Spirituality

Book Review - Buddhist Meditation

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I’ve read a lot of meditation books on my quest in an effort to deepen my own practice, but Buddhist Meditation by Edward Conze is without a doubt the most scholarly text on the subject that I have come across thus far. Originally published in 1972, this book wastes no time at all before diving deep into the material. In the introduction, Conze briefly discusses the meaning and purpose of Buddhist meditation, its range and principal divisions, the literary sources from which the practice stems, and a comparison of this Eastern science of mind with modern-day Western psychotherapy.

From there, the book is broken up into four major sections. The first goes over devotional exercises that Buddhist meditators can work on while meditating. The other sections go over three aspects of the practice—mindfulness, trance, and wisdom. The book features advice on how to cultivate and maintain mental and physical awareness, which includes instructions on postures, breathing, rejection of the sensory world, and above all the recollection of the ultimate goal: nirvana.

Buddhist Meditation is considered by many to be a classic text. It’s included in the list of suggested books to read at the end of Ram Dass’ seminal spiritual book Be Here Now, which is where I probably first heard of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I had hoped I would. It’s a very dry read. All in all I found it to be a bit esoteric and unhelpful, frankly, which was a disappointment because I think it probably contains helpful information that I would benefit from putting to use in my own meditation practice, but I just couldn’t get past the writing style to those nuggets of wisdom.

I did finish reading this book, and I even highlighted some of the pages. There were some parts that I really liked, and on the whole I have a positive opinion of it. Maybe it’ll be good review material in 20 years after I’ve learned more about these concepts from more entertaining authors and teachers. While I wouldn’t recommend Buddhist Meditation to most people, if you consider yourself to be really interested in Buddhism and want to learn more about the role of meditation in this tradition, then maybe you’ll appreciate it. Anyone else should probably steer clear and pick out a more accessible book on the topic.

3/5 stars. 192 pages.

Book Review - Breakfast with Buddha

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take a cross-country road trip with the Buddha? If so, you should check out Roland Merullo's spiritual novel Breakfast with Buddha, which will give you a glimpse of that experience.

My mother recommended this book to me a couple years ago and I filed it away on my "Want to Read" list but had mostly forgotten about it until an alert from Bookbub informed me that it was on sale for Kindle last year. So I bought it and then promptly forgot about it again. But I eventually got around to adding it to my list of "Books I'll Read Next" and started reading it in July.

The book sucked me in pretty quickly. It's narrated in first-person by the protagonist, a nice and caring family man named Otto Ringling. He is a highly intellectual editor of food books who has a bit of a skeptic streak running through his veins. At the beginning of the story, Otto's parents pass away, and he plans to drive his eccentric sister from New York to his home state of North Dakota in order to settle their family's estate. But somehow he ends up traveling with a Siberian monk by the name of Volya Rinpoche instead of his sister. Otto's disbelief toward spirituality or religion makes for a hilarious dynamic as the pair teach each other about their different backgrounds, cultures, and views on life—all while stuck together in a car for 1800 miles.

Breakfast with Buddha is perfect for someone who is looking for a lighthearted tale to kick back and relax with. But it's not all just fun and games. While there are plenty of laughs, there are also inspirational life lessons scattered throughout this book, and I look forward to one day reading the other books in this trilogy: Lunch with Buddha and Dinner with Buddha. I don't know much about them at this point, but my mom says that each one is better than the last. And she might be right—after all, she was about this one!

4/5 stars. 353 pages.

Why Westerners Fear Robots and the Japanese Do Not

Joi Ito, writing for WIRED:

As a Japanese, I grew up watching anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion, which depicts a future in which machines and humans merge into cyborg ecstasy. Such programs caused many of us kids to become giddy with dreams of becoming bionic superheroes. Robots have always been part of the Japanese psyche—our hero, Astro Boy, was officially entered into the legal registry as a resident of the city of Niiza, just north of Tokyo, which, as any non-Japanese can tell you, is no easy feat. Not only do we Japanese have no fear of our new robot overlords, we’re kind of looking forward to them.

It’s not that Westerners haven’t had their fair share of friendly robots like R2-D2 and Rosie, the Jetsons’ robot maid. But compared to the Japanese, the Western world is warier of robots. I think the difference has something to do with our different religious contexts, as well as historical differences with respect to industrial-scale slavery.

The Western concept of “humanity” is limited, and I think it’s time to seriously question whether we have the right to exploit the environment, animals, tools, or robots simply because we’re human and they are not.

A fascinating take. The Japanese are really onto something here.


Psychedelics' Buddhist Revival

Gabriel Lefferts, writing for Tricycle:

Buddhist interest in psychedelics has been around for a long time. Many seekers like to refer to them as “entheogens” to emphasize their spiritual value. Entheogen, derived from the Greek adjective entheos, translates roughly as “God-inspired” and is the root of the English word “enthusiasm.” Almost a quarter-century ago, Tricycle published a special section titled “Psychedelics: Help or Hindrance?” to address Western Buddhists’ somewhat behind-the-scenes fascination with these substances. Now, the willingness to explore them has gone more public.

A brief introduction to an ongoing debate within the Buddhist community concerning whether the use of psychedelics is acceptable for one's Buddhist practice, an argument that takes center stage in the book Zig Zag Zen.


Psychedelic History, Shamanic Exploration, and Palenque: An Interview with Matthew Pallamary

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Earlier this month I talked with author Matthew Pallamary about his new book, shamanic exploration, and what things were like during the birth of today's modern psychedelic community. Without further ado, here is our conversation:


Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Your most recent book, The Center of the Universe Is Right Between Your Eyes But Home Is Where the Heart Is, came out last November and it covers a lot of ground. How would you summarize it to give the Think Wilder audience an idea of what it’s all about?

Ultimately it’s a study of objective perception. You can’t necessarily control your external environment, which is all the stimulus that comes into you from the world around you, but you are in control of how you choose to create reality with that input. In the book, I explore shamanism and visionary states—primarily with ayahuasca, but also with other substances—to show how you decide to show up, create in the world, and interpret your reality. And I backed it up with a lot of science. Some people say it was a little bit too much, but I was going after the atheists and the intellectuals. From the shamanic perspective, everything is energy. We perceive visually through lightwaves, we listen through sound waves… our brain is filled with multitudes of different waves. Everything around us is composed of vibration in one form or another. When you spend extended time in the jungle, you really tune your brain by altering your consciousness to other realms of perception.

The book is definitely chock full of science, and I can see why you would want to include it. It is written in the same language that atheists and scientific materialists use, which probably makes it easier for them to understand.

One guy who bought the ebook told me that he followed every reference that I included. Every reference. It was a bit crazy!

It's good that they're available, and if people want to explore them then they certainly can. You must’ve worked on the book for quite a while. How long did it take you to do research and write the book?

Interestingly enough, the book kind of wrote itself. But it’s based on a lifetime of research. My first experiences with altered states involved getting dizzy and hyperventilating as a kid. I was about fourteen when I first smoked weed and around that time I was sniffing glue, which was my basic training for altered states. A couple years after that I was turned on to megadose LSD—this was back in like ‘71 or ‘72. I’ve been fascinated with altered states and shamanism for years, and I’ve also been writing about it for years. This book in particular took on a life of its own. It’s always the best when that happens. A lot of this last book was stitched-together research that I found over the course of several months. Years ago, I took an honors course in anthropology called “A Forest of Symbols: Orientation and Meaning to South American Indian Religions”. I started tying that in with my psychedelic experience and the fact that there could be spirituality in psychedelics. In my earlier years that was a totally foreign concept to me. But Terence McKenna’s book Food of the Gods opened my eyes. It was a big influence. When it comes to this book, I was actually getting ready to write another novel and all of a sudden this one started pushing its way to the surface, so I just kind of rolled with it. Next thing you know, I was into the book. And it’s done really well. I’m happy with how it came out.

One of the questions that the reader confronts in the book's introduction is, “Who or what are we really?” How do you define yourself?

In this day and age, I consider myself to be a cosmic citizen. A lot of people over the years have called me a shaman. In the past, I’ve gotten indignant about that and I actually went off one time and felt really bad about it. Are you familiar with the C-Realm Podcast?

Yes—I’ve been a listener for a long time.

One time many years ago, the host called me a shaman, and I went off a bit too much. I actually felt bad afterwards, but I don’t refer to myself as a shaman. There are so many people running around like, “Hey I’m a shaman, here’s my business card,” you know? What I’ve finally come to terms with now is that when I get asked, especially in public, I like to say that everybody is a shaman. Most people just don’t know it and don’t realize it. I studied ayahuasca for 10 years before I found it, and now I’ve been going into the Amazon for close to 20. In my humble opinion, we are far more than we imagine ourselves to be, and we can limit ourselves by our perception. There’s an old American Indian saying that goes, “You really don’t know what another man’s life is like until you walk a mile in his moccasins.” So to me, to be a good writer—and even a good human—you have to have empathy and you have to realize that people have different perspectives and formative influences in their lives. They don’t see things in the same way. At this point in my life I’ve gone beyond that. I’d like to think that my perspective has shifted so I’m not caught in the polarities. The truth is always somewhere in the center, and I’ve worked my entire life to try to find it. When you find the center you transcend duality. You see things from the other guy’s point of view and then you have more compassion and you’re more open. As soon as you start defining things, you’re limiting yourself. The cosmos and reality as we know it is far more complex and multidimensional than most people realize. I spent years pushing the limits as far as I could, in a lot of different directions, to discover the nature of who and what we think we really are. I think that from the perspective of ultimate cosmic reality, we’re a lot more than we give ourselves credit for.

It’s a way bigger world out there than most people imagine and can suppose.

Absolutely. I think that ayahuasca, more than anything else, has shown me that. I’ve done tons of other things too, over the years, but that’s really the one that’s been talking to me the most.

So you studied ayahuasca for 10 years before you started working with it. What was that period of time like for you?

After the honors course in anthropology, I discovered the story of The Land Without Evil, which is my historical novel. It’s about first contact between the Jesuits and the Indians in South America, and it’s told from the Indians’ point of view, so it was all about shamanism. I did a lot of research at the UCSD library. This was before the Internet, so I would log into the UCSD library card catalog via modem and download pages of psychedelic content. A lot of this real groundbreaking stuff that you couldn’t find anywhere back in 1988. I spent $30 on a copy card, gathered books to copy on the machine, and took all the articles home with me. I wasn’t getting high at that time because I took a break for a while, but a few months after that I went into a headshop and there was High Times magazine. I said to myself, “Fucking High Times—that’s still around!?” I had read it back in the ‘70s, when it first came out. When I flipped open the page, there was an ad for the Entheobotany Seminars in Palenque Chiapas.

And that was the origin for the Palenque Norte visionary lecture series, right?

That’s correct. So I opened the magazine, and there were all these people that I had been researching independently on my own. They were going to be presenting! I ended up going to the first event in San Francisco in ‘96, where I met Sasha and Ann Shulgin, Jonathan Ott, Charles Grob, Wade Davis, and several other people. From that point I started going to the Entheobotany Seminars regularly. I went to one in Uxmal in ‘98 and then the next few were at Palenque, which is where I got to meet and hang out with Terence McKenna, Paul Stamets, and Christian Rätsch. I started recorded all the lectures on cassettes, and when Lorenzo Hagerty decided to start the Psychedelic Salon, I gave him a bunch of the lectures that I had recorded to help him get started. I had a lot of good friendships over the years, including one with Terence. He actually got the very first book from the initial hardcover printing of The Land Without Evil. So yeah, I’ve been steeped in this stuff for years.

It sounds like those early experiences played a big role in shaping who you have become. Thank you again for speaking with me.

You're welcome brother—we’ll talk again soon.


I am very grateful to Matt for sharing his insights and experience. Be sure to check out his website and new book here. If you liked this interview, you might also enjoy reading my review of The Center of the Universe and an excerpt from it that explores the ways that shamanistic cultures revere elemental spirits like the wind.

Image by k_tzito, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.