)

      Have a look at “Three Dimensions of Buddhist Studies” by B. Alan Wallace (the first link below). Of note: “Since modern Buddhology strives to emulate the intellectual rigor and objectivity of the natural sciences, it is pertinent that part of the great strength of the natural
      sciences is that researchers from different fields frequently collaborate both in terms of their empirical methodologies and their theoretical analyses in their respective fields.”

      Relativism, in contrast, takes this critical approach and says it is no different than any other ‘belief system’; see _The Poverty of Relativism_ by Raymond Boudon, of which chapter two is linked below. The point to note here is a paraphrase of a quote by Alexis de Tocqueville in that “[O]nce everyone’s opinions are adjudged to be as equally respectable as they are diverse, it will have to be accepted there can be neither truth nor objectivity.”



      (One of the side effects of this, by the way, is being able to rhetorically refer to oneself as ‘humble’ while at the same time completely dismissing any critique as ‘mere opinion’.)

    • Oops! I’ve just realised there is a world of difference between cognitive RELATIVISM and cognitive REALISM 🙂
      Ignore my comment Sirs!

  4. Interesting reading and in the spirit of intellectual debate i wanted to add some of my ramblings about this whole subject; feel free to shoot them down, refute, modify, or adapt in any way. ….

    Just recently, i read a paper by Lutz et al. (2004) from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (101: 16369-16373). The findings were that long-term Tibetan Buddhist meditators were found to self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony in the brain (while meditating) using EEG. In layman’s terms; they were emitting high frequency brain-waves, heavily localised in the part of the brain that is thought to mediate emotions, intention, and possibly where thought originates from (not proven as yet). i found this fascinating that high-frequency brainwaves can be generated within the brain through meditative practise. It seems highly likely, if this avenue of scientific exploration is continued that there will be, in time, a convergence of Neuroscience and Religious contemplative practise. Possibly through mathematics or theoretical physics it could even be proven that enlightenment is an actual phenomenon. Now that really is modernism!

    But then i realised, these are renunciant monks living within the protective sanctuary of a monastery who are simultaneously practising purification of the minds, virtue, and developing the heart quality of universal compassion. The brain is a sensitive and complex organ, what would happen if someone was inducing high-frequency brain waves through meditation (sustained attention), but not living with virtue as a renunciant? We are only too aware of the delicate biochemistry of the brain and the disabling effects of mental illness such as bi-polar, depression, and schizophrenia when the brain biochemistry becomes out of balance. Ven. Achaan Chah refers to possible negative outcomes in “A still Forest Pool”: “In fact, a person without strong mindfulness might well have gone mad, because nothing in the world was as before” (p. 186).

    The brain (the hardwiring to the mind) is an organ, like the heart, if pushed to its extreme it could be harmful, without first developing strong mindfulness. If meditation is not done safely and with guidance, it is possible that such rapid increases in brain-wave frequency (from a neuropsychological perspective) could induce a “manic” state (feelings of grandiosity, super-humanness, narcissism, and a lack of empathy for others) possibly coupled with auditory and visual hallucinations (schizophrenogenic effects). This is all conjecture at this point because it has not been empirically proven. Don’t want to scare anyone off meditating!

    It seems the quest for enlightenment is like training for a marathon; we have to pace ourselves. If we push ourselves too hard we can sustain an injury, if we slack off and allow ourselves to be distracted by the myriad of temptations in the world, we lose the effects of all our hard work and practise. And so it seems inevitable that if one is really serious about their meditative and spiritual practise at some point one needs to prepare oneself by “letting-go” of attachments, being virtuous (not too popular in the West), and ultimately reaching a state of readiness to enter the monastery to be guided by the “Elders”, to take refuge in the texts, the scriptures, the words of the Lord Buddha who inspired us; who prescribed loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, alongside meditation. Without this, we may remain “stuck” and never really progress ….we need a guide, a teacher who has gone before us, who can light the way and provide us with a map to navigate our way through this delicate territory of the mind. It makes me think of walking a tight-rope, we have to be ever mindful and fearless, not veer too far right, or too far left or we lose our balance and fall off. We need a helping hand.

    And so this has led me to the belief that this is why we need Religion, or in better terms; a spiritual institution of Elders to guide, teach and inspire us, and ultimately provide us with a place of refuge …….when we are ready. 🙂

    • I would agree completely with your observations about the limited use of brainscans and the like. They’re an interesting tool, part of the cultural transmission of the Dhamma, but we shouldn’t reduce Buddhist practice to a set of methods for inducing certain brain wave patterns.

  5. In my above post I constucted one sentence wrongly and that alters the meaning. This sentence is “I find his story credible and as pointed out by Sharf he encountered a disconnected emotional and perceptual stage which he called Entrance to The Dark Night.”

    It should read as: “I find his story credible. He also encountered a disconnected emotional and perceptual stage which he called Entrance to The Dark Night. Sharf in his paper had mentioned such emotions and perceptions bordering on the psysopathic in extreme situations but he did not call it a stage nor did he give it a name.”

    • I can (with some essential caveats) get behind him on the idea of religious pluralism as pertains to Morality, but Right View does not occur anywhere else in humanity’s history, and is an essential cause and condition of Nibbana. This, combined with the phrase ‘fundamental nature’ peppered throughout his work, constitutes a red flag for me.

  6. Such a machine as might one day be perfected according to ‘enlightenment’ specifications has already existed – ancient India churned out powerful meditators for centuries, but it took young Sid to take that ability and turn it to the cessation of dukkha.

    Religion? No. Elders? No. Right View? Yes.

  7. On the apropos of the article I’d like to share/ask something.

    As I see, there are certain frames/scripts in the Buddhist tradition for the interpretation of experiences during (and after) meditation. On one hand these descriptions of “states” (e.g. seeing a light with the mind’s eye) help the meditators to interpret their own experiences (which is to find out that they are not going nuts :)), on the other hand the descriptions themselves create an obstacle of successful meditation, for they trigger the endless doubt of “Am I there?”, “Is that it?” etc.

    I’ve heard meditators (including myself) complain much more over the lack of information (not knowing the texts and not having heard about nimittas and other “markers” from their teachers) than over making meditation a competition with/against themselves 🙂 through misusing the frames/scripts.

    What is your experience with this? Is it really a lacking knowledge or are we too much used to the pattern of setting goals and checking ourselves against them?

    • I don’t think there’s a paucity of information on how to meditate, rather it’s a far simpler set of instructions than people seem to expect (or perhaps want?) from the Path.

    • After years of trying to make it more complicated, I have to agree and admit that I failed (to make it more complicated).

    • Hi Roni,

      I think you’ve spelled out the essence of the dynamic very well, and it’s a balance I try to maintain in my teaching. I think it would vary depending on the location, and on who the local teacher was. Despite the vast proliferation of texts on meditation, most people still learn primarily from a teacher. Samatha practices have become more popular over the last few years, but there’s still not a lot of experienced teachers around, and there’s still quite a bit of disagreement as to the details of the samatha process. In vipssana circles there’s more experienced teachers in the west, and a more standardized meditation “system” – for better or for worse.

  8. Ajahn, sorry for moving a little off topic here, but I just played one of your Dhamma talks on the subject of depression — very good. Thanks.

    Can you give us some more links to other Dhamma talks you have given ?

    For those boarders who want to listen, here is the link —

    [audio src="http://dhamma.damith.org/downloads/the_sound_of_dhamma3/25-20-07%20It's%20OK%20To%20Be%20Sad.mp3" /]

  9. Dear Bhante and all,
    I’ve finally had time to read the Sharf essay and wanted to make a few comments. Part of his argument seems roughly to be that the meditative practices found in various texts are prescriptive, but that the authors who “prescribe” the path and the fruit are absent: i.e., there are no subjective agents of the promised attainments. For Sharf, this calls into question the veracity of the teachings.

    I wonder how Wittgenstein would counter Sharf? Wittgenstein’s argument regarding pain, which can also apply to medical diagnosis, bascially points out that although someone says they’re in pain, and may even be writhing and moaning, we have no way to know if they are really suffering, especially if we’ve never felt what they describe. And analogously, doctors use books that give details of conditions, symptoms, temperature, prognoses, including color charts and so on, to diagnose an illness that they themselves do not nor never have had. I think Wittgenstein would call Sharf’s argument a “circulus in demonstrando”–a circular argument.

    There is an academic book you may find interesting, “Reclaiming the Tacit Dimension: Symbolic Form in the Rhetoric of Silence” by George Kalamaras. Kalamaras takes a different but interesting tact to discuss meditation and rhetoric.

    • It’s all good Bhante — I don’t mind whatever formatting you choose really ; it’s just good to have an open minded discussion space we can all get involved in.

      PS I know it isn’t the place to discuss it, being as the board is a Dhamma space and all, but I saw a profile of the band you were in, and I saw you supported The Saints — showing my age now, but that’s very much my time too, and I saw their bassist Algy Ward when he played with various UK punk outfits after exiting The Saints…plus I absolutely loved The Saints’ “Stranded” many many years ago…what a track…makes me think of Radio Birdman and the Boys Next Door now too…but, that’s all another time.


      Ah, but I digress, and going far away from the topic now…sorry !

    • I think this template nests the comments in a visually superior way; it is much easier to follow the conversations, especially in a threadweave as complex as this one turned out to be.

  10. Dear all,

    I’m not very well-versed in philosophy nor medicine. But Anne’s remark as cited below reminds me of what I think the basic teachings of the Buddha are:

    Anne: “If meditation is not done safely and with guidance, it is possible that such rapid increases in brain-wave frequency (from a neuropsychological perspective) could induce a “manic” state…”

    IMHO, that is why the Buddha’s basic teachings for lay people are “Dana, Sila and Samadhi” and monastics “Sila, Samadhi and Panna”. Wholesome or skillful acts, speech and thoughts are “prerequisites” to the walk on the path to enlightenment.

    • Dheerayupa and Anne, you raise some very important points I think — IMHO it’s difficult to speculate what effects Buddhist meditation might have on those who are clinically depressed or psychologically insecure : over the years, I have seen meditation really help those who are deeply troubled psychologically, giving them motivation and reason to live.

      And yet I have also seen other meditators simply delaying looking at their deep depressions, or just temporarily finding a ‘soothing balm’ in Buddhism, whilst perhaps they should have been seeking help from other medical specialists instead of looking for a solution from Monasteries.

      That situation can, IMHO, be both helped and hindered by well meaning monastics — I often hear Dhamma talks which are in many regards,just depression therapy, with the externals of Dhamma discourse.

      IMHO that can be a caring situation and a valid soulution, ‘curing’ the minds’ dilemmas with Dhamma –but equally so, it can be used as avoidance strategy IMHO.

      However, the problem is deepened by the inadequacies of the health system in so many countries, many of which just hand out anti depressants instead of taking time to find the root of the problem.

      Then there are the societies we all live in, intent on making us all compete and work against each other in celebration of pushy egos and power seekers and the exploiters — it’s no wonder then, that depressed people seek answers in the beautiful depth and wise silence of the Sangha.


    • Greg, I don’t think depression is necessarily a bad thing…when it is not completely disabling; it can often lead people to the path of mindfulness and a spiritual quest that results in very positive changes in their life.
      As Thomas Moore says in “The Care of the Soul”, a depressed mood can often be a state of disillusionment with the world and the apparent insanity of the human race, which can propel us to seek out a deeper truth removed from such superficiality. We are all suffering in some form or another, as so well articulated in the Four Noble Truths.

      Ven. Achaan Chah when visiting the Insight Meditation Centre in the US remarked when observing some students doing walking meditation outside on the lawn that the meditation centre looked like a mental hospital for the diseases of the worldly mind. He would call out to them, “Get well soon. I hope you get well soon” (A Still Forest Pond).
      I love that story! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Yes Dheerayupa,I agree with you completely. The Buddha’s wisdom is eternal. He “prescribed” the perfect antidote to the negative outcomes of our fallible minds by also working on developing qualities of love, compassion, joy and equanimity. Virtue and trying to live the Eight-fold Path now has a whole deeper meaning for me. Metta 🙂

  11. Hi Anne, yes, I do agree with your post, that depression can lead to deep wisdom and a longing to penetrate the mundanities of the ‘material worldly experience.’

    I’d much prefer to spend time with someone who had acknowledged their world weariness,than someone who just wanted to get drunk and ‘have a good time’ to get away from dis-satisfaction.

    I meet these people all the time, who are clearly unhappy, but then think it’s taboo to mention that unhappiness, or that getting high and sorting out another way to make more money is the only way to solve these questions.

    Many workplaces are full of alienated people I find.


    • Hi Greg,
      Yes, I know exactly what you mean. Here in Australian culture,it is a common pastime (especially in the young) to drink to a state of complete numbness….and this is considered socially normal! The paradox is that in order to find inner peace and deepen one’s contemplative practise, one almost has to become a social outcast.
      I take refuge in the Three Gems and that is what keeps me going on this path 🙂

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