Friday, 29 January 2016 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

David Collins, UT

“‘I dare not lean to my conceit’: Reflections on Contemplative Deconstruction in the West’s via negativa and Soto Zen”

In Middle English—the language of the classic manual of Western contemplative practice, The Cloud of Unknowing—the word “concept” was typically spelled “conceit.” This talk will explore parallels in the techniques of via negativa contemplation described in The Cloud and the instructions for shikantaza meditation composed by the Sōtō Zen teacher, Eihei Dōgen. Though on opposite sides of the world and belonging to quite different cultural and spiritual traditions—14th c. England and 13th c. Japan, respectively—the meditation instructions each author outlines bear striking parallels. Both call for a similar shift in a practitioner’s relationship to cognitive conceptual process, effected through quieting and displacing one’s habitual self-identification with discursive thoughts, and cultivating thereby a valued “unconceited” mode of experience appreciated as being literally too simple for words. Both authors, in addition, made similar changes in their meditation instructions over time, in the direction of a more concertedly ontological and experientially “nondual” understanding of contemplative practice.

This talk will outline the features of the contemplative techniques each author described, and the changes they made in their practice instructions, with an eye towards highlighting the core nature of contemplative experience itself. Discussion will include implications for our understandings of the relationship of empirical experience and religious faith, and of the overlapping domains of religion, psychology, and philosophy as both embodied in and deconstructed by history’s contemplatives.

Link to excerpts from The Cloud of Unknowing and Zen master Dōgen’s Fukanzazengi.


David Collins, Ph.D., is a staff member in UT’s Psychology Department. He graduated from Dartmouth with a double major in psychology and religion, and has master’s degrees in contemplative theology from the Graduate Theological Union and in world religion, with an emphasis in Buddhist studies, from Harvard. His doctorate is in clinical psychology, for which his dissertation was a comparison of contemplative deconstruction in The Cloud of Unknowing and Zen master Dōgen. David also has a long-standing meditation practice, primarily in Zen and Vipassana practice styles.