Meditation; some post-traditional thoughts

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Who’s meditating?

Many who come to Buddhism see meditation as being its essence. However, as many Buddhist scholars like to point out, in most Asian countries, meditation is, and always has been, practised by an extremely small percentage of Buddhists, like really, almost nobody. Buddhism for the masses has long been primarily about worship, prayer, supplication and rituals. Although some might say that there is inherent within such practices meditative states, and though that may well be so for some, explicit formal meditation practice has long been the domain of the elite: either the aristocrats and spiritual specialists in countries such as Tibet and Japan, or of the very few in South East Asian countries who dedicated their lives to the renunciate way of life. In the West then we are doing something quite different from the traditions that have gone before. Western Buddhism is already very different at a lay level to what it has ever been. We might even argue that modern Western Buddhism as practised by westerners is already post-traditional. That said my post-traditional is an attempt at self-description outside of tradition, meaning free of attempts to transpose an exotic Eastern Buddhist form into Western society with all the mimicry and the adoption of a Buddhist identity that goes along with it. And in spite of my fondness for much of Glenn Wallis’ work, I have to confess to being a Buddhist.

Post-traditional and meditation

What would post-traditional Buddhist meditation look like? What does it look like to deeply practice a Buddhist meditation technique outside of a tradition? Is there any value or worth in removing Buddhist meditation techniques from the tradition in which they have been developed and shared, and stood the test of time? In truth, each of these questions has already been answered and they are continuing to be answered by the many people that stumble along with varying degrees of success, finding their own way through books, videos, podcasts, and different degrees of experience had within established Buddhist groups. Meditation techniques themselves were developed by people of course, many of whom were stepping outside of tradition, or adapting and modernising existing traditions. Every time we place ourselves in sincere relationship with a meditation practice, we are adapting the technique through our personal and individual process, bringing new material into relationship with the practice, that is say, making the practice our own. Every time you sit down to meditate, it is a new moment, a new act. This immediacy, if conscious, is an antidote to complacency and a challenge to prescriptive behavioural modification that many traditional forms and approaches to meditation practice take or condone. How far an individual will go in this process will determine how radically they change. After all, if Buddhism has any worth, it is this, change.

My relationship with Buddhism is one of fluctuation, shifting in and out of a sort of intimate embrace, going deeply into shifting possibilities, whilst stepping back and examining with Western eyes and hands: teasing apart delicately and testing through personal experience the human potential within Buddhism’s human articles. Arguing over the ideological content and agenda inherent within politicised religious formations is one approach to take in reviewing Buddhism as a whole, especially if serious disillusionment has settled in and the rot has begun. Another is to deny it its supernatural claims and see it as a rich and varied history of human endeavour, and as such, open to a very human interpretation and reformulation, and this is the approach I like to take here. I feel I go further than the Secular Buddhists, but not as far as Wallis, Steingass and Pepper.

A post-traditional approach, as the British sociologist Anthony Giddens points out, is aware of choice and the constructed nature of tradition. Post-traditional goes beyond prescription to self-determination. If I am not a product of tradition, if I am not an autonym that acts in accordance with a fixed past, then I must necessarily choose how to engage and how to act in a (hopefully) conscious relationship with tradition/s. Post-traditional implies a degree of freedom then and awareness about that freedom. If deference to tradition sits opposite modern self-reflection, then a question that emerges is why do people grasp at the seeming solidity of tradition and not embrace a more self-aware relationship with Buddhism as the construct that it is? Well, in part, traditions, especially of the religious persuasion, have a nasty habit of defending themselves from progress and change. Impermanence has long been the enemy of stability and Buddhist institutions are no strangers to this in spite of what they preach. The old anti-modernity pursuit of a pure past, authentic tradition, the guarantor of expertise and so forth are the weapons raised in defence against the uncertainty and destabilising nature of change. Of course this friction plays out constantly at all levels of society, but, perhaps we, as in you and I, can embrace uncertainty and recognise Darwin’s claim that it is not the strongest that survive, but those most able to adapt to change.

8 comments

  1. There is also no way to track your progress or your stats on a DVD without keeping your own records.
    Using a turn-based fighting engine to replicate
    battles between characters from multiple games & mediums.
    This would of course depend on how old the children are.

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  2. Hi Matthew,

    I think you are doing some sterling work on this website. I like your approach to assessing the utility of meditation techniques. My question is this – what would a post-traditional Buddhist meditation practice look like? As you mention in your article, many meditators learn meditation nowadays from books, DVDs, podcasts etc. However, many of these people get to a point where they feel that they are not progressing with their practice and reach out to a teacher or community to get help. Unfortunately, this is often where the whole x-Buddhism indoctrination process kicks in and the disciple finds that they have to buy into a whole load of dogma and ritual. It also brings into play the uneven power relationship between teacher and student, which can lead to abuse in certain situations. In an ideal world, the student would be able to pick up a practice with a clear notion of its value and track their progress without recourse to a teacher. But at the moment I don’t really see how this might be possible. Do you have any ideas?

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    1. Hi David,
      Many apologies for not replying to this before. It must have slipped through the net!
      Firstly, thank you for your kind words.
      There are a few teachers who are exploring post-traditional approaches or that are working with tradition in self-conscious ways. It’s early days for those who’ve become disillusioned with tradition though. For those willing to tolerate the theatre of tradition and make the most of it, the Aro-Ter are doing good work as is Reggie Ray and some of Ken McLeod’s ex-students might be doing good work if they’re following in his footsteps.
      Otherwise there are teachers like Hokai Sobol who work 1:1 with students in a coaching model that would fit the description you’ve laid out. I do the same myself, although I don’t explicitly teach Buddhism rather I frame meditation in a coaching relationship.
      Matthew

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  3. I have another question. I x-Buddhism we often see the demand that the practitioner within the tradition eschews techniques outside that tradition. This could be at its extreme in zen where the demand is that one practices zazen exclusively and the insistence that any benefit of another form of meditation will come from zazen when it comes. How would a post-traditional approach respond to that demand? Might it begin by asking the extra-theoretical question of ideological purity? Does the demand function to instill ideological conviction that promotes one form of Buddhism over the others? I often see the demand being formulated as compassionate advice for students: Don’t practice other forms of meditation because it will confuse the issue- you should stick with x-practice because introducing y-practice will confuse you and you will get lost in them, diluting both. This seems almost insulting viewed from outside a tradition oriented approach. It implies an inability to separate practices, to know that “now I am doing zazen; now I am doing a metta practice.” After all in any other field it is possible to learn multiple practices in the same time period. For instance it is possible to learn diagnostic skills and counselling skills at the same time when learning to become a medical practitioner. What would your reply be to this?

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    1. There are a couple of points worth making.
      1) Sticking to a specific technique is good advice if the person finds that it fits and they can establish a constructive, healthy relationship with a decent teacher. Part of meditation practice involves faith; faith that change and insight will ensue if you stick at it through the ups and downs and inevitable resistance patterns as they come up. In this regard, switching around too much leads to confusion, dispersiveness and a loss of direction. A large part of practice involves building momentum and capacity; kind of like running marathons. The pay off comes down the road and through disciplined, consistent training.
      I think you can combine techniques into a workable sequence but switching between very different methods without a clear sense of why or what you’re hoping to obtain from doing so would certainly be counter-productive in my experience. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try it though.
      2) Once a person sticks to a method, they need ongoing guidance to refine their relationship with it as something that is living rather than frozen in an idealised form. Inexperienced teachers may not be able to teach in this way. Teachers strongly identified with orthodoxy, the ‘pure’ tradition, or that lack the autonomy and creative ability to respond to the human in front of them will all struggle with a post-traditional approach which prioritises actual experience built through practice.
      This is true of the teaching of any material, though. I teach English in Italy and expecting students to fit to my style is a poor methodological approach. That said, structure, form, direction, all informed by well thought out pedagogical principles are essential. There is relationship between form and innovation. What’s more, no teacher is perfect and so there needs to be negotiation. That said, good teaching comes when teachers are constantly learning, refining and seeking to respond to the human in front of them.
      3) Not all techniques are equal, not all meditation techniques produce the same results. Most paths though will either state they are superior or normalise everything so that the same goal is envisioned. For most intelligent Westerners, experimentation is essential but as with any skill, you need to invest a decent amount of time before getting a handle on whether it’s for you or not. That said, sometimes it’s a case of going with your gut or what attracts you most and accepting the tradeoffs if you can’t find a decent teacher willing to accept explorative critique and innovation.

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