In mindful meditation there ‘is no attitude of criticising or judging, [no] right or wrong, or good or bad. It is simply observing, watching, examining. You are not a judge, but a scientist. When you observe [the] mind, and see its true nature clearly, you become dispassionate with regard to its emotions, sentiments and states. Thus, you become detached and free, so that you may see things as they are.’ – Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught.
In observing one’s own mind dispassionately, the meditator is practicing non-attachment to judgments and beliefs – suspending judgment. In Buddhism there are many reasons why suspending judgement is considered to be important. Here are two:
First of all, Anicca – that is, impermanence. If everything is in flux, in process, then judgments must always be being revised to keep pace with a changing world. Therefore, it is important to be non-dogmatic and non-absolutist – being open to changing one’s mind and being always ready to listen to, and take account of, alternative opinions. When we are truly mindful of impermanence and change, we are less likely to believe in, and hang on to, fixed, unchanging judgments.
A second reason for suspending judgment is Pratityasamutpada – that is, conditionality or interdependence. If everything is interwoven with, and dependent on, everything else, then we would require knowledge of every side of an argument, and all aspects of an issue or subject, to arrive at a definitive judgement. But, as we can’t be aware of all aspects, or all the conditions that give rise to a phenomenon, (and because they are always changing) then it is best to suspend judgment. Also, judgments themselves are relative: ‘good’ only makes sense in relation to ‘bad’; ‘right’ to ‘wrong’; ‘pleasant’ to ‘nasty’; ‘like’ to ‘dislike’.
The Buddha seems to have been very careful not to make dogmatic assertions, and to question and show to be invalid, dogmatic assertions made by others. He kept an open dispassionate enquiring mind – encouraging us to avoid making dogmatic assertions. Holding on to notions that, ‘this, or that, is the absolute truth’; or, ‘I am right and you are wrong’ – is about closing the mind, fixing things, terminating enquiry – the opposite of dispassionate enquiry.
One key aspect of the teachings about zazen or mindful meditation of the 13th Century Japanese Zen teacher Dogen, is that when we sit and attend to what is going on within and around us, we are aspiring to see clearly and precisely – with no secondary acts of discrimination and attachment clouding our perceptions. When we are mindful in this way, we pay equal attention to the whole field of awareness and thus gain an insight into the harmony of the whole. The danger here is not that we can focus on details or parts of the whole, for it is necessary that we discriminate between things in order to negotiate our way in the world and to communicate with each other. The danger is rather that we come to believe that the world is actually fragmented and compartmentalised. Dogen argues that to believe this is to be deluded – and Buddhism is, above all, a path to awakening from delusion.
Dogen goes on to say, “think of neither good nor evil and judge not right or wrong”. Here he advises us to suspend judgement – to step sideways from the act of coming down on one side or the other of an argument or proposition; or, if we need to make a judgment, to ensure that it is always provisional and open to change in the light of changing circumstances. Dogen, like the Buddha, argues that as entities, including ideas and propositions, are all interdependent, and cannot be separated from their context, it is therefore unwise to act as if they can. And this is precisely what we do when we cling to one proposition or definition as if it was the only truth. If the universe as a whole is a manifestation of interdependence and interrelatedness, then no part of it, be it a tree, a person or a proposition, can exist independent of any other part. Thus, any proposition, belief or judgment must inevitably be partial and relative – rather than absolute or comprehensive.
By suspending judgment and belief – by not taking up dogmatic positions in arguments – we can develop an attitude of continuing enquiry and openness to all possibilities – free to change our mind as the world changes around us. The equanimity that is said to accompany this open-ended enquiry is dynamic and intellectually playful, characterised by a suppleness and openness of mind. Tolerance and even-handed acknowledgement of diversity and difference seem to be consequences of this mindful suspension of judgment – a striking alternative to the closed intolerance that arises when we maintain dogmatic attachment to particular beliefs and values.
In the light of what I have been suggesting, it is important that we recognise the dangers of attachment to ideas of non-attachment, or to the idea that suspension of judgment will produce enlightenment and equanimity. Dogen points out that to practice mindful meditation in order to achieve peace of mind or enlightenment is itself evidence of a dogmatic attachment to an idea or a belief – a ‘gaining idea’ – an approach that will often hinder rather than aid our aspirations for freedom and awakening. Hence, Dogen’s advice to sit just to sit, to be mindful just to be mindful – in this way practice is awakening.
When I find myself being drawn into arguments, or disagreements, I try to keep in mind these two sayings:
Hold lightly to your beliefs, for someone, somewhere, thinks the opposite
Always aim to be mindful, balanced, open and kind
– needless to say, there are many occasions when I forget my own good advice – but such is life.
Kim, Hee-Jin. 1987. Dōgen Kigen: Mystical Realist, Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Rahula, Walpola. 1974. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press.