Month: December 2016

Stories and their ubiquity: it just got more complex


Stories and their ubiquity

We live in a world of narratives, of stories, legends, tales and fictions that run very deep and saturate society. Ideologies are stories, social realities are built around narratives and religions are stories too, of course. Some would argue that all human systems of knowledge are stories of one kind or another. If we were to view the world in this way, then it may seem reasonable to retreat to familiar stories, reassert old favourites or embrace a relativistic approach and decide that any old one will do if it makes us happy and fits our personal needs. This may seem attractive at first but not all stories are equal. It would initially seem wiser for us to choose or tell stories that find a healthy balance between closing the gap with what is objectively real and meeting human social needs. They would be stories that provide means for humans to navigate the relationship between what is real, the social realities on offer and the life situations that are ongoing, emergent and changing. Good stories would ideally enable us to refine these relationships and continue to evolve them for the betterment of our species and those we depend on; animate and inanimate. This is one reason that many intellectuals continue to promote the modernist story of progress. In its ideal form, it is concerned with the betterment of our lot, the increase of knowledge and refinement of technology for the advancement of our species. That is a very good story, an admirable story. Like all stories though, it has holes and has created a multitude of historical problems and in one telling has had grave impact on the life situation of millions whilst contributing to the ecological disaster we are facing ahead. Modernity emerged in response to pre-modernity and its stories and their religious genesis and many still cling to those stories too. Postmodernists have their own stories as well and just like previous historical phases, true postmodernists are unable to see their own theories as fictional accounts that are productive of social realities and contentious relationship with what is real; something many of them hold to be non-existent. In fact, one could argue that much of the fragmentation we see in society today is reflective of the postmodern experience of social reality: one in which the unstable nature of socially constructed stories denies the physical, material, biological ground on which they depend. These stories that emerge in these historical phases are deeply, deeply involving.


Identity formation and Buddhism: some issues


Well done, you’ve made it this far. I hope you have found something useful to read in this stream of posts. Whether you agree or not with my ramblings is besides the point, I post because I like to write, to get better at it, and to challenge my own assumptions. Doing so leads me to think further, challenge myself more, and then share that with whoever might find it of use. My own ignorance continues to impress me and I think it wonderful that we have access to so much thought and history, and can struggle and strive to understand our shared human lot and at each phase of new understanding, stare into a open abyss with yet another new horizon looming. There are plenty of holes in this writing. When I reread pieces of it I still find typos, errors, badly worded phrases and room for improvement but it is pointless to be a perfectionist in any sort of creative endeavour. You do your best at the time and even though it’s never quite enough, you put it out there and it opens the way to the next challenge.

The final piece, to be posted tomorrow, will be on the ubiquitousness of stories and is in part a reflection inspired by Glenn Wallis’ description of Cassirer in the last podcast episode we undertook, and in part by my ongoing curiosity regarding the seeming need we have as a species to weave elaborate stories about ourselves in the world.

Identity formation and Buddhism: some issues

The opposite of subjectification is the process of desubjectification, and in the case of identity, it implies peeling away the layers of social conditioning and social formation that we have gone through. At the heart of the desubjectification process is the need to explore identity formation and its curious relationship with the emptiness, space, or void found within each layer of conditioned being that is encountered. One of Buddhism’s great offerings has been its insight into this vacuousness of selfhood along with its elaboration of an immense array of practices designed to acquaint practitioners with it. This insight is present across a plethora of academic fields too. Much of western philosophy recognises, since David Hume, that there is no core to our being or unifying consciousness such as a soul. Psychologists recognise that we have no internal controller or commander driving the bus, and neuroscience has not found anything resembling a self in the brain either. But what do we make of such insight? How we respond to it is of utmost importance if it is to have any productive value after all. In most cases, the emergence of these views in western society seems to have had little impact on how we conceive of ourselves and even those more inquisitive folks who read books such as The Self Illusion likely take the new information on board and then continue on with their lives as usual. It’s quite understandable, though. Subjectively, we continue to feel pretty consistent and the people around us seem to confirm this. We generally experience ourselves as progressing through time with a reasonable degree of stability and we wake up each day and there’s that face in the mirror again. The self as illusory may be a Buddhist truism but our relationship with subjectivity is not abandoned so easily.


Who are we? Getting to grips with identity


Identity is such a rich and complex topic. Buddhism usually focuses on the self in its teachings and articulates it as an object. It is a perfectly reasonable direction to take but  if we want to challenge our personal experience of being a self, perhaps we ought to examine identity and the process of subjectification, which are far more tangible. We need to be more aware of the social formation process that participates in shaping our identity and our experience of being a self, otherwise, such discussion tends to remain at the level of the theoretical or abstract. Although Buddhism has a wealth of material regarding the nature and lack of self, I would suggest we need look further and wider if we are to understand the complexity of identity formation and our inseparability from it.

Exploring insights from philosophy and psychology and how Buddhism makes or doesn’t make sense in relationship to them whilst suspending bias is an exceptionally fruitful process for thinking afresh about identity if you are up for the task. You do not need to be a philosopher or psychologist to do so and there is a wealth of accessible material these days to get going with. Much of the content in this text comes from my reflection on the relationship between the values and ideals that I have picked up from Buddhism and how they stack up in relationship to other thinkers and theories. It is helpful to view Buddhism and these other views as being on an equal footing, in that they are all concerned with understanding ourselves and the world. It is additionally helpful to view them as theoretical tools; things to work with, to get your hands on and explore, pull apart, question, doubt, reflect on and contemplate. Rather than view them as in opposition somehow, or competing for acceptance, it can be far more interesting to view them as part of a matrix of perspectives, questions and answers, that inter-relate, as they all constitute aspects of our rich, shared, human culture.


Going post-traditional: tentative first steps

technological-mandala-20_76x76x7_cm_frame_web_20141122_1361314338(post-traditional techno mandala)

Going post-traditional

A post traditional approach is best served by intellectual and experiential curiosity coupled with a willingness to examine the assumptions rooted within a given tradition of Buddhism and their maintenance through linguistic and behavioural norms. Because it works best when it suspends Buddhism’s internal value system regarding its own worth and claims, it is not in competition with tradition or seeking to usurp it. Rather, it is an attempt to see and experience ideas and practices afresh, without negotiating through the tradition. This approach represents a change in the internal rules characteristic of identification and a suspension of the norms that govern relationship within the tradition. Some may consider this arrogant or overly-individualistic, but they would be wrong. Certainly, an initial requirement is that an excess of reverence for Buddhism and its lineages be understood as an obstacle to critical engagement. This does not need to give rise to some sense of superiority, however. Upsetting the status quo can lead to such accusations because post- approaches necessarily look beyond tradition, which can appear threatening to those holding those lineages together. As an approach and not a new –ism, traditional Buddhists could, theoretically, perceive it not as a threat but rather as a methodology of sorts for renewing and reviewing their own relationship with Buddhism. They might even find the whole process enlightening.

As practice, a post-traditional approach incorporates a number of guiding principles, some of which connect back to Hokai’s points on the ages of civilisation and address issues of praxis. Hokai spoke of institutional change but he also addressed a number of practical points in a course he undertook for Buddhist Geeks called The Three Pathways of Awakening back in 2011. There are elements of pragmatism and a concern with ethics in that discussion of post-traditional approaches to Buddhism. In it he lays out three shifts that he considers indicative of a move from traditional to post-traditional, which are summarised as follows;

  • The first shift involves a person gaining a much fuller understanding of the teachings, practices and techniques they are working with. This would involve that person being able to explain the practices they are involved with in their own words rather than borrowing descriptions from the tradition. We saw an attempt at this above.
  • The second shift involves responsibility. Hokai makes explicit the need for individuals to be accountable and responsible for their own willingness to commit to a practice and relationship with a teacher and to be aware that it is one’s individual choice to do so. You make the choice to do it or not.
  • The third shift concerns integrity and the relationship between a person’s spiritual and non-spiritual lives that he defines in terms of a “decreasing gap” but added to this is an understanding that spiritual or meditative experience, realisation and awakening has very little meaning if it is not “fully interpreted…fully acknowledged and fully integrated into (one’s) life experience.” This in itself demands we additionally question what such concepts are pointing to in the first place, especially in terms of shared human possibilities outside of tradition.

The final point that needs mentioning from Hokai’s talk sees a post-traditional approach as integrating a great deal of awareness about the limitations of tradition, whether ideological or identity-based, and the role and challenges of modernity and post-modernity. In addressing Buddhist practitioners, this opens up the critique and evaluation of Buddhism a great deal and asks that practitioners be aware of wider concerns that go beyond Buddhism to our role as members of societies that are struggling with profound issues of identity and purpose. Such principles may appear as common sense to the more critical follower of Buddhism, yet part of the problem of the elaboration of the Buddhist identity in the West is that it too often refuses such shifts and if some semblance of the shift does take place it is too fully in line with an additional call that Hokai makes: “the core principles of the Buddhist path (are to be) reasserted effectively and compellingly.” This is where my approach to articulating post-traditional Buddhism finds necessary companionship with non-Buddhism. This companionship, however, is an ethical and pragmatic one and thus encapsulates the three shifts that Hokai lays out above. For, in many ways, the insights of non-Buddhism provide additional means for achieving such shifts. Where it stops is at the final call that Hokai makes. This is where post-traditional Buddhism as a project perhaps finds its calling. For if Buddhism is to provide an effective additional means for working on Western identity formation, the Western ‘ego’ or the Western self, it must continue to evolve and be willing to challenge its own history, present and future potential. This is a delicate process and requires some daring because many have a stake in asserting their views on what is possible and how it should or shouldn’t be done. There are a whole range of voices that can shut down budding curiosity. Knowledgeable voices can be so strong as to dampen enthusiasm. Authoritative voices can drown out your own initial attempts. Tradition can be overwhelming and suck you back into its fold. Critiques can be so determined in enforcing their own conclusions as to stifle the right of others to figure things out as they go. Dealing with these voices is a practice too but how is it done? Take each voice as a benevolent teacher that is fallible and immersed in a story. Find the right distance from which to hear what is being spoken and what is being said. Question it. Be open to it. Don’t let it destroy your own curiosity and questions. This is a productive starting point.

Dalai Lama , privat , Laufband , Archive No. 6220-02  Prayers and training | Residence | Dharamsala | Himachal Pradesh | India | 15 August 2004  DRAFT CAPTION - NEEDS APPROVAL FOR REPRODUCTION ! His Holiness working out after  an oral transmition of Arya Asanga by Rezong Rinpoche. Bookpage 230. ? 2005 Manuel Bauer / Agentur Focus

Tradition, baggage and innovating


(I’m big & beautiful & cost a fortune: tradition resisting impermanence)

This coming week’s collection of posts continues to explore a post-traditional approach to Buddhism, and possibly life in general. There is experimentation and speculation and both are work in progress. I start out by looking at tradition, and then articulate further some of the characteristics of a post-traditional approach, before looking at identity formation and the ubiquity of stories.

Fingers crossed, Stuart and I will find time this week to get cracking with the next episode of the Imperfect Buddha podcast. For now, here’s the first of the posts that will complete the first cycle of this primer. The second cycle will be much more concerned with practices and methods but will not be available until the new year.

Exploring Tradition and its unavoidable baggage

Tradition is complex and features a number of characteristics in whatever form it takes. Tradition emerges as a response to human needs in a specific time and place and is only kept alive by the repetitive actions of its adherents and their sufficient dedication to its ecology. Traditions typically hold to fixed formulations of truth and ritualised practices for understanding and relating to that truth. Its forms are by their very nature formulaic invoking emotions, instigating reliable lines of thought, and providing a moral direction or code. At their most consistent, they provide models of selfhood that can be deeply attractive. Traditions provide answers and they pose problems too. Examining a number of them would be useful at this point. In the spirit of generosity, it is worth considering what need the tradition is trying to meet as it creates ideological forms; because traditions are an example of both the solidification and calcification of human ideals and endeavours. One of the great features of modernity is that it has helped us to understand how the structures and forms of tradition are historically formed and manmade. This leads to  awareness of their fallibility. Good ideological subjects resist this awareness and must, in a sense, believe the narratives that prop up their specific tradition, its legitimacy, and origins. Although much criticism of religion has been deconstructive, and rightly so, it has often led to an impoverished view of religion without appreciating why such cultural forms emerge, or providing answers to how to build and present alternatives. This is a common complaint from those who are wed to some form of traditional Buddhism. Deconstruction has very specific aims of course and its job is not to fix problems or provide alternatives: that is for other exercises in thought and practice. It can lead to intelligent folks being overtly dismissive of traditions, however, and a refusal to appreciate how flawed we all are, and how traditions are often a decent attempt to respond to very real human needs. There are real reasons why Evangelical Christians are so numerous in the States, for example, and they are only partially explained by politics, economy and race. The transparency of the absurdity of their fundamentalist beliefs seems to have very little effect on their religious commitments and this illustrates how powerful needs are being met and solid identities are being formed. Buddhism, of course, can find itself performing the exact same service.


Warming up with non-Buddhism


Considered controversial for his attacks on the failings of contemporary Buddhists to take their Buddhist claims seriously and for their appeasement of global capitalism, Glenn Wallis has elaborated a number of concepts useful for understanding what drives some folks to dramatically change their relationship with Buddhism. Drawing a great deal on philosophy and critical theory, Wallis has constructed a critique of Buddhism as much informed by his own academic background (he holds a PHD in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University), as his own dissatisfaction with the failings of Western Buddhism to live up to its ideals. Whatever one might make of his approach, Wallis’ writing is of immense value to anybody interested in deconstructing Buddhism and identification with it. His original work represents a treasure trove for those intellectually dissatisfied with Buddhism and already in the advance stages of a relational break with it. Those becoming increasingly disappointed with Buddhism may find themselves in a state of what Glenn defines as ‘aporetic dissonance’:

Aporetic Dissonance: An affective condition. The believer‘s discovery within himself or herself of a dissonant ring of perplexity, puzzlement, confusion, and loss concerning the integrity of Buddhism‘s self-presentation. It involves an apprehension that buddhistic rhetorics of self-display are but instances of acataleptic impassability. This ring is the signal for aporetic inquiry. Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism

The language Glenn uses can be challenging to those less academically inclined but, basically, he means a person starts to feel a form of discomfort or dissatisfaction towards his or her tradition, or Buddhism in general. Something starts to feel off and ideas that were once awe inspiring seem to be incoherent or even make believe. Practices that produced positive feelings may start to produce indifference or ongoing frustration. There is a process of separation between one’s own sense of integrity and the Buddhist ideas or practices being presented and the romance begins to fade, leading to:

Ancoric loss. An affective condition. The irreversible termination of hope that ―Buddhism indexes the thaumaturgical refuge adduced in its rhetorics of selfdisplay.  Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism

This means that a person has lost unquestioning faith in Buddhism and that it no longer represents a guarantee of salvation. This is an interesting condition for it initially appears to contradict many Buddhist teachings. The notion of salvation is usually thought of as being incompatible with Buddhism, isn’t it? And didn’t the Buddha tell us to rely on ourselves? Isn’t Buddhism a religion of immanence strongly opposed to notions of transcendence, whether in the form of heaven or union with the godhead? Those are fair questions but they remain at the theoretical level. Various manifestations of Buddhism do hold to the notion of heaven. But more interestingly, perhaps, at the experiential level, we are driven to hold onto our existence and are constantly seeking to transcend experiences we wish to avoid. We are patterned creatures that resist the implications of the core insights of Buddhism too with meditation practices even becoming a means of escape or respite from reality; an ascent to heavenly realms, perhaps. What’s more, in adapting itself to middle-class concerns and the capitalist model for distribution, Western Buddhism is increasingly being modelled as compatible with self-development and the pursuit of happiness, which sets up a number of contradictions. It is easy enough to see how happiness can be a form of transcendent escapism and its pursuit a form of refuge, especially if a practitioner has been infantilised by expectations of happy-ever-after enlightenment. Appearance, interpretation and reality are in constant tension. What we imagine Buddhism to be may be different to how it is actually practised. Its idealised image is never truly faithful to the imperfect human’s creations and acts that stem from them. Ideals do not match those imperfect forms, whether it be a tradition obsessed with ideas of purity or authentic lineage, or our own imperfect attempts to live up to ideals. If we humanise the whole affair, we are left to see how the insights of Buddhism have played out in our lives and whether they still make sense in our struggles and striving.


post + traditional + Buddhism


post + traditional + Buddhism

Post-traditional approaches to Buddhism have a long history. Breaks from existing tradition, emergences of new trends, new forms and divergence from orthodoxy are initially post-traditional. Of course, once solidified into new orthodoxy and with enough patronage, post-traditional becomes the new traditional.

These two words post- and traditional should be self-explanatory. But just in case, here is a closer look at their conventional definitions.

Post = after in time or sequence; following; subsequent
Traditional = 1. of, or pertaining to tradition. 2. handed down by tradition. 3. in accordance with tradition.
Buddhism = 1. a religion represented by the many groups that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha. 2. a religion that originally comes from South Asia, and teaches that personal spiritual improvement will lead to escape from human suffering.
I first came across the idea of a post-traditional approach to Buddhism in the work of Hokai Sobol, a Croatian Shingon teacher who’s been exploring the intersection of Shingon Buddhism and Western culture in his own practice and teaching for decades. He wrote in 2011:

…While post-traditional in the strict sense means evolving Buddhism beyond ethnocentric identities, parochial attitudes, and ideologically-based loyalties, in the broad sense it means also being alert to modern and ‘postmodern’ reactivity when it comes to spiritual principles of authority, verticality, and devotion. In short, it’s a challenging leap with implications for spiritual practice, critical studies, communal discourse, institutional reform, and political culture. Insofar as these spheres are interdependent and mutually inclusive, the actual shift to post-traditional can only really take place as a comprehensive strategic endeavour, bringing together the best of premodern, modern, and ‘postmodern’ contributions, while making sure the core principles of the Buddhist path are reasserted effectively and compellingly. Hokai Sobol

Described in this way, post-traditional implies an immense challenge. As a gateway to a very different relationship with Buddhism, approaching Buddhism post-traditionally entails freedom from the need to replicate a specific ideal of Buddhism as it has been received or sanctified. This implies leaving behind faithful continuity with tradition and its forms and the objective of remaking oneself in the image of the tradition. The extent of departure from tradition can vary a great deal, from the refusal to blindly carry out ritual or adopt clothing and mannerisms, to a radical break from beliefs, language and ritualised practices. It is often the extent of disillusionment that determines the degree of such change. The personally meaningful connections that have been established are also determinate. For Buddhist teachers, the adoption of a post-traditional approach might involve an extensive revaluation of the given norms they have been faithful to and a greater degree of openness to experimentation. It may also involve conscious reassessment after many years of practice and a potential reinvigoration of their path.