An Interview with Harold Roth
Holos: Forum for a New Worldview
Vol. 2, No. 1 (2006)
Harold D. Roth is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University. His research focuses on early Chinese religion, Taoism, and comparative mysticism. He is the author of Original Tao: Inward Training and the Foundations of Taoist Mysticism (Columbia University Press, 1999), Daoist Identity: Cosmology, Lineage, and Ritual (University of Hawaii Press, 2002), A Companion to Angus C. Graham's Chuang Tzu: the Inner Chapters (Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy, 2003), and The Textual History of the Huai-nan Tzu (Association for Asian Studies, 1992). He has also been a long-term student of the Rinzai Zen Master Jôshu Sasaki and has also practiced Transcendental Meditation, Taoist meditation, and Theravada Insight Meditation. Along with a group of colleagues at Brown he is working towards developing a new undergraduate major in “Contemplative Studies” that will study contemplative experiences from both traditional third-person and “critical first-person” perspectives. The text below is an edited transcript of a telephone conversation between Thomas McFarlane and Professor Roth in August of 2005. This document is copyright © 2006 by Harold D. Roth and is published here with his kind permission.
TOM McFARLANE: I’d like to just begin with a few questions about your personal background so that readers who don’t know you might have a sense of who you are and where you are coming from. Particularly, I’d be interested to hear about your religious background.
HAROLD ROTH: I grew up in a household that was nominally Jewish. Both my parents were raised Jewish, and I was generally raised Jewish with a belief in God, although we kind of veered off into Christian Science and Religious Science when I was about eleven or twelve. They both had an emphasis on positive thinking and the mind having more control over the body than we usually give it credit for. So, the belief in God I got from Judaism, and an interest in the world of mind as shaping experience I also attribute to my religious upbringing to a certain extent.
In my sophomore year at Princeton I discovered Buddhism and Chinese philosophy and religion, and I got very interested by it. It provided answers to questions that weren’t very well answered in Western philosophy and psychology. I found very appealing their approaches to human nature, particularly in the Chinese tradition, and also their explanations of why people end up getting into major conflicts, why we can be so incredibly cruel to one another. I was never able to quite justify that in a theological religious system in which there was a God who rewarded good activity and punished evildoing. One of the problems I wrestled with as a young Jewish person growing up was how the Holocaust could be justifiable in light of the theology I’d been taught. That, combined with not finding very satisfactory answers in Western psychology and Western philosophy to the problem of evil in human nature led me to be attracted to Chinese philosophy.
It also helped that I had a couple of wonderful professors. One is a professor of Confucianism, Tu Wei-Ming, who is now teaching at Harvard. He was then a young, new PhD with his first teaching job. And then there was a very sage, elder professor named Frederick Mote. They were both inspirational for me. They treated Chinese philosophy not as a quaint museum piece, but as a vibrant ethical and religious system. I graduated in 1970, and in those days most of us weren’t really looking to have careers in anything. We were just following stuff that we were interested in. So, that’s just what I did. I discovered the whole of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. Then I decided to go to graduate school and pursue it.
TOM: Then, when you started your research at Brown, what drew you to focus on the mystical dimensions of Taoism?
ROTH: The mystical dimensions drew me in because I was interested in the psychology of consciousness and human potential. So early on I became interested in meditation, both in Buddhism and Taoism, and how that opened up the mind and expanded it beyond its normal, moment-to-moment torrent of varying ideas and feelings taking us from one thing to another. At the end of my junior year I wrote a research paper on the different approaches to studying mystical experience in various cultures across time. It went from Evelyn Underhill, who represented a very Christian theologically-based approach, all the way up to Walter Stace, whose book Mysticism and Philosophy had just been published when I was an undergraduate. He really made an attempt as a Western philosopher to develop a broad-based, cross-cultural theory and philosophy of mysticism that was not as culture-bound as Underhill’s. Then there were other people I studied for that paper such as R. C. Zaehner and, of course, William James, whose The Varieties of Religious Experience has a wonderful chapter on mysticism. And all of this was included in that initial research paper. It was always these kinds of issues, even in graduate school, that animated my interest, even though I wasn’t always doing that kind of research.
TOM: How has this academic research into religion and mystical practices influenced your life personally, and your view of the world?
ROTH: Part of my research into mystical practices included becoming involved in several different traditions myself. I started practicing Rinzai Zen. And then I also did some Transcendental Meditation, and more recently did some Taoist, Korean Zen practices and Vipassana meditation practices. But most of my religious practice since my undergraduate days has been Rinzai Zen practice, which involves doing several week-long intensive practices each year. Most of my practice has been in North America, although I’ve also done a year-long series of retreats in Japan. As far as changing my outlook on life, my research led me to see the universe not as it had been presented to me when I was young, but as having a fundamental connectedness between all phenomena in the entire world. I see the universe as infused with a basic unifying power or force. The Absolute is not outside this world but is simultaneously transcendent of any one particular phenomenon and immanent within everything. This has become part and parcel of the way I look at the world.
TOM: Regarding your research in Taoism, and your book Original Tao, could you give us a brief overview of some of the essential ideas of Taoist cosmology and philosophy, and maybe what some of the biggest differences are between Taoist ideas and the Western worldview that make Taoism challenging for Westerners to understand.
ROTH: I think that one of the biggest differences is that, in Taoism, there is no transcendent creator God that created the world out of nothing. From the Taoist perspective, and from the Chinese perspective in general, the universe has always existed and always will. And the major interest is not to find the origin of the universe but how to live better within it. The notion of the Tao, or the Way, plays the role that God does in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but it is a very different concept in that it is not just transcendent, completely out of this world, but also completely immanent within this world. It is both transcendent and immanent. It is a power or force that infuses all of our being from moment to moment. Therefore, it can be tapped into by any of us through direct meditative practice such as sitting meditation, and moving meditation, both of which have been used in the Taoist tradition since its rather obscure origins. It is the immanence of the Absolute that Westerners really have a hard time with because we’ve been brought up to think that the sacred source of reality completely transcends the universe. I think that’s the single hardest thing for people to grasp who have been brought up in Western religious traditions. And in the scientific traditions there’s the flip side of the coin which implicitly upholds the transcendent absolute reality in a different way, something I will return to later in the interview.
Another problem is with understanding what happens in meditation when we relinquish the usually tight grip we have on our consciousness. We suffer from a Freudian overlay on our experience that says if you relinquish a firm control on consciousness, such as we find in many forms of some meditation, and let the will dissolve, then what results is evil, because what comes out of the unconscious is evil. For Freud, what comes out of the unconscious is all these primitive, instinctual drives that compete with and destroy one another. Behind this is the idea that when you remove the restraints of culture you are left with a raw, savage, and destructive nature. But from a Taoist perspective, when you remove the restraints of culture, it’s precisely at that moment that people begin to get along with each other, that people get in touch with each other, that people realize the common ground that they share with one another and with the entire world. For example, you find that a lot of early Taoists present stories of primitive utopias where people live in complete harmony with one another and with all creatures in the world precisely because they have gotten rid of the cultural constructs, the enforced morality that is produced by culture. That’s another thing that is hard for a lot of people in the West to understand and get a feel for, except for maybe people who have spent a lot of time communing with nature, hiking and mountain climbing and so on. They have a sense of that. Most of us who have grown up in urban environments find that much more difficult to accept.
Another difference I find with Western cosmologies is that in the West we’re not brought up to be in tune with the constant change of everyday life. So when a big change happens, it is very dramatic and shocking to us. In the Chinese worldview there is a seamless, constant changing.
TOM: What is the biggest way in which our understanding of early Taoism has changed as a result of recent research in your field?
ROTH: One of the biggest changes is the overturning of the traditional understanding of there being some lofty philosophical Taoism that subsequently degenerated into a superstitious belief system of the masses. Taoism was in fact a continuous development that, from the beginning, had both mystical and superstitious elements together with both political and secular elements. Previously we had only a partial view of early Taoism that was to a great extent influenced by a literati tradition which re-shaped Taoism in the third century of the common era into something that was more palatable to them. For example, we now know that the influential commentator Guo Xiang’s edition of the Chuang Tzu text removed any superstitious elements, creating a version that suited literati. Something similar happened with the Lao Tzutext. This all had a big influence on the way that early Taoism was subsequently understood by the literati tradition in China and by Western scholars up until recently. Now, little by little, our understanding of Taoism is being transformed, so that there is no longer this great gulf between so-called philosophical Taoism and religious Taoism. It is more of a continuous development. That’s a very important change.
Another thing that is becoming more appreciated is that the traditional view that Lao Tzu was the founder of Taoism who lived in the sixth century BCE and was a contemporary of Confucius has fallen by the wayside. There is no evidence that a complete Lao Tzu text existed before the third century BCE. There may have been some kind of proto-Lao Tzu text circulating then, but there is no evidence that the complete text existed that early. It appears that Taoists around the third century BCE were trying to build up their tradition from its anonymous origins to have an intellectual lineage that rivaled that of Confucians. Until the Taoists adopted a legend to provide a source for their text, they didn’t have any originator they could point back to.
TOM: You mentioned in your book some parallels between some of the Taoist practices such as emptying the contents of consciousness and some similar Hindu and Buddhist practices. What do you think is unique about the Taoist approach to these kinds of practices?
ROTH: These practices involve emptying out the normal contents of consciousness. If you look at meditative practice across many different cultural traditions, you find two complementary types of meditation practices. Some Buddhists refer to these as shamatha (“stopping”) and vipassana (“seeing”). Shamatha is a process through which the normal torrent of self-obsessed thoughts and feelings that course through consciousness gradually ceases. Vipassana is the resulting insightful cognition cleansed of the interference caused by the many aspects of the idea of “self.” James Austin, author of Zen and the Brain, refers to them as concentrative meditation and receptive meditation. In concentrative meditation you gradually “forget,” you think and do less. Chuang Tzu calls it the “fasting of the mind.” This generally involves emptying out the contents of consciousness until you reach a point where consciousness is completely emptied out and left in a very pure form, where there then may arise a sense of presence of a greater power, force, or consciousness, which is the Tao. That particular practice is normally done as part of a sitting meditation. I think stopping practices are extremely similar across traditions and often involve some kind of breathing awareness practice. But you can’t stay forever in this experience that the Lao Tzu calls the “Profound Merging” because, in the Taoist vision of the universe, everything changes. So, in Taoist practices there is also an importance given to the receptive side of meditation, the seeing practice, which has to do with how the concentrative side is applied. It is talked about in a very specific way in these early Taoist texts. For example, Chuang Tzu describes it as a flowing or adaptive cognition, as contrasted with a fixed cognition. Seeing practice is when you take the clarity of mind that has been developed with the stopping practice and apply that in everyday life. It involves the ability to make clear, precise, objective, non-biased, impartial judgments and decisions and perceptions, so that you see things very clearly, so you’re not fooled by people or things or situations. This is bringing the Tao into everyday life. Early Taoist texts often talk about taking these practices of inner cultivation and teaching them to rulers because this kind of clear and adaptive cognition is of benefit to rulers. I don’t see this so much in other traditions such as Buddhism or the Hindu tradition.
TOM: How does Taoism view the relationship between mystical practice and political action? Does Taoism have something unique to contribute to the modern idea of socially-engaged spirituality?
ROTH: I think Taoism very much advocates a socially-engaged spirituality. In the early Chinese context it was believed that the government should be ruled by the spiritually perfected, using these Taoist techniques. The ideal Taoist sage-ruler would be somebody who would have the vision to see the underlying power of the Tao as it worked within phenomena and would be able to organize society in parallel with the greater forces of the cosmos, the Tao and its regular and systematic patterns or natural laws. Nature is normative in this cosmology and humans must adapt to it rather than vice versa. Hence, human beings, modeling themselves on Nature, should not interfere with the environment and so will not cause any environmental disasters. This vision of order, adaptation, and interconnectedness dominated Chinese cosmology for over two millennia and most certainly can be the basis of a modern environmental ethic, as a number of books on this subject have pointed out.
Not all of the foundational ideas of ancient Chinese cosmology can be directly mapped onto our modern situation, but there are large perspectives that have a contemporary relevance. For example, an important one is the idea that we need to be somehow more spiritually aware and appreciate the common ground of humanity in order to be effective in political action. We also need to understand that our individual egos are not in any sense ultimate, and that there is a give-and-take, times when we need to give and times when we need to take. It can’t always be one or the other. There needs to be a proper psycho-spiritual balance between giving and taking. The ego itself is a construct that emerges out of a common base of experience. Human beings are an integral part of the cosmos, and we neglect that to our detriment. From the Taoist perspective, acknowledging this helps to enable wise political action. Also there is a sense that rulers need to be concerned first and foremost with nurturing the populace, taking care of people, and fostering their own spiritual development. All this can be derived directly from early Taoist philosophy.
TOM: Would you relate this emphasis on the application of inner cultivation to worldly action to the Taoist balance between introvertive and extrovertive mystical experience?
ROTH: There are different phases of early Taoism. One phase has no interest in politics. Another phase advocates a return to a laissez faire government. Yet another phase talks about the need for a complex society to be governed by the spiritually perfected. All phases would recognize the need to spend some time off in isolation doing silent meditation. In addition, the second and third phases emphasize the inevitable return to the phenomenal world and the need to learn how to live a fulfilling and ethical and meaningful life within that world.
TOM: The Religious Studies courses you teach at Brown are supplemented by lab courses where you invite students to engage in what you call “critical first-person investigation” of the material. Would you tell us more about this?
ROTH: There are two courses that I teach that involve first-person labs right now. These are advanced seminars for people who already have had some courses in Buddhism. In them we have our weekly three-hour seminar in which we discuss the texts we are reading, and then from 9am to 10am, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we try out meditation techniques that are derived from these texts. I encourage people to investigate things empirically, to try out different techniques, for example, following the breath, or counting breaths, or paying attention to different parts of one’s body, the diaphragm, the sensation of the breath coming in and out the nose. These are all practices that would be used in the “Insight Meditation” tradition that is at the heart of Theravada or “Southern” Buddhism. Very often I’m able to coordinate the actual reading with the techniques in the lab. For example, when we study Theravada Buddhism we get two sutras that are devoted to breathing meditations: “Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing” (Anapanasati sutta) and “Sutra on The Foundations of Mindfulness” (Satipatthana sutta). And in the lab we use techniques from those particular texts. I call this approach critical because I never ask anyone to accept what they are reading as true. I just ask them to read the texts with an open mind, and to practice a particular technique with an open mind. And then we talk about how the text relates to the techniques and the experiences in the meditation lab.
This kind of direct experiential questioning is important for a complete investigation of religious phenomena. However, conventional academic study in the field of Religious Studies has completely banned it, for a variety of reasons. The most important of these has to do with the fact that the academic field of Religious Studies differentiated itself from Protestant theology relatively recently and with great difficulty. In fact, I would say that, in many ways, it has not extricated itself yet at all. It bends over backwards not to do anything that looks like it is advocating any particular religious point of view. So academics in Religious Studies are very uncomfortable with engaging in religious practices as part of their pedagogy and their research. It is odd, because there are a lot of other academic disciplines that encourage first-person practices, such as laboratory science, public speaking, and anthropology, to name a few. All these disciplines give you techniques to critically examine the data you get from first-person investigation. But Religious Studies has segregated the study of religion from a lot of other academic studies by forbidding first-person investigation. Ironically, this gives religion precisely the kind of privileged status that its scholars have been struggling to avoid. Basically, the assumption is that you can’t do first-person investigations without being a believer in a particular religion and this therefore prevents you from being an “objective” or “critical” judge. But this is wrong in two ways. First, religions in which empirical experience is central de-emphasize the need to believe. This is the case in all the world’s great mystical traditions. Second, the whole idea that any of us can be completely objective denies the important role that our own subjective experience plays in our intellectual investigation and reasoning. Instead of banning and attempting to deny our own experience as a valid investigative tool, why not develop methods that engage it in a critical, reasoned way? That is what is behind my courses that combine traditional third-person academic study and “critical first-person” investigation. So I, for one, would be happy to engage in first-person investigation in Christian prayer or meditation, or Islamic practices, or Hindu practices, even though I don’t consider myself a believer in any of those traditions. I think first-person investigation is part of a serious examination of religion. The field is cutting off its foundations in not finding that acceptable. Hopefully, the more that courses like mine are taught, these things will change.
TOM: What has been the response from students to this?
ROTH: They were all very enthusiastic about the course, and grateful for the extra added dimension that the critical first-person practices in the meditation lab give them for understanding the Buddhism that they read about in the texts, and for the way that it has improved the whole tenor of their lives all around. Quite a few of them continue with meditation and have asked, after they have finished courses, to join the meditation labs of new courses that I teach. That shows a really high level of interest on the part of the students. In many ways the students are driving my attempt to set up a Contemplative Studies program at Brown that will expand upon this new pedagogy I’ve been discussing. In the first years that I taught courses with a meditation lab I gave out questionnaires to students to make sure that they didn’t feel like I was proselytizing, which is what I was accused of doing by some of my colleagues. But the students all thought I was ridiculous for even thinking of it. They couldn’t quite understand why I was asking the question.
TOM: Are you hoping that these lab courses will somehow influence the Western academic study of religion generally? Do you see this as part of a new movement or expansion of what it means to be a researcher in Religious Studies?
ROTH: I certainly hope that will be the case. Probably change will just happen when people start doing it in different departments throughout North America. Little by little, people who have been opposed to first-person investigations in Religious Studies departments will start to see that maybe there is something to it. I see this as more of a long-range collective endeavor. Perhaps in the next five to ten years there will be more undergraduate majors in something like Contemplative Studies. The field of Religious Studies will perhaps change even more slowly than that.
TOM: How has your own contemplative practice influenced your research?
ROTH: It has sensitized me to the presence of meditative and mystical dimensions in texts that scholars have heretofore overlooked as being sources of meditation and mystical experience. Or, even if some have sensed there is a mystical dimension, they haven’t had the wherewithal to figure out what it is. The very fact that anybody does any kind of sitting or moving meditation practice—it doesn’t matter whether it is Taoist, Hindu, or Buddhist—already gives them a leg up in interpreting texts that might have involved meditative or mystical practices.
TOM: In your book you mentioned that there is a problem associated with translating religious texts because practitioners writing those texts often use specialized terminology, a lot like in the sciences. So, if the translators don’t have experience to draw from then they are not sensitive to those kinds of uses of language. Is that what you are alluding to here?
ROTH: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m alluding to. For example, there are Taoist texts and Buddhist texts produced by specific groups of practitioners. If you don’t understand what the practicing context is, and if you haven’t had any related experience, you’re just going to miss the allusions to the practice and can not appreciate when this technical language is being used. Very often, especially in the early Taoist tradition, things are described metaphorically. Or Chinese characters may be used that have a range of meanings. They may have particular meanings in a political context but in a meditation text they might mean something very specific and concrete. So that’s part of what one needs to be sensitized to. Brown and Engler did a study of the stages of meditation in different traditions (Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, vol. 12, no. 2; also contained in Transformations of Consciousness, edited by Wilber, Engler, and Brown) and discovered that each tradition had very specific technical terms but they were able to roughly coordinate them with one another.
TOM: There is some controversy related to the study of mystical experience in different traditions related to the question of whether mystical experience is culturally mediated. You’ve suggested in your book that by looking at mystical practices rather than ideas, that might help to address this issue. Could you elaborate on this?
ROTH: Some people say that mystical experience is totally incommensurable across cultural differences and religious traditions. For example, there’s a very influential book by Steven Katz called Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis which argues that, because there is no such thing as experiences that are not created by pre-existing intellectual categories, it is impossible to compare experiences across cultures. This reaction against the idea that all religious experience is similar is an over-reaction, but it is an over-reaction to what was a genuine problem. A lot of people who made cross-cultural studies of mysticism automatically assumed that everything was the same but just interpreted differently in different cultures and religious traditions. You’ll find that in Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy. But I think that something more complicated is going on that is a combination of both perspectives. So, while I would agree that there is a whole range of cultural influences in experiences, there are nevertheless some experiences that are beyond the reach of culture. In fact, many meditative traditions are aimed at stripping away the influences of culture and emptying the contents of consciousness. I don’t think that Katz and other constructivists have successfully addressed this point.
One thing that I think the constructivists haven’t looked at is the practices that lead to mystical experience. One of the very common practices is some sort of breath cultivation meditation. There is actually no scientific reason to believe that people in different cultures and different times will not have similar experiences when they follow similar practices of paying attention to their breathing. The experiences will be interpreted differently. They will be spoken of using different language. But you can’t simply write them off as being completely different because they are interpreted differently or because they have different ways of conceiving of them using different technical terms. That’s very much in vogue these days in Religious Studies and comparative mysticism, and I suspect the constructivists may have a hidden agenda in the work that they do. Many scholars in North American Religious Studies these days are “fundamentalist non-believers,” in contrast to the much more common idea of fundamentalist believers. Or there may be a small number who simply want to preserve a kind of position where God is totally other. But the position that God is totally transcendent and separate from the world is just the flip side of the position that the world of daily experience is completely secular. I consider those to be two sides of the same coin. You can denigrate the epistemological validity of religious experience in order to uphold the complete transcendence of God, just as you can denigrate it in order to uphold the belief that there is no God at all. They are the same worldview. It’s the worldview that says that everything sacred and holy and spiritual is somehow absent from this world, and so all of our experience is profane. Asserting a transcendent God or denying a transcendent God are both compatible with saying all our experience is created by social and political forces and religious experience has no epistemological validity and it’s all a fantasy.
TOM: So, whether you assert a transcendent reality that is totally outside of experience or you deny one, either way you’re taking a position that essentially cannot be verified either way, and so it is an implicit metaphysic.
ROTH: Yes, that’s very well put. If God is completely separate from the universe, then it’s impossible in this life, in this world, to have any experience of the transcendent. But if the Absolute is both transcendent and immanent, then that becomes possible. So if you hold to the belief that God is outside this world, then it is perfectly natural for you to want to discount the possibility that transcendent religious experience might be possible now, in the present moment. In Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, there is a complete interfusing of the sacred and the secular, the transcendent and the immanent realms, so there isn’t a vested interest in upholding a transcendent deity. In fact, it doesn’t really make sense in such a system where you can directly experience the ground of reality, when you can directly tap into it. That’s just your way of cultivating your fullest potential as a human being, and it’s very much a part of religious traditions of well over half the world.
TOM: One last question. I know you attended the 2005 Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. Were there any topics discussed there that you think relate to what we’ve been discussing?
ROTH: The lectures there were almost all scientific lectures and quite a number of them touched upon critical first-person investigation and critical first-person reporting to complement third-person measurements that are obtained in the neuropsychological laboratory. A lot of the papers that I heard indicated that meditation does have a very definite, measurable, and dramatic effect upon brain activity, upon cognitive behavior, and upon health and well-being. These are no longer in the realm of self-help beliefs, but are now in the realm of scientific fact, as much as anything is. These are double-blind studies that were done. The results that were reported were experiments that were conducted according to the highest standards of scientific method, and they all show that meditation does have an impact.
One of the most exciting avenues of research is the work that’s done in the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, by Richard Davidson and his team. They’ve been working with advanced meditation practitioners, Tibetan Buddhist lamas who have done at least ten thousand hours of practice, and they’ve shown that there is a measurable difference in the activity of the left prefrontal cortex when the meditator is confronted by emotional situations. With the control groups there were experiences of anger when shown scenes of Tibetan monks being beaten up by the Chinese liberation army, while with the lamas there were reports of initial sadness followed by an experience of deep compassion for both the victims and the perpetrators. And the measurements of the activity of the prefrontal cortexes of the angry people showed a great amount of activity in the right prefrontal cortex while the lamas showed great activity in the left prefrontal cortex. So there are definite changes that can be measured that are produced by meditation.
I was impressed by how many people are working in this area now. There is a really burgeoning group, especially of younger scientists. There were probably over 125 people at this Summer Institute, and a lot of them were younger scientists working on various aspects of meditation, from doing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to studying the impact of mindfulness meditation on stress reduction to looking at the role of meditational training upon improving people with depression or with attention deficit disorder (ADD). It’s an exciting time to be a researcher in one of the psychological disciplines that is opening up to scientific studies of meditation and its benefits. I really think that our Religious Studies departments are ignoring this research only to their detriment.
TOM: Thank you very much for your time, and for agreeing to give the interview.
ROTH: You’re welcome.