These are the show notes for the latest episode of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. If you want to know more about the specific thinking and beliefs that allow people to belong to cults and stay in them when scandals occur, then you would do well to read this text on critical thinking at the Post-traditional Buddhism site.
Here it is, finally, after a long wait, episode 3.1 of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. We get ‘culty’ in this one, discussing Buddhists cults, cultish behaviour in Buddhist groups and the reasons why people join. We look at the NKT, Rigpa, Shambhala, Michael Roach and H.H Maitreya, otherwise known as Ronny Spenser and open the discussion up to a consideration of how cultish behaviours seep into even innocuous Buddhist groups when criticism is left aside and institutional politics encourage group conformity.
We tell a story or two to keep you entertained and manage to generate some banter in spite of this topic being a heavy one in places.
Is it possible that someone will get offended? Yes. Is that our intention? No. We do speak truth to power though and that means shining the light on where things have gone wrong in western Buddhism.
Check it out. Spread the love and let us know what you think at our dedicated Facebook page.
In this episode, the Dharma Oveground and Buddhist Geeks get enlightened, Francois Laurelle and the non-Buddhists speculate, Hokai Sobol and Kenneth Folk do their own thing. Matthew and Stuart cross the line and fumble over names.
This is part 2 of our first real episode exploring a number of innovative elements in contemporary western Buddhism. We move on in our discussion from Tibet to look at the Pragmatists that emerged from the Dharma Underground and the intelligent destruction of Buddhism fuelled by French and German speaking philosophers in the form of Non-Buddhism.
We also bring in some considerations of the significance of the claims of enlightenment made by a number of the Pragmatists and the importance of some of the critique made by Glenn Wallis and his cohorts.
The next episode will feature a special guest and discuss Buddhist cults!
Show notes can be find here with links to all the characters mentioned:
In this two-part episode, we start a meander along the road of contemporary western Buddhism stopping to introduce some of those who are attempting innovation in one manner or another. We talk about Reggie Ray and his continuation of Chogyam Trungpa’s project of westernising Buddhist Tantra. We discuss the Aro-Ter and their eccentric approach and Ken McLeod and his Unfettered Mind.
Part 2.2 looks into the Buddhist Geeks, Dharma Overground, Daniel Ingram & Kenneth Folk, and the bad boys of the American scene, the Speculative non-Buddhism posse of Glenn Wallis, Tom Pepper and Matthias Steingass, as well as the remains of their controversial project.
A hint was made some time ago that a podcast was in the works. Well, finally, it’s made its way into the world. It’s an odd little child which will need time to grow and gain a form that will serve a role in the contemporary Buddhist landscape. For now, it’s an experiment: an attempt to share conversations between two long-term Buddhists that have not been particularly good at towing the line and doing the normal Buddhist thing. In this podcast we mix banter, uncompromising discussion and down-to-earth enquiry on all manner of topic related to Western Buddhism.
The first episode is short and sweet, offering an introduction to the hosts, the podcast and the direction we intend to take. It is only about five minutes long so it’s probably best considered a mini episode. The second episode will involve a discussion of the contemporary, alternative Western Buddhist landscape, which will be followed by an episode on cults in Buddhism.
The big picture involves us looking to interview figures, who are relatively well-known in the contemporary Western Buddhist scene and that are doing things differently, as well as more fringe figures whose voices haven’t yet been heard but who in our opinion have something very important and interesting to share.
Ultimately, this podcast plans to go where other Buddhist podcast fear to tread. As non-experts, and not being Buddhist teachers, we enjoy the sort of freedom that lends itself to uninhibited discussion of the sorts of topics often avoided by others in the Buddhist world. As with any successful podcast project, it will be as much for our own pleasure and curiosity as for the wider community. There exists a clear line of tension between these two and we will explore that line as the series goes on. We hope that some of you will enjoy accompanying us as we explore and experiment. If you have suggestions on potential guests who are unknown, drop us a line.
Finally, for now, episodes can be downloaded from soundcloud or listened to on mixcloud. We also have a dedicated Facebook page and Twitter feed where comments can be made, criticisms can be given and compliments are welcome too. Enjoy.
This is part two of a two-part series on reconfiguring enlightenment. You can find part 1 here.
Stage one: stream entry
Taking nirvana as implying freedom from, the four stages can be defined in terms of what we progressively become free of. In each case, the four stages signify a break from identification with a number of fetters. I will stray from traditional descriptions in an attempt to clarify their phenomenological reading.
The three fetters dismantled during the first stage are;
1. Identity view/self-identity (seeing through the self-making compulsion)
2. Sceptical doubt (specifically regarding the truth of non-self, impermanence and its implications, the root causes of the suffering-self)
3. Clinging to rites and rituals (gaining sobriety on the nature of external form & its relationship to actual, direct experience/addressing dissonance) + (losing enamoredness for solely symbolic forms, or the stabilisers of identity)
The first fetter is concerned with how we actively view the self: the illusion of a fixed, permanent self-existing I that is apart from the world. It is the most important fetter to deconstruct as it forms the basis of all the others. Gaining freedom from this fetter requires that we break this illusion and see clearly how the self, as we thought it to exist, is empty of any solid, fixed features and how it is hollow and beset by spaciousness. As an intrapsychic phenomenon and form of psycho-emotional entrapment, gaining freedom from it involves a fundamental break from the nucleus of self-identity.
We recognise ourselves as selves that are embodied through the habitual flavours, moods and acts of our senses, thoughts, physical sensations and relational habits to events, spaces, objects and people. We play out stilted roles that are infused with gaps. Seeing through the first fetter must occur holistically for an uncoupling from all this to occur.
Not only does dismantling this fetter signify the recognition of the key Buddhist insight of emptiness, but it opens up the ability to view others, experience and phenomena as also being devoid of a permanent, fixed self nature.
It is funny really, because this in itself is not such a big deal. We know objectively through the sciences, but also through western philosophy dating back to Hume that nothing is fixed and eternal. To know it firsthand and to experience an override of the delusion of an atomistic ‘I’ pushes against so much of what constitutes our sense of self that it is easier said than done. That does not mean it is not possible, however, or a task that needs to be relegated to future lifetimes or decades from now.
The second fetter is sceptical doubt which typically relates to Buddhist teachings. Shorn of Buddhism as a social construct, what form does such doubt take if the person is not a Buddhist? That is to say, if a non-Buddhist gains freedom from this fetter, how does he or she experience it and know it to be so? Which teachings should we assume are confirmed by this process? Do we include moral injunctions to avoid oral sex for example? A crude example I admit, but the point should be clear; doubt in this case has to be towards phenomena that are not restricted to or by Buddhism. Buddhism articulates well a number of core insights that relate to the nature of the self. These form the basis of a matrix of insights that are fed by destabilising identification with a phantom core self. To lose doubt towards the veracity of these insights would imply that they begin to form the basis of the world view held by the person;
• The absence of independent selves
• The nature of the suffering-self
• The impermanence of everything
• The need for some form of ethical behaviour if we are to avoid creating additional suffering
To lose doubt means to find some other approach. The opposite of doubt is faith but it can take many forms, one of which is highly problematic. Blind faith can be found in Buddhism too, especially in the more devotional forms. It is a form of ignorance based on grasping at certainties and is typically a reaction to the uncertainty that underlies our existence. Faith in the foundational truths so important to Buddhism can emerge through witnessing them at play and naturally flows from direct, experiential perception of the vacuous nature of our own form and the loss of the first fetter.
A reading of faith in this context would also imply confidence and trust in experience and the practices that have led to the fetters being broken. It can also be understood as opening to life and to experience and trusting in our ability to gain and cultivate insight and build a path through direct experience. Such experience involves loosening the patterns of self and the ties to habits that reaffirm the self which results in the unknown becoming the way. Confidence here can be understood as a capacity to withstand what the unknown reveals. Confidence also means seeing the path through. (more…)
This piece was originally written in 2010 and older readers may be familiar with it already. The original piece was badly edited and needed serious rewriting in sections and I have now completed doing so. It is shorter, less repetitive and I have added more in stage three and four, which were a little light on material.
Being such an important topic and still controversial in many Buddhist and non-Buddhist circles, there are many directions that this project could take. In applying what Glenn Wallis defines as the ‘devitalisation of charism’, which is to say removing an exalted and special category for Buddhist enlightenment, the thing becomes clearer, more visible and thoroughly devoid of mystical charm. It is grounded to a human life, rather than suspended between indefinite rebirths. It is robbed of specialness and superhuman gifts. In doing so, it becomes a human endeavour, which returns to it a value that has been lost in the talk of enlightened father figures and guru worship. It become tangible and dare I say doable. The piece is in two parts with this post providing an overview of the project, an examination of the key terminology to be used and an introduction to the four stages of awakening.
‘If you are too well connected, you stop thinking. The clamour, the immediacy, the tendency to absorb other people’s thoughts, interrupt the deep abstraction required to find your own way.’ George Monbiot
This piece was written to fill a void. One that I see as being the denial of the more ambitious aims of Buddhism amongst many contemporary practitioners in the West, including those who self-define as secular and who share many of my own views and concerns. In this piece, I explore enlightenment, prominent terminology and a model for mapping it into four stages to demystify what is most likely the core abstract feature of contemporary spiritual discourse. I take a post-traditional approach and use Buddhist materials as sign posts rather than definitive truths so although this work is indebted to traditional Buddhism it will not be limited by it, or play by its rules.
Buddhism has failed to live up to its original promise to show the world a foolproof way out of the sorts of ignorance, confusion and suffering that it specialises in, becoming too often a means for developing a shared Buddhist identity or a basis for the pursuit of the ever ephemeral goal of happiness. As rich historical phenomena, it provides a wealth of valuable material that can aid our understanding of the human condition, including techniques and practices that lead to insight into our shared human condition and a moral framework to guide an individual to be less destructive. At the same time, Buddhism has stagnated in its traditional expressions whilst failing to evolve into a truly radical western form able to bring about individual and collective liberation to any meaningful scale. In undergoing cosmetic changes and evolving into user friendly packages, it has grown into what we might define as ‘Buddhism-Light’.
This text attempts to push the phenomenological value of Buddhist enlightenment into the shared human landscape, unhindered by cumbersome institutional politics and traditional ideological ties, in order to construct an imagining of spiritual enlightenment that is rooted in our embodied, finite nature, and that has little concern for super powers and eternal salvation in Buddha-fields.
The approach taken is post-traditional which means engaging critically with Buddhism and leaving all forms of traditional allegiance behind whilst utilizing other sources of knowledge to explore it as human phenomena. On a personal level, post-traditional involves risking personal investments made in specific Buddhist narratives to come to an honest, authentic reading and engagement with Buddhism and its central tenets: an ongoing process that requires dedication to examining the explicit and hidden pay offs that occur through allegiance with the Buddhist identity. It is often forgotten that identity is in great part the problem that is being got at through Buddhism’s methods.
A post-traditional approach refuses special claims or categories for Buddhism and its insights, and expects Buddhist materials to stand alone, without need of faith or a privileged status to validate their veracity. Because it is post-traditional, this piece is an exploration unhindered by the social mores of any specific Buddhist community, where discussing enlightenment and claims to such are taboo, and where norms regarding Buddhism’s end goal are established and often act to limit creative and critical engagement regarding its obtainment or lack thereof. Leaving aside such baggage, this piece hopefully builds a case for a reconfiguration of enlightenment in which its thoroughly human potential is made explicit and doable.
The Wording of the Thing
Buddhism is full of abstractions, terms that lend themselves to multiple translations, conceptual reformulations and biases. Ridding ourselves of the temptation to indulge in intangibles and absolutes is essential for an honest revaluation of Buddhism in the West and this is especially so when considering enlightenment. The way we talk about it must be examined carefully if we are to make sense of what it alludes to and the first step involves examining the terminology commonly used to define the thing. If the act of achieving some form of spiritual enlightenment is a genuine worthwhile human attainment, then it must be definable outside of a religious or spiritual tradition’s idiom. The type of language that is used to describe spiritual enlightenment is too often bombastic, supernatural, and out of touch with people’s experience within the traditions. What’s more, enlightenment is often described as ineffable which opens it up to all manner of interpretation, and basically implies that such a possibility is beyond examination, leading back to the dead end of trust in wiser authorities and a division between those who know and those that don’t. Rather than blind faith, I would suggest that we need a clearer way of talking about the thing. Rather than dismissive assertions that it is something beyond words, we can start by looking at some of the key terms within Buddhism used to define enlightenment and see what they are actually pointing to.