Monday, December 12, 2016

Post-election efforts have become more political. For an abstract of my ongoing paper "Cracking the Buddhist Code," go the the second selection below. The one immediately next was written 12/10/16 as on op ed piece.

Illegitimate Donald?
Richard P. Boyle, December 10, 2016
It is in the spirit of our nation to keep an eye on the legitimacy of our government, because while legality is determined by the law, legitimacy is granted by the people. In that spirit we could state today: We hold this truth to be self-evident, that the people of the United States did not elect Donald Trump. To appreciate how true this is we need to look closely at the systematic distortions the Electoral College system now imposes on the popular vote.
As everyone knows, Clinton led the popular vote by 2.0 percent or 2.7 million votes but lost in the Electoral College 305 to 233. This raises red flags, of course, but what is really important is to understand the forces that produced the distortion. Begin by to dividing each candidate’s popular vote by the number of electors they won. This tells us that 281,266 popular votes for Clinton translated into one electoral vote, compared with 206,093 popular votes per electoral vote for Trump. The ratio is 4 to 3 - it took four popular votes for Clinton to produce the same Electoral College result as three votes for Trump. Or, one vote for Clinton was worth only .73 of a vote for Trump.
The inequality occurred, of course, because Clinton won her states by wider margins than Trump did, but “wasted” votes in the process. In California she received twice as many votes as Trump, leaving her with a blow-out victory but more than four million popular votes that were redundant in California and worthless anywhere else. So the question becomes, what produced the clumping together of Clinton votes into a smaller number of states? It was not a random event but, like global warming, was the end result of a chain of natural causes.
First, for most of our history people have been moving from rural areas into cities, so that today just over half of us live in the fifty-four metropolitan areas with populations of more than 1,000,000. Second, these areas are concentrated in the states Clinton won. Third, large cities are the vital engines of economic growth in this country, and they attract people with higher levels of education to work in and propel that progress. Fourth, people with more education increasingly vote for Democratic candidates. Putting these together, people with more education tend to live in large metropolitan areas, vote Democratic, and be discriminated against in presidential elections.
So, how would this look to the founders of our nation? We have always based the legitimacy of the Electoral College on the spirit and word of the constitution. It is clear that the Constitutional Convention intended the presidency to represent all “people” (free male property owners) equally, balanced by a senate representing each state equally. Whether “the people” should be represented directly or indirectly, however, was a contentious problem requiring considerable negotiation and compromise. Most of the founders preferred indirect representation, whereby people in local areas elected representatives they knew and trusted, who then met to decide who would be president. This arrangement appealed to the South because the population on which the number of electors was based could then include 3/5 of the slave population without allowing slaves to actually vote. The next question is, how have these two bases for legitimacy worked out in practice?
First, the founding fathers who thought the Electoral College system would result in wiser and more informed decision-makers would be appalled to learn, 226 years later, that it now serves to give better educated voters considerably less influence than those with lower levels of education. Second, as an expedient compromise the Electoral College system worked – by giving the South more electoral votes than the number of people eligible to vote justified, it brought together in one union states that allowed slavery and states that opposed it. The fight against slavery eventually succeeded and today all Americans can vote, but the structural distortion currently built into the Electoral College system continues to give the southern states and their bloc more voting power – one-third more – than the rest of the country. In both cases, far from deriving legitimacy from the constitution, the Electoral College today actually contradicts and works in opposition to what the founding fathers had in mind.
As a result, we now have a president whose legitimate right to rule is questionable. There are, of course, sources of legitimacy that do not depend on historical origins. In Max Weber’s classic analysis, legitimacy can be earned by action that furthers the interests and will of the people. According to a recent Quinnipiac Poll, more than two-thirds of voters:
Agree with the Roe v. Wade decision establishing a woman's right to abortion.
Express significant concern about global warming.
Oppose lowering taxes on the wealthy.
There are many, many more polls indicating where the will of the people lies, and where they would like a legitimate president to lead them. Few of us may expect this to happen, but the path is open. Obviously the best way to return legitimacy to the presidency would be to eliminate the Electoral College entirely and let the people vote directly (and in fact a majority of the public supports doing just this).
Meanwhile, I think we should use the question of legitimacy as a form of protest. Picture bumper stickers everywhere saying “Illegitimate Donald?” They could come with instructions: “Put a line through the question mark when you have made up your mind – only you can grant legitimacy.” And in general, we should continuously remind everyone that the legitimacy of the Trump presidency will have to be earned, whatever role the Russians played in it.

Cracking the Buddhist Code:
A Contemporary Theory of Awakening
(Slightly revised version of a paper submitted
to the Journal of Consciousness Studies)

The theory proposes that what Buddhists and others have called awakening is the same thing as “pure perceptual experience,” defined as the awareness our perceptual systems would present to us if they acted on their own, with no interference from conceptual systems. Two forms of interference are particularly apt to interfere with pure perceptual experience: uncontrolled inner speech (wandering thoughts, monkey mind) and distortion of perception to fit reified conceptual structures. Monkey mind has been shown to be caused by hyper-activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN) of the brain, which happens whenever nothing else demands our attention. Reification occurs, especially, in three kinds of symbolic structures, all of which we acquire as part of the culture we are born into:
1.     Scripts, which describe situations and events and prescribe appropriate behavior.
2.     Conceptual systems – theories, belief systems, social reality, world views, theologies and ideologies, etc.
3.     The underlying construct of four dimensional spacetime, in which we think we live.
The fact that predispositions toward uncontrolled DMN activity and reification of conceptual structures are essentially universal among humans means (at least within the realm of science) that they must have evolutionary roots. However, some people have and do overcome these two biological predispositions by engaging in such special practices as meditation and forms of inquiry. The theory seeks to specify how all this works in more detail and a way that allows the predictions to be studied.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Reviews by me for two new books:

Culadasa (John Yates) and Matthew Immergut, The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Mediation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science, Dharma Treasure Press, 2015:

“This book does an outstanding job of both constructing a cognitive theory of how the mind works and presenting a detailed handbook for learning and mastering meditation. The result is a beautiful integration of theory and practice, whose parallel strands lead to experientially, and account for conceptually, the radical shift in consciousness we call awakening.”

Ken McLeod, A Trackless Path: A translation and commentary of the great completion (dzogchen) teaching of Jigme Linpa's The Vision Experience of Ever=Present Good, from Longchenpa's Heart Drop Circle (in press):
"Here we have the perfect combination – a poem by the 18th century Tibetan mystic Jigme Lingpa’s which reveals both the potential for awakening and the expression of full awakening , translated brilliantly but authentically by McLeod for contemporary Westerners. The Vision Experience of the Ever-present Good cuts through to the essence of awakening in barely ten pages of poetry, leaving a beautiful, almost scientific theory shimmering within. McLeod’s commentary then draws out the subtle implications of each verse with consummate clarity, giving us piercing glimpses of what awakening is like and making unavoidable Jigme Lingpa’s lessons for how we should practice and how we should live our lives, in order to learn about awakening for ourselves directly." 

Still working on the theoretical model of ordinary and awakened awareness (or mind, or consciousness). It is coming along great, but keeps developing more implications that need to be dealt with. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Advance copies of Realizing Awakened Consciousness are now available at 30% discount directly from Columbia University Press:
In the Promo Code space, enter BOYREA

An abridged version of chapter 9 (the interview with Pat Enkyo O'Hara) is posted on the Tricycle Magazine blog:

Features of the awakening experience

NOTE: For research which supports and complements this paper, see Jeffery A. Martin,
"A Continuum of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences in Adults,"

What Buddhist Teachers Say About Their Awakening Experiences
Richard P. Boyle
This article is adapted from Realizing Awakened Consciousness: Interviews with Buddhist Teachers and a New Perspective on the Mind, Columbia University Press, June 9, 2015. (
The project began when eleven Buddhist teachers agreed to tell me their path stories – how they got started, what their training and practice involved, and what they had learned (especially through insight experiences). The interviews, with Shinzen Young, John Tarrant, Ken McLeod, Ajahn Amaro, Martine Batchelor, Shaila Catherine, Gil Fronsdal, Stephen Batchelor, Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Bernie Glassman and Joseph Goldstein, were rich in many ways. Here I concentrate on their descriptions of “awakening” experiences.
Awakening, of course, is a loaded term, controversial and with emotional implications, so I should first clear the ground a bit with some definitions.
·       The focus was on how awareness is modified during an insight experience, where the contents of awareness could include sensory perception, feelings, or inner speech.
·       I call awakening a reality experience because while the contents of awareness do not change there is a shift in perspective and a pervasive feeling of being more in touch with the real world. This differs from mystical experience, in which something extra is added to the contents of awareness, and spiritual experience, in which feelings of loving and being loved predominate.
·       An awakening experience is usually temporary, but leaves a strong urge to work hard on one’s practice and oneself in order to make what was learned a more pervasive part of one’s life.
Note that by concentrating on awakened awareness, the term enlightenment is left open – it could be reserved for more complete, permanent, and ultimate states, or refer to the rational enlightenment of Immanuel Kant and the Age of Reason.
Awakening seldom happens without preparation. The preparation reported in the interviews concentrated, first, on quieting the mind until silence prevailed and inner speech occurred only rarely, and second, on letting go of attachments to desires, habits, and ideas. Significant progress in developing these two qualities seems to be, if not a necessary condition, at least very helpful for awakening. Something Jack Kornfield once said about silence illustrates this well:
"It is like going from the windswept, weather-filled atmosphere, getting to the surface of the ocean and then dropping down below the level of the water, like a scuba diver, into a completely silent and different dimension. While there are some reflections that might go by, it is a completely different state of consciousness.” (Shankman, The Experience of Samadhi: An In-depth Exploration of Buddhist Meditation, p.116)
Similarly, letting go of conditionings can lead to peace and equanimity even as the world one has been living in seems less and less real.
The reality experiences to be considered next begin as this preparation deepens. They were often reported to occur in parallel, symbiotically, as in Joseph Goldstein’s quote from the 12th-century Korean Zen master Chinul, “sudden insight, gradual cultivation.” For example, meditators often report an experience in which the perceptual content of their conscious awareness becomes distinctly more vivid, and is reinforced in their efforts to explore this by further embracing silence.
My analytic method consisted of sorting the experiences described in the interviews into categories on the basis of similarity. These were qualitative judgments and necessarily subjective. I have tried to make my decisions explicit so that others could examine them and reach their own conclusions. I also sent my conclusions back to the teachers, asking them to correct or comment on my shortcomings.
No Reification.
The first group of quotes express the fundamental Buddhist concept of non-attachment, but I am going to define this is a somewhat different way. Humans construct ideas using language, which we invented (animals get along fine without it). Verbally communicated ideas become part of group culture, adding enormously to the evolutionary success humans have enjoyed. A funny thing happened during this evolutionary process, however – we began to accept ideas not only as useful constructions but as principles not to be questioned, not as just one alternative among many possible ways of representing the world but the way things really are and should be. This is especially true for ideas about the self and the social reality in which the self lives. To believe that an idea is real for reasons that go beyond the context in which we invented it is to reify it. Suddenly we have emotional attachments reinforcing the culture of the group and the social reality of its members. So this first group of descriptions of awakened awareness will be called No Reification.
Martine Batchelor describes a preliminary version of de-reification, which occurred during her years in a Korean Zen monastery:
“My domestic responsibility was to clean the communal bathroom. I would do this chore at four o’clock every afternoon. At the same time, though, another nun would appear and proceed to wash herself before performing an afternoon ceremony at which she had to officiate. This went on for several weeks and I began to feel extremely resentful. Then one day I went down at four o’clock, and it suddenly didn’t matter any more that she was there washing herself. It was my time to clean and her time to wash.  How wonderful it felt to be free of resentment! Although a small incident, it was somehow very meaningful to me. Without my intentionally forcing any changes, it dissolved the grasping and attachments that gave rise to the irritation.” (Women in Korean Zen, p. 41)
Social reality provides us with scripts that tell us how important our efforts are and when we should feel irritated. When we become less attached to those ideas life becomes easier. 
Letting go of social reality can take more subtle forms. Here Gil Fronsdal describes an experience that occurred fairly early in his path, during a sesshin:
“We would remain in our meditation posture while servers brought us tea and a cookie. I received the tea and held the cup in my hands. As I lifted the cup to my lips and the tea water went into my mouth, the world stopped! This stopping was a remarkable experience for me that I have never been able to adequately convey in words. Part of the experience was my mind having the unusual thought, ‘As the tea touches my tongue, I stop the sip.’ I was quite surprised that in the words and in the experience there was no self. Without any of my usual self-referencing it was as if everything stood still.”
What was involved in Fronsdal’s sensation that the world stopped? Start with the idea that ordinary awareness is structured by social reality, which flows along over time like the script of a movie. When social reality is de-reified and the mind is silent, the script of the moment loses its hold and our perceptual experience of the moment takes over. A moment has no time dimension, and our usual awareness seems to stop, to stand still. Without the scripts and drama of social reality the perceptual world just is, quietly.
John Tarrant also mentioned a moment during a sesshin when time stood still: “That’s when everything stopped . . .  I started just laughing. Then everything seemed filled with light, and all the people seemed wonderful.” And later: “Then I thought, ‘Oh, that’s in a way how I’ve always experienced reality, as sort of a flash that shifts’.”
Although none of the interviews mention this word, this experience of a “stopping” of awareness seems similar to what is called in the Buddhist literature “cessation” or Nirodha.
A somewhat different kind of experience of No Reification, described by Shaila Catherine, lasted over a much longer period of time:  
“Everything appeared as just concepts representing dynamic processes or changing things. I knew what my social responsibilities, commitments and duties included, and I performed family and work tasks effectively. I could function well, because the concepts were clear. But each moment of seeing, hearing, feeling, and tasting was known right in the moment of contact, as ephemeral and completely devoid of any reference to me. It was a surprisingly different way of being in the world. I felt light, buoyant and unperturbed by any event.”
The scripts and role responsibilities of everyday life were still understood clearly, but as impersonal concepts without emotional attachment to the self.
A few days after interviewing Catherine and three other teachers in the San Francisco area, I had an awakening experience myself which resembles hers in suddenly feeling freed of all attachments to social reality (thousands of attachments, like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians). About ten seconds into that experience a voice in my (sociologist’s) head said, “So that’s what they mean by nothingness – no social reality.” Which was not quite true, of course - I still knew all about social reality, it simply was no longer reified.
Summary. I use No reification and No emotional attachments to social reality or the self as equivalent, but prefer No reification as the label. Letting go of emotional attachments implies that the attachments can be “de-grasped” of one at a time until none are left. Letting go is certainly a critical part of the work one does to prepare for awakening, but the hypothesis advanced here is that when awakening happens all remaining emotional attachments are removed, in one sweep. No reification says that the world of social reality no longer feels real – its emotional basis for ontological support has vanished, and what remains is just living in the world as it is. We feel a sense of freedom and lightness, peace and equanimity.
No Separation.
I begin with this example from Shinzen Young’s interview:
“I put down the cushion and sat down, and the instant I sat down, the koan was there: ‘Who am I?’ Then suddenly there was no boundary to me at all. I was so shocked I actually got up. And there was still no boundary to me. I was walking around, looking at things, and there was no border between me and anything else... there was a kind of intimacy between inside and outside . . . There was just no boundary separating me and what was around me.”
A similar experience was reported by Enkyo O’Hara:
“This [experience] was a kind of opening of compassion. What it was, was the dropping of the distance between me and the other, which one could say is the experience of awakening, when you realize there is no wall between you and the other. The opening of compassion just dissolved that sense of separation…” 
My interpretation is that ordinary awareness is organized from the perspective of the self as protagonist, which is assumed to operate in the world as an autonomous actor. It is thus set apart from people and objects in its environment, and appears to itself to be separated. When we awaken to the fact that this construction is artificial (that is, when the self is dereified), we see that we are actually just a part of what is going on and not separate from it. When we stop seeing things from the perspective of a self separated from other people, we instantly feel closer to them. Realizing the illusory nature of the separated self, we no longer need to protect it, which opens up a greater sense of empathy and compassion for others.
When I asked John Tarrant, “What is life like for you now compared with before you left Australia?” his answer also had to do with being free of walls:
“Well, I had so much going on in my mind then. The simplest way to put it is, I was caught. I would have moments of freedom, and huge amounts of non-freedom. I mean one easy way to describe ‘being present’ is in terms of the interior decoration model. It’s like you’re in prison when you’re trying to just paint the walls rather than kick them down. Even if you’re trying to kick down the walls you’re still in prison. You can’t find any walls when you’re free.”
Tarrant expresses the same idea without specifically referring to the self: Social reality brings with it barriers that not only separate us from what is going on around us but prevent us from living life freely, as it can be lived when the walls disappear.
Ajahn Amaro also talked about eliminating walls or boundaries. He relates this experience to a specific aspect of self, the self that cares about performing well in the world of social reality. His story begins when, after many years of practice, he began to feel dull and constrained, as if trapped in a little gray box. Then he tried meditating on a classic question Buddhism uses for investigating the self: “Who Am I?”
“What happened was that the walls of the little gray box just fell open. It was like suddenly being in a field of flowers, and warm sunlight: ‘Oh, this is different. It’s a whole different atmosphere.’ I’d had that experience early on, about how the inflated sense of self and ambition and competition can take over, but I’d never realized how insidious, pervasive an effect this more subtle kind of self, this ‘me, the doer’ can have… the influence of that presence had been invisible, like gravity – you didn’t even notice it was there.” 
These four teachers all mention a disappearance of barriers, boundaries or walls that had previously closed them in and created a sense of separation. They all point to the same cause - ideas of self and its relation to others that are heavily reified. Here we have another way in which awakening does not add anything to awareness but simply removes the feeling of separation which attachments to the cultural construction of self has imposed.
I will also note the awakening experience described by James Austin, a neurologist, author, and long-time Zen student. He had this particular experience while standing on the surface platform of a London subway station:
“The scene was transformed... There was no viewer. Every familiar psychic sense that “I” was viewing this scene had vanished. A fresh, new awareness perceived the whole scene impersonally with the cool, clinical detachment of an anonymous mirror, not pausing to register the paradox that no I-Me-Mine was doing the viewing.”
The sudden shift in perspective, whereby he is no longer the central actor but simply one part of what is going on around him, is familiar. Austin calls this an allocentric (other-centered) perspective, in contrast with the egocentric perspective of ordinary consciousness. In addition, though, the phrase “cool, clinical detachment” suggests dereification of social reality.
Summary. Awakened consciousness arises from perceiving the environment as a whole system, with the self as simply one part of it. The experience is distinctly different from the perspective of a self that stands apart from the rest of the system. In awakened awareness we experience ourselves as one part of what is going on around us, not as the director or principal actor in that system, and not separate from it. As a consequence, we feel more intimately involved in our environment, freer, more connected with what is going on and more sensitive to the existence and feelings of those around us.
Not knowing.
Ken McLeod reported having this conversation with an old friend, during which the friend asked him:
“‘Ken, what’s life like for you these days?’ I replied, ‘Well, imagine that you’re walking over the Grand Canyon.’ He said, ‘Walking into the Grand Canyon?’ ‘No, over the Grand Canyon.’ Now, it’s not the Wile E. Coyote thing, where if you look down you start to fall. You just [walk] – and you’re not sure what’s up, what’s down, what’s forward, what’s back. That’s what life is for me today.”
McLeod talks about proceeding through life without any conscious expectation or concern for what is going to happen next. Consider the similarity of this with what Bernie Glassman says about not knowing:
“Koan study is set up to try to get you to experience . . . the state of not knowing, the state of complete openness, of being completely open to everything. ‘Not knowing’ is an essential part of Zen training – getting you to experience what we call the sauce from which everything comes. It’s a state where there are no attachments to any of your conditionings.”
“No attachments to any of your conditionings” means, in the language used here, no reification of the self and social reality, so Not knowing includes No reification. But something more is added, a dynamic quality that includes allowing “the sauce from which everything comes” to take over. The combination produces a new kind of experience.
Stephen Batchelor describes his version vividly:
“All of a sudden I found myself plunged into the intense, unraveling cascade of life itself. That opaque and sluggish sense of myself, which invariably greeted me each time I closed my eyes to meditate, had given way to something extraordinarily rich and fluid. It was as though someone had released a brake that had been preventing a motor from turning and suddenly the whole vehicle sprang into throbbing life. Yet it was utterly silent and still. I was collapsing and disintegrating, yet simultaneously emerging and reconstituting. There was an unmistakable sense of proceeding along a trajectory, but without any actual movement at all.” (Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, pp. 29-30)
Stephen goes on to talk about how fluid and dynamic this way of living feels, and like Glassman he points out how reification of the self stands in the way of letting one slip into not knowing. Robert Forman calls this “non-resistance” and compares it with learning a secret: “There’s a buoyancy to life in knowing the secret, a secret you did not know you did not know, a lightness beneath your breath… You come to carry an unbidden translucence.” (Enlightenment Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be, p. 196) 
Summary: Not knowing requires letting go of, de-reifying, the self of social reality, which says that we act on the basis of conscious awareness. The notion that we are rational decision-makers is replaced by fully accepting that our actions emerge at each moment directly from unconscious processing. What we are aware of and what we find ourselves doing in each moment emerge together as our brains and bodies interact with our environment. Without self-consciousness life feels fluid and dynamic, delicious and relaxed.
I want to emphasize that these three properties of awakened awareness are tentative. They were induced by one person (me) from interviews with eleven Buddhist teachers and one scientist, a few accounts published elsewhere, and my own experience. One pressing need, therefore, is to expand the sample size and get comments and analysis from other people. Readers who have had experiences which fit or do not fit into these categories are invited to email me about them at A design for further research is posted on
Finally, while scientists do this kind of thing because we love doing it, others may ask what the point is. My answer is that there are the beginnings of a scientific theory of awakening here, which may or may not help people who are on a path toward awakening. What I would argue is that integrating research on awakening with the scientific study of consciousness generally will attract the attention of non-Buddhists who believe in science. Just as research has done with meditation, research on awakening may help dissolve the walls which presently separate it from other topics in mainstream culture. After all, the Buddha always maintained that awakening is part of the natural world, available to everyone.