What does Buddhism have to learn from the evolution of martial arts?

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Royce Gracie celebrating victory at UFC 01 in 1993

I was recently having a conversation with a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism here in Italy and I used an analogy in our conversation which I would like to expand on here to explain further the reasoning behind a post-traditional approach to Buddhism and the sort of ideas we are exploring in the Imperfect Buddha podcast.

The teacher made two standard concessions when we spoke about traditional Buddhism and the sort of approach I and others take. They were Authority and Tradition. Implicit in his discourse were three factors;

  1. Authority is a given and unquestionable. The guru/master holds authority
  2. Expectation others ought to recognise this authority as it is given, followers must act on blind faith
  3. History tradition is ancient and this antiquity justifies its position and guarantees the first two

Needless to say, I find such factors problematic and emblematic of the failure of western Buddhists to critically evaluate their own traditions. I will explore why developments in martial arts may offer a means to reflect on necessary change in western Buddhism.

Kung Fu is an umbrella term for Chinese martial arts and includes a multitude of variants that developed over the last centuries.  There are regional varieties and world famous styles such as Wushu, as well as innovation in the form of Jeet Kun Do, created by the martial arts legend that is Bruce Lee. Each style has its own legends and myths and until very recently each tended to define itself as the best in an enduring theoretical competition that included the other martial arts. Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris exemplified this in their 1972 film The Way of the Dragon, which culminates in a dramatic showdown between these two styles.

Before having to stop for health reasons, I practised a multitude of martial arts styles for twenty odd years so the amount of time I have dedicated to Buddhism and the martial skills is almost identical. The discourse of superiority has been near identical in both worlds. During the 90s, the members of Buddhist groups in the UK that I visited would point out that their form of Buddhism was the best, or the purest, or the most authentic in a very similar fashion to martial artists. This was expressed explicitly by over-eager followers but teachers would almost always be guilty of the same indulgence. Both Buddhism and Martial Arts come from the ‘exotic’ East with all its connotations of otherness so I guess it should come as no surprise that there would be some shared history in their reception in the West.

Mixed Martial Arts or MMA is the latest development in the martial arts and it started in the 90s, although attempts to combine different fighting styles have taken place throughout history they have never even come close to the cross training that is an integral part of this new approach to combat. MMA is a relatively new ‘sport’ or fighting concept that continues to evolve ever since the first Ultimate Fighting Championship aired in 1993. The original mandate of the UFC was to test the long-standing abstract debate between different martial arts styles in order to finally discover which was best. All styles would and could compete but they would fight for real, and with no holds barred. The first editions of the competition were pretty brutal for a variety of reasons, one being how bad so many of the fighters were in the face of a real fight, away from the imaginary spaces they had inhabited in their gyms. The arrival of the UFC signalled the end of such fantasy, and of a new dominance of pragmatism in the martial arts landscape. It is fair to say that if a traditional karate or kung fu fighter from any time in history and from any of the schools were to fight competent mixed martial artists today, he or she would lose.

The UFC went through various phases and as fighters came up against reality, many adapted. The first winner was a man called Royce Gracie who introduced the world to ground fighting, specifically Brazilian Jujitsu. Later wrestlers began to dominate and they were followed by kick boxers. As time went on, all of the fighters coming into the UFC, or other MMA contests, began to train in multiple styles, refining and experimenting to find the most effective methods, tactics and training to ensure they would win real fights in real competition. Rules were made to bring the sport closer to the mainstream and three styles became the basis for almost all fighters; Freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling, Brazilian Jujitsu and a standing style that was Kickboxing, Thai Boxing or western Boxing.

MMA is a post-traditional approach to combat and it has changed the landscape of martial arts dramatically and irreversibly. Traditional martial arts still exist of course and they are likely going nowhere, although it is debatable whether some of the more abstract styles, which relied on a heavier dose of fantasy, will continue. Traditional martial arts are the basis for MMA and MMA could not exist without them but MMA is undisputedly the evolution of traditional martial arts. Even when karate based fighters have reintroduced lost techniques into the MMA cage or ring, they could not have done so without having the other styles as the basis for doing so.

Similar abstract myths to those once indulged in throughout martial arts gyms continue to burden discussion of the pragmatics of practice, awakening, change and social engagement in Buddhism. In a generic sweep across traditions, we might say that abstract, institutional discourse is not truly tested, the claims of teachers and long-term practitioners do not have to confront reality, romantic fantasy regarding teachers flourish and fantastical claims about the end results of a given path are held up as never-to-be-achieved goals. If we were to playfully compare the martial arts styles to Buddhisms, it could look something like this; Tibetans as karate practitioners (Buddhism at its purest & highest), Theravadan practitioners as Kung Fu fighters (The original and authentic), Zen could be Aikido (The simplest, most direct & minimalist), and so on. What’s relevant in the analogy is that each, when isolated, makes great claims and draws on a combination of abstract, theoretical sources and calls to authority, with very little real challenge. One claims history, the other evolution. One claims the highest teachings, the other the most direct, even as they feign mutual respect.

My view of Buddhism is that it is slowly approaching a similar process of change to the martial arts. The field in which the results of practice, belief and praxis play out is partially a public one. Discussions at sites such as Buddhist Geeks and the Secular Buddhist Association can be weighed against discussion, articles and comments at sites such as The Dharma Overground, Speculative Non-Buddhism and David Chapman’s Meaningness. Twitter plays its role too, less so Facebook, and academia is increasingly present in the ongoing discussion of what Buddhism is, what it can do, what it can’t do, and how it should evolve. A public arena in the form of an Ultimate Buddhist Championship does not exist of course and there is no UBC. Whereas all committed martial artists will likely know of the UFC, scores of long-term Buddhist practitioners in the West can be oblivious to all activity, debate and critique going on outside of their dharma centre walls.

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Bruce Lee showing off his ground fighting skills in Enter the Dragon (1973)

Mindfulness is the big game changer it seems, not only for its role in popularising Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism but because it challenges many of the assumptions that dominate traditional Buddhist groups and destabilises some of the accumulated bullshit. The sense of superiority, righteousness and a noble cause are diminished by the spread of meditation without the spiritual and religious attachments. There is little room for mysticism. Just as MMA requires no belts, martial philosophy, exotic costumes and bows, meditation can be practiced by CEOs, soldiers and politicians without a gompa, stick bashing Zen master, or robes, and such new wave practitioners can apparently become more effective at their immoral actions in the process without need of Buddhist morality. It is working for them without a complex, pre-modern worldview and ethical expectations, or an ancient history and mythological founder. This upsets many a Buddhist and perhaps it should but it also destabilises in an interesting way the hegemony of tradition and its possession of meditation techniques. It has also opened the door to greater degrees of scientific research and analysis which is proving enlightening to say the least.

The meeting of modernity with Buddhism is in part a traumatic one, though I would imagine less so in the West as it’s only been around for a short period here and has already absorbed many of the coping mechanisms put in place by the Boomer generation onwards. Buddhism thus exists in a state of tension in the West, a sort of hall of mirrors, in which its faults and failings are available to those willing to look. Yet, the reaction of many Buddhist is to stay inside the retreat of tradition and rely on abstract guarantees such as history, textual authority and group consensus that mirror similar strategies employed by Christian and Islamic groups. Additionally, a division is made between the personal and the collective; “I have my beliefs, my practices, my religion, my way and I have my own experience and it works for me. The forces of encroaching knowledge, insight and understanding provided by developments in the academic fields can stay out there; unless they support my beliefs, in which case I will accept use them to justify my position.” This is a well practised form of retreat from the world and represents a form of renunciation. On a good day I understand the motivation for such a move and feel compassion and empathy towards those people doing so. On a regular day I tend to consider it a form of escapist, voluntary ignorance. People actively choose to be ignorant, to say no to what is real, to object to facts, to sideline destabilising insight, in order to strengthen the ideational fantasy that has been co-constructed with other refugees from the real.

An alternative is to be brave, to embrace change and evolution, to accept the need for human practice and belief to move through ongoing cycles of renewal, rebirth if you will, to be revitalised by exploration, human curiosity and participation. There are a number of folks actively involved in working on Buddhism to varying degrees. They are doing so in their own ways, some in the public eye such as Shinzen Young and Ken McLeod, others in the shadows, such as Hokai Sobol. Eastern teachers have not been immune to this process. Chogyam Trungpa stands out of course but the lesser known Tarthang Tulku was an under-appreciated genius as far as reformulating Buddhism is concerned and his Time, Space and Knowledge series from the 1970s was ahead of its time. There are incredible minds engaging with Buddhism from the outside looking in, from the destructive insight of Slavoj Žižek to the insightful elaborations of David McMahan on Buddhism and modernity, or the more recent attempt to address the notion of emptiness through the application of critical theory and European philosophy in the book Nothing by Timothy Morton, Marus Boon and Eric Cazdyn. These are just a few.

It would be useful for us to consider Buddhism as having its UFC moment. It would be wise for more long-term practitioners to experiment, explore and consider what works, both in terms of individual practice but also in the form of social connection, the creation of community, co-practice and the extension of Buddhist practice to wider social engagement. This means acting on Buddhism and using tools to explore Buddhism that are non-Buddhist and not locked in the three calls to tradition as the sole source of wisdom and the rest. Just as karate dojos can be found in most major cities, so will traditional Buddhist schools continue to hold meaning, relevance and a place of practice and community for many. Just as traditional styles of martial arts can now supply innovation in the tri-partite skill set of modern MMA fighters, so will traditional Buddhisms continue to be sources of never-ending exploration, the adoption of techniques and practices and the renewal of forgotten concepts. Some will fail, some will be integrated, some will be innovated.

The ideas and beliefs that form the basis for mindfulness and a non-traditional praxis of human awakening will be philosophical as well as scientific. Even if you are non-philosophically trained, like me, that should not prevent you from thinking through the big ideas and insights that have poured out of the western intellectual tradition, especially during the last hundred years. This is an exciting time to be involved in Buddhism and the disrupting forces from the great feast of knowledge. So, put on some gloves, find yourself a kick bag and get popping with them punches. You could end up with something beautiful and do your bit to help Buddhism evolve and change and therefore continue to hold relevance in a fast evolving and changing world.

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Boxing V Sumo wrestling

19 comments

  1. That you could mention Trungpa as contributing something valuable is ridiculous. He was a drunken self-indulgent SOB given to the usual violent rages typical of alcoholics everywhere. He appointed a Dharma heir who managed to do even worse: rape, knowingly passing on HIV, and shifting the organization to be more of a “look at no other teachers” style of cult. Although, since his departure (and death), I hear that the organization has moved away from that, but I cannot be sure as I want no further connection with that organization.

    Re Tharthang, the book of his that you cited is, indeed, intriguing, but his organization, at least the people I met in Berkeley, are deep into the “look at no other teachers” hysteria. I know that because, while there, I happened to mention the lama who was preceptor for my refuge vows. They nearly shit themselves with rage and told me never to mention that again, especially in front of other students. If we are to take these of examples of what to look forward to, I think the only possible response would be despair. I know nothing of Mr Young. You do mention Ken McLeod, and he seems decent enough, so maybe not all is worthy of despair. However, you really need to look at these people more critically. Just being western and a bit divergent from tradition is really not a recommendation. As part of the proof of a teaching, I expect to see virtue in the teacher and his close students. If there is little or no virtue there, or even rape and addiction, the teaching is rubbish.

    Also, that you see anything of value in MMA is equally bizarre. The other martial traditions maybe be old and stultified and burdened with trappings from the east, but are they really such a bad thing when compared to the MMA is new, unburdened by ceremony, and deeply depraved. Joao Carvalho was, essentially, punched to death in a cage in Dublin, and even that delicate flower, Conor McGregor, seems ready to give up on MMA after that particular death. The MMA may be exciting, but it is a sickness. Is that the sort of future you hope to see for Dharma in the west?

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    1. Hi Luis,
      Trungpa became what he did and his life story is certainly tumultuous. Does that he mean he had nothing to contribute as a deeply flawed but at times brilliant human being? His books were a radical departure from the other dharma texts on offer. His many flaws do not discount that. We can be realistic about who he was and the mess he made, specifically with his heir. But we can also appreciate the innovation in his teaching style.
      I have heard similar stories about Thartang’s students but again that doesn’t discount the value and innovation in his TKS series.
      I obviously see the generation of Tibetan teachers that came over as human beings, flawed, imperfect and as carrying immense amounts of baggage. To expect them to be anything other than flawed seems rather naive. Their students seem to be as much the problem as the teachers themselves.
      MMA is fascinating and many people practice it as a martial art and do not compete. Many gyms that offer MMA for regular folk generally started out as traditional centres for martial arts and bring the culture of respect and personal discipline and growth to MMA training. If you look at boxing or American Football, the long-term health consequences are worse than for MMA fighters on the whole.
      The point I make is that both will continue to exist. You can still do traditional martial arts but it’s useful to know that a lot of what you learn is useless in the real world. A good self defence course is likely more effective that a great deal of traditional martial arts if pragmatism is prioritised. Many traditional martial arts gyms are also re-evaluating their styles due to the arrival of MMA, My wife does karate and her teacher has been innovating the approach they take as a result.
      Matthew

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  2. Hi Matthew,

    The parallels you note here have also occurred to me. And to be fair the connection has long been played up in martial arts circles. Watching the TV show Kung Fu with David Carradine may have been the single most important factor in my becoming a Buddhist and was not unrelated to my dabbling in martial arts over the years. My martial arts teachers all played up the legend of Shaolin – which I now understand to be entirely bogus.

    I think the analogy you draw with MMA is very apt. Although Luis characterises UFC as brutal and “depraved” I would say that this is the reality of violence. The notion of noble warrior-monks practising violence with impunity has always struck me as ridiculous. I experienced a great deal of real violence in my childhood and I think it’s best that we don’t Romanticise it. And most martial arts do exactly this. Violence is ugly, and yes, often deadly. One ought not to train in the techniques of applied violence without some sense of the reality of violence. One cannot get that from movies or in the average dojo. Anyone doing martial arts ought to experience being punched hard in the face by a hostile assailant at least once. It changes you.

    Many of us are still talking about Buddhism in a naive way that suggests we’re on the road to Enlightenment. My local centre is advertising a retreat with the theme “Mastering the Mind” and my thought was, “Who is going to lead it? Who around here has already mastered their mind?” It’s a clickbait headline. This is not to say that the short retreat will not be valuable to the participants and that they won’t learn something and maybe even go deeper in their meditation. That kind of thing used to work very well for me when I was newer to Buddhism. The trouble is one suspects that the people running it take themselves a bit too seriously – they’re not aware enough of the gap between what they can really offer and the clickbait.

    One of the good things about mindfulness is that it is clear about what is on offer. On the whole the people offering it are experienced in applying the techniques (the people I know who do it all have decades of practice behind them). They have a problem with sloppy methodology and publication bias, but it’s out in the open now and that will make it easier to deal with.

    I’m fascinated watching my own Sangha struggle with the collision between tradition and modernity – it has been an ongoing thing for us as our Founder has always had an ambivalent response to the living tradition. Some want to just follow the founder to the letter and refer to themselves as “disciples”. Some want to abandon the founder and strike out in new directions. It’s an open secret that all the most respected meditation teachers in our movement have sought outside help with meditation – with teachers such as Shenpen Hookham. Some continue to assert that our system of practice is complete and capable of leading to Awakening (though evidence of this is lacking IMHO), but every 5-10 years or so there is a controversy over the introduction of new techniques.

    For example about 10 years ago Dzogchen, Pure Awareness, style practices were introduced unilaterally by a small group of meditation teachers and quickly spread. Our movement polarised to some extent. Some rejected the existing practices we do and only did Pure Awareness practices for a time. Other’s rejected it from the outset. Some claimed we’d been doing it all along under another name. There was debate and eventually the new style of practice was assimilated and naturalised – we had to adopt new metaphors and images for practice and attainment in the process in order to place the practice within our doctrinal framework. The thing is that for some people the new style of practice led to significant progress (typically those with some years of meditation practice behind them already). The same thing is happening over the last couple of years with Direct Pointing. In 5 years time it will no doubt be something else.

    With the MMA approach many more people are having substantial insight experiences. Like the rest of the Buddhist world we are discussing Insight more openly, though in our case it tends to be in forums for members of our Order (though some may be participating in other forums, I’m not sure). And in fact when you look at the history of Buddhism this has been happening forever. The early Buddhist canon is highly syncretistic and has obvious influences from Jainism, Brahmanism, animism and (I have argued in my published articles) from Zoroastrianism. Buddhism always had a permeable boundary and interacted with other forms of religion and culture in a promiscuous way.

    Within our movement some people are more conservative and some more progressive. No large group of people are ever going to be homogeneous. This is partly why I remain suspicious about characterisations such as “consensus Buddhism” or “x-Buddhism” – they imply that everyone can be summed up in a label. It’s never true and it usually serves some agenda when it happens – which might be as simple as making a critique seem more plausible than it otherwise might. Plenty of martial artists who might do badly in UFC could easily beat the crap out of me – most of the blackbelts I encountered in martial arts training were strong, flexible, fast, focussed, and formidable. I respected almost all of them. I respect almost all of the serious Buddhist practitioners I’ve met in person also.

    Regards
    Jayarava

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    1. I think your point about blanket condemnation is very important. I tend to view it as overly reactive and lacking creativity. An excess of cynicism has always struck me as a human failing. I love critical thinking but when it only serves to deconstruct and note failings and itself fails to provide alternatives or appreciate the need for them, well, then I see it as either counter-productive or a half hearted effort. It can be extremely exciting and stimulating to engage in rabid deconstruction, as was the case for me at the SNB site, but my question was always, what’s next? It was kind of like having the fore play without the main meal and climax.

      I had a wise non-Buddhist teacher once who made a very simple observation when I was critiquing a Buddhist group I had recently left. She said that deconstruction is fine but what are you constructing in the process. She was right. We cannot purify our existence of all traces by breaking everything down until nothing remains. We are constantly producing as we destroy.

      I have recently got into the habit of defining my own amateur attempts to think about and critique Buddhism as critical-creative thinking. This is not a sort of good-natured, well-meaning attempt to avoid offending or placidly view all Buddhisms and their practices as benign. Rather, it’s an attempt to be more generous, more appreciative of human complexity and the imperfect nature of ideas and practices. I don’t want to give highly dysfunctional Buddhist groups like the NKT a free pass or consider the beliefs of Buddhism to be perfect or harmless. I do want to recognise that humans have complex needs, and in particular, complex social needs. Group activity, participation and elaboration is fundamental to meeting those needs and, almost always, to getting anything done. We are drawn to each other and to participation and the question of what to do and how to be together is far more challenging and nuanced than pointing out what’s wrong.

      Secondly, thanks for elaborating on the theme of violence. I agree with your points and you saved me a job. I also had an all too familiar relationship with violence in my youth and it is what led me to start training in martial arts, which was one of the major factors that saved me from a life of crime.

      Finally, it’s interesting to hear what you have to share about the changes in your Buddhist group. The inevitable tensions that exist in groups fascinate me and raise questions regarding the degree to which we awkward creatures can remain and stay together. The basis for group stability seems to be conformity and yet stagnation leads to death. Oh, what a wonder and terror to be human, dichotomies and paradoxes everywhere.

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  3. Very interesting read, Matthew. As a meditator and someone involved in martial arts, I feel this an apt analogy, on several fronts.

    I suppose the key component is that MMA thrives on ‘reality testing’; there is zero room for bullshit, lest you get choked unconscious or kicked in the face. It does away with all the logical fallacies employed to give authority to traditions and orthodoxy (as you addressed).

    Another aspect, is openness. Whereas the sciences may take something like homeopathy and burn it at the stake, MMA tells the woo-woo-wushu dude that they are welcome back any time, literally and figuratively. What we are seeing in MMA is how some really niche techniques from highly dysfunctional systems such as tae-kwon-do, actually hold real world value. This seems to have prevented stagnation in the evolutionary process of MMA, and stagnation is the mother of fixity, orthodoxy, and ultimately dysfunction.

    When we look at how this applies to Buddhism, we should be aware of how we might have the impulse to burn dysfunctional systems or concepts. Instead, we should maintain the openness that allowed the change in the first place, and have confidence that the real-world functionality of the new model slowly but surely reduces the (false) authority of the previous one. The ‘no-touch’ woo woo systems still exist to this day, but no one really takes them seriously; there is no longer any ambiguity. Also, these woo-systems are no longer ‘closed-systems’ that authorise themselves; ‘reality-testing’ opened the system without consent. The flexibility remains however, that someone operating within the flow of the new system can still bring in techniques or concepts from woo-woo-land, extracting value in the form of ‘potential growth nodes’.

    There are also the parallels of practicality. Just as a white belt in jiujitsu does not have the capacity to operate as effectively as a black belt, as a player within that temporarily closed system – they probably have even lower capacity in the open system of MMA. Likewise, someone who has been doing a particular method of shamatha-vipashyana for say a five years, is probably of too low a capacity to effectively ‘reality-test’ within the ‘open system’. If we are to have an effective evolutionary process, do you think that we necessarily require it to be tested by people of high capacity from various systems? Otherwise we are left with a load of white belts flailing about whilst pretending they’re adding boxing techniques to their already shitty repetoir.

    Just a few thoughts off the top of my head, for what they might be worth. Apologies if they’re not expressed very clearly. Either way, I enjoyed the read, Matthew.

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    1. Hi Jack,
      You bring up one point I wanted to include in the piece but didn’t manage, which is the issue of expertise. In my original moments of enthusiasm for acting on Buddhism, I made a call for ALL Buddhists to get involved in its reconfiguration. In this piece, I suggest that advanced practitioners do so or at least those with a decade or two under their belts. Either way, it’s a rather naive, utopian call! That said, any serious, intelligent, thinking explorer of Buddhism would do well to apply analytical critique to Buddhism and years of practice are not necessarily required. Some Buddhists spend decades changing very little and others can see quite remarkable shifts in a year of intensive practice. All western Buddhist, at the least, ought to educate themselves further on it history and evolution and doing so tends to lead to a serious evaluation of Buddhisms’ internal narratives and once certain ideational dominoes start to fall, the edifice of beliefs tend to follow. For many folks drawn to the SNB, the result was divorce. For others, the attraction to Buddhism or its practices and promises remains and that is certainly the case for me.
      The issue of sufficient, quality testing is a biggy. I obviously don’t have all the answers. The internet has allowed a greater degree of interaction between those experimenting but it is very early days. I would like to see more peer based discussion regarding the themes raised here and in the latest podcast episode and that may be something I organise, initially through a podcast episode. I would like to organise a series of loose collaborations based on countering Buddhist bullshit in a playful informative manner. Basically though, those who are looking at Buddhism with some degree of creative critique should dare to go further.
      I agree with your generosity with regards to remaining open to variety. I sort of feel that there is room for all of it but I still want to encourage those leaving the faithful fold to not abandon the potential that Buddhism has held but recognise that it is not Buddhism per se that awakens people to their all too human plight and the possibility of managing suffering but rather that Buddhism has been a repository of human beliefs and practices that has had its moments but like all ideological systems, needs renewal and that it is most likely outsiders or the fringe element who will revitalise Buddhism or invent an alternative. At the same time, as I mention in the text, traditional Buddhisms will continue to exist. My hope is that more of them will risk innovation to evolve with the times.
      Those are a few rambling thought sin response to your comment.

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  4. An interesting read. However, underlying your piece is the assumption that meditation minus Buddhism has something of value to offer. I completely agree with you that traditional Buddhism takes one down a cul de sac. But meditation minus Buddhism is nothing more than a relaxation technique or an opportunity to ‘be in the present’, or some other type of Eckhart Tolle style BS. At least if you learn MMA you stand a chance of defending yourself in a street fight – there’s a tangible benefit to doing it. Even the traditional martial arts have something to teach about discipline, focus, attention to detail and perserverance. I just don’t see what meditation or Buddhism has to offer that is of any tangible benefit. You’ve already debunked the notion of awakening in a previous podcast; you clearly have no time for the mythology and hagiography associated with traditional Buddhism, so what is left over of any use? Why are you so keen to keep the festering corpse of Buddhism alive?

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    1. Because even if there is not awakening, there could still be a reduction in suffering. Even if there is no true mythology, mindfulness could still tie in with purpose-making narratives. I’m interested to hear Matthew’s take on this. This is where I’m currently stuck. I’m looking for those individuals that David Chapman hopes for some day to take more life-affirming practices from tantra and make them accessible to the west.

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    2. Hi David,
      In the podcast, we also offer an alternative take on ‘awakening’ and a way forward for exploring the human outcomes of taking Buddhist meditation practices to their supposed conclusions. We consider the possibility of some meditative practices being able to dismantle our impulsive identification with the narrative self and the deconstruction of the emotional psychological patterns that create emotional and psychological suffering. This comes from seeing Buddhism as man made and therefore not the stuff of gods and super-humans. At that point, Buddhism is simply the articulation of human potential, human searching, human questioning. Once that is understood, then Buddhism is a flawed system of human practices and beliefs. It doesn’t need to be rejected, just as many Buddhists don’t need to reject their critical thinking skills or scepticism when becoming Buddhist.
      If you see ideological systems as inherently good/bad and in need of rejection then you are closing off a part of our human heritage. I tend to see all ideological systems as attempts to answers fundamental human questions; each is flawed, each limited. I see no need to condemn Buddhism to the scrap heap for its limitations and failings. What’s more, as long as it, in its many forms, provides some benefit for those who engage with its traditional forms, great. The world is imperfect and flawed and who I am to say whether Nicherin Buddhists are deluding themselves with their mantra chanting, or whether Brits going off to join Thai monasteries are fools? Buddhism has a wealth of beautiful, practical knowledge and human practice. We can continue to draw from it as we have no truly comparable system in the West as far as meditative/contemplative practice is concerned. For some of us, doing so has immense value. If that is not the case for you, I wonder why you would continue to read about Buddhism?

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      1. Hi Matthew, Thanks for taking the time to reply. I guess you could ask the non-speculative Buddhists why they read and write about Buddhism. I used to practice Zen meditation, so I am interested in reading about why people are drawn to practice and whether they get any benefit from it. I naturally have an opinion on the subject and want to contribute to the debate. I thought this blog was an attempt to critically evaluate Buddhism and ask some penetrating (and even subversive) questions about it. What I find disappointing is that you don’t seem prepared to challenge your most heartfelt beliefs. You say that meditative practices can dismantle our impulsive identification with the narrative self and deconstruct our emotional psychological patterns. How do you know that? Where’s the evidence? During the seven years I practiced Zen meditation, I kept on asking myself whether I was deriving any benefit out of it. And in the end, honesty compelled me to stop because I couldn’t see any fundamental change. My pesonal take is that meditation brings about temporary changes in one’s state of mind, some of which are quite profound at the time, but it doesn’t have any lasting effect. And if meditation isn’t of any real value that calls into question the whole contemplative edifice that you value so much. But that’s just where I’m coming from. What I’m suggesting is that we have a debate about these core issues – where we can of course agree to disagree – and we might start to look at what draws us to religion in the first place and whether these practices are really relevant and useful in the 21st century.

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  5. Hi David,
    You raise an important question regarding outcomes that is worth addressing. I have been reflecting on the relationship of results and ongoing practice, or its lack thereof, myself recently so I found your comment interesting. I don’t believe in Buddhist sufficiency so I tend to see meditation as techniques or disciplines that are best applied alongside other human practice, including the disruptive critique that could be found and engaged in at the SNB site. I also strongly feel that change is more often than not a social practice and I’ve never found a Buddhist group that really offers that beyond a cosmetic level.
    As far as results and meditation actually doing anything, I could start by referring you to books such as Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson or the one I reviewed over at SNB on awakening for further details. They discuss research that seems interesting even to a non-scientist like me and they don’t seem obsessed with justifying a role for Mindfulness in all areas of life but rather look at the physical results that can come about from a sustained, discipline. That said, I always feel like it’s a cop out to refer to “what the scientists’ said”, firstly because I’m largely ignorant on such matters, secondly, because it doesn’t interest me very much.
    From a background in psychotherapy and then life coaching and group work in a mentoring capacity outside of Buddhism, I can share some thoughts on what leads to change; some of which is ‘permanent’ some of which is temporary or is dependent on ongoing maintenance. Outcomes are determined by a great deal of factors; individual differences, proclivities, the social context, resistance to change, motivations, student teacher/coach dynamic, peer interaction and the quality of feedback. My experience in traditional Buddhist groups was that quality teaching could occasionally be found but that quality instruction, feedback and guidance was almost always non-existent. Any decent personal change occurred for me outside of mainstream and institutionalised Buddhism. I had two decent meditation teachers in twenty odd years of exploration, one at the beginning, a non-Buddhist westerner who taught Vispasana 1:1 and a teacher I work with on and off now in a 1:1 dynamic. The rest was me floundering around looking for the magic.
    The regular practice I engage in now has three aspects and most of the time they function as maintenance, so in that regard, nothing particularly revolutionary is happening. It’s like the mental equivalent of regular gym and stretching. That said, a range of techniques can be applied that lead to disruption of the continuity of selfing and that happens to me on occasion and happened dramatically and meaningfully on various occasions. With guidance or a clear intention, dramatic and permanent shifts can occur, just as with coaching, if the person is ready and willing to go through the discomfort and/or pain involved. I have personally experienced permanent change for the better from intensive practice and 1:1 guidance during intense periods of daily practice. I could say more if need be although I find it pretty boring talking about my own experiences unless questions are very specific. Needless to say, I wouldn’t continue to follow a daily discipline, with regular disruption, if I wasn’t gaining some tangible benefits from it. I see real parallels between coaching and meditation (as a set of dynamic techniques that can bring about change) because both have helped me dramatically. Both have worked for me and have done so for many of the folks who’ve stayed on after a regular coaching cycle. I’m aware this is anecdotal and therefore easily dismissable and hence the question I raised in the last podcast episode about what comes after. That would be a debate worth exploring. I’d like to see people’s self-claims regarding awakening tested by psychologists, for example, and then tested in a whole range of challenging social situations.
    The question of what draws people to religion is fascinating and Religious Studies has lots to say on that. You might find the Religious Studies project podcast interesting if you want pursue that question further. I’m personally interested in how we build and share meaning and the possibility that social spaces could liberate individuals within groups from the range of existential suffering.
    As for the ‘heartfelt beliefs’ you mention and ‘being unwilling to challenge them’ you’d have to be more specific, which ones stick out? I’m generally quite happy to be wrong.
    This blog is not in any way an SNB wannabe but I’m happy to interact and share my two cents where possible.

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    1. Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for your reply. I think you have answered my questions. I am open minded enough to admit that I don’t have all the answers – meditative practices may well have some benefit if pursued on a 1:1 basis in the manner you describe. I have never tried that approach so it isn’t fair of me to comment. My experience has been within the traditional Buddhist setting, where, as you point out, there is limited feedback and one has to deal with all the institutional baggage. I think that the anger I feel towards my former teacher has coloured my view of view of Buddhist practice, having said that I am still sceptical about its worth. I’m impressed that after all the experiences you have had with organised Buddhist groups that you would continue with meditation. I also feel that my life is generally better now than when I started sitting, although I would put that down to changes in my life and being a bit older and moderately more wiser than the practice itself. The science is an interesting subject but I have to say that I am dubious about whether it can answer the questions we are discussing. I don’t think subjective and hard to define states such as happiness and equanimity can be shown to correlate to brain changes or images pumped out by MRI scanners. Anyway, I have babbled along for long enough on this thread , thanks for your answer it has given me plenty of food for thought.

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  6. I have nothing to reply here at the moment, but instead I would like to know who the Lama in Italy is.

    Why: It is hard to find such a Lama, who openly states that blind faith ist essential on the path.

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      1. Life is full of disappointments Adamo. Seek and ye shall find. I shall not name names for two reasons; one actually being a legal one. After being threatened with legal action after saying honest things about a very famous Buddhist cult group in the UK, I am wary of doing so, which is an unfortunate testament to the erosion of free speech we see emerging in favour of protecting religious folks from uncomfortable feelings and facts and things. It’s quite exhausting having to defend yourself from legal threats.

        The person int he text was not a teacher from that tradition of course, where teacher is a euphemism for ventriloquist purveyor of religious ideology. The second reason is that it would be cruel to isolate this man out from the many folks who teach Buddhism uncritically and in awe of tradition. He is simply one of many, or as I like to say, one of those who offer the carrot of ‘think for yourself’ but then end up preaching infallible truths that require faith. Or who get you in the door and then ask you to reproduce their given religious ideology.

        You could argue that faith is the starting point and end point of Buddhism; from refuge to enlightenment, each act requires faith. What happens if you start to question all of it using non-Buddhist/spiritual standards?

        Uups, things start to look quite different.

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