Since my last post ….

December 22, 2014

Sorry to readers who have been following my Ten Zen Book Blog, as you can see I have not written on here for a very long time.

I now blog on Psychology Today and recently wrote about a retreat I attended on the topic of the jhanas – a series of eight increasingly absorbed states that are reached through concentration.

You can read about it here:


Debate with Deepak

May 9, 2012

I’ve just been to the great Tucson Consciousness Conference where I was invited to debate with Deepak Chopra. This led me to read and watch a lot more of his work than I’d done before and I bcame increasingly upset by how he starts out with sound spiritual ideas and then ends up by urging his followers to buy his books, video game, and numerous products because ‘this is how to make money’, ‘this is the way to stay young forever’, or ‘this is how to get everything you’ve ever wanted’ and so on.

If you are interested, you can watch the video of the very last part of our debate, or read my blog in the Guardian.


Comments welcome! But please note I am guest-master for a week-long Zen retreat starting tomorrow so I won’t be able to respond until I get back.

The Mass Libel Reform Blog

November 10, 2010

Fight for Free Speech!

Simon Singh, the science author and TV producer, has recently triumphed in his battle with the British Chiropractic Association. They sued him for libel when he claimed, truthfully, that some chiropractors promote “bogus treatments”. English libel law is such that the fight could easily have cost him millions, but in the end he won the right to use the defense of fair comment and the BCA dropped the case. Things might not have turned out so well for Singh and for other critical scientists or writers – even if they are telling the truth. The case highlighted – again – the oppressive nature of English libel law.


This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the problems with English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at


August 20, 2010

Good news! There’s to be a paperback edition of “Ten Zen Questions”. At least, I should say there is to be a paperback edition of a book previously called “Ten Zen Questions”.

The publishers have decided that the title is not good enough and I can see their point. Arguably I wrote the book only because I thought of the title and liked the alliteration, but their argument is that they want it to appeal more directly to neuroscientists and others working on the problem of consciousness. So it needs a different cover and a different title.

They have suggested all sorts of (in my opinion) rather good possible titles, but I’d love to know what you readers think about them. Here is a list of their suggestions.

Consciously Zen

Zen and the Conscious Mind

Zen and the Meditative Mind

Zen and Your Conscious Self

Zen and the Art of Consciousness

Contemplating Consciousness: Ten Zen Questions

Contemplations on Consciousness: Ten Zen Questions

The Meditative Mind: Ten Zen Questions

Your Brain on Zen

Do please comment on any or all of these suggestions, or add some of your own. Also, if you have noticed any errors or problems with the text, now is a good time to tell me about them. I have to submit any changes (which can, of course, only be small) by the end of this month. Your help is much appreciated.


April 14, 2010

This is way off the topic of this site, but some of you may be interested in the story of how my daughter finally – after ten long years – gave up her anorexia and returned to health and happiness.

She began her own blog on Psychology Today. The Daily Mail picked this up and printed a story about it (not totally false but with inaccuracies and a “tough love” theme which was certainly not how I saw it). Then ABC and other sites took it from there and finally I wrote up my own brief version for the Guardian’s CommentisFree. This has gone up today and is open for comments for 3 days only.

Oddly enough they (like the Mail) invented a headline that was way off the point. They wrote “The greatest challenge for the parent of a child with an eating disorder is holding onto the person in the grip of the disease”. Holding on? I would have thought it was fairly obvious that I was never trying to hold on and indeed that I thought this would be counter-productive. You cannot hang on. Anorexia takes them away.

I was also practicing Zen throughout all these ten years. I have no idea whether it helped, but it certainly encouraged me to accept what was happening and to “let go” rather than to “hang on”.

March 16, 2010

Here’s a little song (if you can call it that) that sums up how so many scientists can feel awe, delight, and a sense of mystery when contemplating the universe – without any hint of gods, religions, or any other superstitions. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve watched it three times already.

This reaction to the mystery of the universe fits so well with that found in Zen. You don’t go looking for worlds beyond, for strange powers or for any creator behind it all – you just open your eyes and your mind to everything that is here now. Underlying this is the Buddhist conception of dependent arising which basically means that everything that happens is related to everything else, and everything happens because of the causes and conditions that precede it.
As Dawkins says “Matter flows from place to place, and momentarily comes together to be you. Some people find that thought disturbing. I find the reality thrilling.”
So do I.
Please forgive my long silence but I have been over-worked and unwell – very un-Zen. So I am trying to throw off some of the excess work and let myself recover. I hope to get back to this blog in due course.

Are you here now?

January 7, 2010

Christmas is over and the New Year begun. My book is off to the publishers and I’m at last able to do other things, including getting back to those Questions!

Chapter 8 asks “Are you here now?”.

I like this question a lot because at first sight – like “Am I conscious now?” – the answer seems as though it must be an emphatic “Yes”. And yet my meditation experiences led me far away from “Yes”. This is not just because I have spent so much time questioning the nature of consciousness that I no longer have any idea what the word means, but because the whole sense of a persisting self has taken so many knocks.

In this chapter I describe a retreat which was extremely painful in many ways and included an interview with John which left me quite disturbed. He didn’t seem to understand me at all, and I didn’t really understand why not, or why he reacted the way he did. I suppose I was expecting a certain kind of help from him and that is not what I got. The way I have written about it makes it seem much less dramatic than the interview described in Chapter 6 but it was just as disturbing.

John clearly thought so too. In the “Response of a Zen Master” which follows the rest of the book, he writes “The interview on  p. 132 was a disaster for both of us. I failed to show you a way beyond your intellectual fixation and you persisted in a partial viewpoint that was intellectually convincing to you.”

If you’ve read his response you might like to comment – for I still don’t know what to think about it all this time later.

A different view on taking those precepts

December 8, 2009

I’ve just come across a totally different view from mine on the value of those precepts taken at Gaia House. This is an account in our local Zen group magazine, Dancing Mountains, by one of the four participants I wrote about. You can read it all here.
Reading this account I suffered all the same doubts and confused emotions as I did when watching the spectacle at the time. I hope this account from the other side may serve to balance things up a little.
You will also find in this newsletter some delightful cartoons about the burning house, and other ideas you’ll now be familiar with, as well as a very funny account of one woman’s half hour meditation session including sniffing, sneezing, worrying, and perfect ‘non-seeking mind’.

The other news is that I have at last finished the book. so once my room is cleared up and the heaps of other books all put away, I shall be able to get back to the Zen questions.

Final thoughts on the retreat – and on this blog

November 11, 2009

I had meant to write several posts about Reb’s retreat in quick succession and then get back to the book but I am (pathetic excuse) too busy – working on the second edition of my textbook Consciousness: An Introduction. It is extremely hard work (though I love doing it) and just doesn’t leave time for much else.

I guess the final conclusion for the retreat was that the next day, after that upsetting ceremony, Reb gave another of his extraordinary lectures and talked about the choice the historical Buddha faced.

This choice was between saying nothing because he knew that the truth could not be put into words (vehicles, stories, instructions and the like) and making up ways of  saying something, such as ways of pointing people towards the unsayable truth, giving them prescriptions to follow that might help them follow the way he had taken, and so on. What to do? Hence the story that the Buddha thought we are like lotus flowers rising out of the mud and his teachings might help people still down in the pond slime.

My instinct is always to prefer the truth in the silence – but then I would never have learned to meditate or practice mindfulness had someone not begun explaining it to me and urged me on.  So – very, very reluctantly – I accept that that horrible ceremony and those impossible vows may have some justification.

But … to other things.

To all of you out there reading this blog (the graph tells me there are quite a few of you!).  Shall I now stop? You have all seen enough of the book, and had a chance to join in an interesting discussion, and that might be quite enough. Shall we call it a day ??

Or does anyone want me to put up the last few chapters and carry on to the end? Let me know!


Nausea at the precepts

October 24, 2009

So here we are, living our lives in the burning house, meditating, walking, doing our retreat jobs, all in the burning house. But if the way out is our self and there really is no self ….

In an interview I get the chance to ask Reb at last. We are sitting facing each other in the library with the great trees and Gaia House’s lovely garden outside the windows. He is attentive, alert and his eyes seem to contain the whole universe.

“So who gets out of the burning house?” I ask him.

“The one who made it” he says in a matter-of-fact tone. I’m shocked. He’d already said that there is no creator, no maker of the universe.

“But no one made it” I protest “Wasn’t it just made by the whole universe tangling things up together?”

“Yup” he says “and that who gets out – the whole universe gets out.”

“So the white bull and the computer that never crashes are all a con too?”

“Yup”. He smiles.

I am so relieved I want to hug him. I feel such a weight of confusion clear away as we go on to explore the parable and its strange implications.

But this con is a serious one – not just for me I realise as the retreat draws to its close. On the last night there is a ceremony in which four people take the precepts. I notice there are a few visitors and even some children sitting at the back of the hall to watch them take this great step in their lives. I begin to feel uncomfortable.

The whole process is done with precise coordination and seriousness, with the four lined up in front and Reb presiding. It reminds me of going to church but without the lovely music and beautiful surroundings. Here are four people, with deadly seriousness, dressing up in special robes and taking vows that are – by any normal standards – completely ridiculous. Not killing is fine unless you accept that by simply being alive and eating food you are responsible for others dying. Not intoxicating oneself or others is fine if you really think you’re going to live without drink, smoke, or any interesting drugs for the rest of your life (and don’t count tea, coffee, or those nice cold remedies that send you off into a woozy sleep). I suppose not misusing sexuality is fine if you have a clear idea of what use and misuse are in the case of sexuality. But I shiver at the whole idea of taking these sacred vows, and intending to become a Boddhisatva and live your life forever more for all others.

Worse than the impossible vows is the apparent clash with everything we have been learning. Didn’t Reb say that the mind of intention is wrong mind? Why then pile on all these intentions? Haven’t we been learning that we are nothing other than all beings in the first place, so vowing to work for all beings is superfluous. Hasn’t he explained that the inside and the outside of the burning house are really one and the same, and the promised mega-computers and fancy vehicles are just a trick to lure the children out? Why then dress up in fancy robes, put silly bits of cloth round your neck and make all these promises?

I didn’t want to be there. I really, really didn’t want to be there watching all this yuk unfolding …

With my new found tendency to notice pride I realised that at least part of my revulsion was due to pride. I didn’t want to spoil the occasion for others by creeping out. So I stayed, and watched, and listened, and wished I didn’t have to. I remembered Reb’s book on the precepts and how he make sense of them all but I went off to bed understanding for the first time in my life what it means to have a bad taste in one’s mouth from something that never touched a mouth.

The next day a lot became clearer, and I’ll write about that soon.