A common request from those travelling around the Buddhist periphery looking for alternatives to traditional Buddhism is for innovators and critics to provide practical solutions and responses to the theoretical critique being made. I myself have been one of those who at various times in the past has asked for something practical to be done with all the theory and it behoves me now to do my part to bridge the gap between theory and practice but also remind listeners and readers that theory is itself the child of pragmatism and always results from action; the action of thought, contemplation, reflection, analysis, questioning, doubting and so on. Theory, therefore, will continue to be a cornerstone of practical, pragmatic approaches to engaging with Buddhism anew and makes up a great deal of the practical side of engaging with Buddhism from a post-traditional perspective.
Emphasising the role of theory is essential as one of the important contributing factors that has allowed Western Buddhism to give rise to its more problematic facets is the general US culture of anti-intellectualism that has accompanied the rise of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and now Donald Trump: I know I shouldn’t, but I simply couldn’t resist referencing these key figures involved in the dumbing down of Americans. Having been the Empire of the last century, The States has obviously had a very strong influence on Europe and the rest of the world and this includes not only its political and economic exports and political ideology but also in its exportation of cultural forms and styles, so that, although Europe generally does not suffer from the American suspicion of intelligence, nuance, subtlety and sophistication, it has accepted, in the world of Western Buddhism at least, a creeping form of anti-intellectualism, and in the world of the spiritual but not religious, an obsession with first person subjectivity and the cult of feeling. Starting out with the practical business of thinking, therefore, is an essential initial step because, as our more intellectual readers are all too familiar, theory, in the form of ideas and beliefs in particular, underlies, shapes and colours all of the practical stuff that our more down-to-earth brothers and sisters like to front.
One reason for the spiritual but not religious focus on feelings and the body is that they seem to offer a route out of the complexity of the mind; a sort of highway straight to untaxing freedom, a respite from the world of words and the demanding business of thinking. This is not an entirely untrue observation to make on their part; certain spiritual practices can quieten down the internal discourse we all know too well and connect us more consciously to feelings in the body and to our surroundings in visceral, exhilarating ways. This can all act as a wonderful antidote to the sterility of modern work or study life and the obsessiveness of internal dialogue. This is certainly no bad thing and those who would jump on working with feelings as escapist, self-indulgent and meaningless ought to appreciate such positive potentials. Romanticising this type of practice, however, and prioritising it over all other forms of practice is problematic if we are to view the evolution of a being and society as far more complex than such simplistic concepts of spirituality might have us believe. The religious professionals have almost always accompanied their spiritual practices with dedication to textual study. A lot of time and energy and effort have been expended on this with wisdom or intelligence being an essential component to cultivate. Of course, educating yourself to think well requires a great deal of effort and many use spirituality as a means to take a break from life; to nurture bliss, to let go of worldly concerns, to disconnect and so on. Deconstructing one’s own beliefs, attachment to specific ideas and developing better thinking skills is time consuming and requires real, sustained effort and is an altogether different project to the pursuit of happiness so often sold as the goal of modern spirituality. The social, political world is a mess and wanting to ignore it or escape from it is perfectly understandable, but when a dichotomy is created between the world out there and my world in here and escapism is sought, dysfunction is an inevitable outcome. A spiritual practice based around avoidance is bad news for the world we live in as is a spirituality based on escapism into the pursuit of happiness, or even well-being for that matter.
Before we get to the practical stuff (meaning meditation practices and the stuff you do with your body), we need to look at the practical business of thinking, contemplation and reflection; the hidden stuff that takes place in your body. Some Buddhist critics have pointed out that in traditional Buddhist settings study is a major part of being a Buddhist and yet it has generally received a far less important role in the West. In certain Tibetan traditions, in particular those connected to the more conservative monastic forms such as the Gelugpa, study is indeed given primary importance. This study is primarily concerned with learning orthodoxy, however, and going into the major texts of the tradition, which is problematic in a post-traditional framework. In this day and age, study has to expand well beyond Buddhism’s confines for it to be other than the reproduction of received wisdom. I have already written about the ideological formation of subjects and the indoctrination that occurs when a follower insists on drawing solely from Buddhist sources for the elaboration of a concept of Buddhism as a pathway so I shan’t go back down that road. The need to look outside of Buddhism for more complete knowledge about the self, selves and life ought to be clear by now.
It should be obvious why study might be a fundamental aspect of any form of practice but it may not be for so obvious to those who view meditation and spiritual practice as a ticket out of the mundane world of forms. The ongoing myth that meditation automatically leads to wisdom and intelligence does not help either. Look at the abuses of mindfulness for confirmation of this. Insight can arise within meditation but generally needs to be facilitated by a social context, an ideational framework and the skilful application of intention and deliberate inquiry. The traditions that recognise this provide traditional and institutional structures to ensure a certain degree of orthodoxy in practice, which has its pros and cons. Contrary to a lot of wishful thinking, just sitting will not magically provide all the answers or lead to the big E and simple instructions usually occur within complex contexts. If we are concerned with knowledge of the self/selves and life in general, then we are required to make the effort to learn and preferably to look further afield and outside spiritual discourse, Buddhist or otherwise, if spiritual practice is to have any meaningful connection to the wider world of ideas and practices that constitute the modern landscape we live in.
Escaping into feeling and sensation through meditation is not as straightforward as it seems, either. Feeling, sensation, emotions are experienced within frameworks of possibilities. Emotions in particular are codified, patterned expressions and are therefore constructs, rather than essential signallers of universal truth. Feeling is limited, shaped and interpreted within a framework of meaning; its apparent reliability in familiar forms reveals its patterned nature and the language of feeling within traditions reveals the socially constructed or prioritised sets of feelings encouraged or discouraged by a specific pathway. From a psychological, therapeutic point of view, feelings and emotions are ignored or repressed at one’s peril and bolstering positive emotions, feelings and states is an ideal practice for those who are psychologically weak, damaged, lost, or immature, but may act as a buttress against reality for those not in need of emotional bolstering. The mixing of therapeutic approaches to practice and theory with notions of awakening, liberation and so on has led to quite a bit of confusion about priorities in practice. Mainstream Buddhism in the West is primarily therapeutic but is couched within the framework of a religious/spiritual ideology of radical ending. This is inherently problematic. This tension explains why Buddhism is how it is in the West and the spread of mindfulness as a cure all fit for all is testimony to this. Why mention this? Well, the way to critically engage with the cult of feeling and the sacralising of emotions is to learn more about the modern messy world, become more intelligent and see the social formation of selves at play. Initially, this would also mean expanding the framework used for categorising and valorising human experience beyond wellness, and even flourishing (sorry Sam Harris).
Let’s take some of the theory and align it with practice, the practical; you know, doing stuff. The initial section will focus on one’s immediate and personal relationship to Buddhist materials and will be followed by an exploration of how to play with theory and concepts and be completed with a section on meditation.
I will be drawing on the ideas of post-traditional Buddhism as an approach initially as well as a number of theoretical and practical tools from non-Buddhism. Let’s start off softly and warmly by applying some of Hokai Sobol’s initial suggestions for a post-traditional approach. You may recall from the series on post-traditional Buddhism that Hokai pointed out three key steps in moving into a post-traditional approach in his workshop for Buddhist Geeks back in 2011. Let’s take a look at them in more detail and put together some possible practical steps you might want to explore;
This involves practitioners gaining a much fuller understanding of the practices and techniques they are directly working with, along with a more thorough understanding of the teachings that are being studied or that form the basis for the practices and techniques being utilised. This demands a little more effort than may seem obvious at first glance. An initial aspect involves an exercise in clarity with an accompanying attention to language. Although Tom Pepper criticised Hokai for stating that we should put teachings and practices into our own words, he sort of missed the point. One does not invent a new idiom or language but draws on existing language and concepts: that’s pretty obvious. Hokai was encouraging Buddhist to stop parroting teachers and texts and avoid relying on specifically Buddhist language and terminology. This is a similar recommendation made to students at high school and in universities when they are taught to express concepts and ideas in their own words to avoid plagiarising and it is an effective and time honoured study method. Religion instead, is typically obsessed with purity and orthodoxy and conformity to linguistic exactitude: say as I say and do not think too much, which kind of sucks. Here is how Hokai worded it:
These three shifts are number 1, one needs to really make sense of both the techniques and the teachings that one is putting into practice and following. Now really make sense means that one can actually explain what one is doing and how one is thinking about it in terms of one’s own life, without recourse to specific notions and concepts that one has quite naturally lived without before meeting Buddhism.
This can be our first practical activity.
Redefine what you’re doing: You can do this yourself. Define what you do and what Buddhism is to you in practical and ideational terms without recourse to Buddhist or spiritual terminology. Imagine you are having a conversation with someone who knows nothing of Buddhism and wishes to know nothing of Buddhism and is generally unimpressed by spiritual metaphors and odd ideas of enlightenment. Define what you do as clearly as possible without reference to spiritual woo woo or Buddhist terminology. Recognise whenever you use a term that has been lazily borrowed from another person or text and question whether it is true of what you are doing; avoid lazily looking for confirmation of assumptions. You can go one step further by adding another question or two; how do you know that to be accurate? What are you actually doing in real physical terms? What does that phrase/word actually mean in humanistic or secular terms? Can you be less vague and more accurate? Is it always the case that X equals Y as the teaching states? Is such a view confirmed by the field of X or Y?
Commentary: The objective of such a task is not necessarily to find the right way to define a practice; such a way may not ultimately exist. It does involve greater appreciation for what you are undertaking and would ideally be driven by a desire to be more accurate in your descriptions and ever less dependent on special terminology. Highlighting an over-reliance on specific terminology forces us to think with greater clarity about what we are doing and critique our own assumptions about the normalness of defining actions, practices and outcomes with insider terminology. In non-Buddhist terms it requires you to drop the buddhemes and the reliance on underlying Buddhist sufficiency (the idea that Buddhism has all the answers). It may insert doubt into the whole way that you approach and valorise meditation or other staple Buddhist practices and concepts. This is an ongoing process and there are plenty of scientists, psychologists and philosophers who can undermine many of the assumptions and claims of Buddhism, and spiritual practice in general. Engaging with criticism from those fields generally leads to defensiveness but it can actually be liberating, as long as one is willing to stop being defensive and give up romanticising the spiritual.
This involves you being more accountable and responsible for your involvement with Buddhism, Buddhist communities and teachers. You can stretch this to include Buddhism as a pathway or to techniques you are committing to and investing time and energy into. This might seem simple but again I would suggest it is a little bit more complex than it may first appear. Responsibility in this case can also mean an ongoing renewal of commitment and reflection on the shifting reasons and motivations that drive us to engage with practices in Buddhism as a conceptual body of ideas and practices. Many of the reasons that drive us to engage with something like Buddhism in the first place may be suspect or quite irrational; they may be based on a pervasive state of neediness or fantasy about eventually becoming a super human. Conversely, motivations may seem perfectly rational initially but hide irrational desires. We are far more irrational than we like to accept and being a fundamental aspect of our being means we are required to be more honest about the complexity of human drives, desires, resistance, and grasping after positions and outcomes. Irrationality does not automatically equal problematic but it does remind us why responsibility and choice are important and why clarity about motivation contextualises the nature of the relationship we evolve in our participation with a pathway. What’s more, renewing our sense of autonomy grants us room to move and prevents us from playing the victim card when unseen dynamics later reveal themselves. It is also about claiming greater responsibility for your actions as an adult instead of being a needy child: super common dynamic in religious and spiritual groups (save me, give me a hug, make me feel safe; I know, no one ever admits to this stuff but boy is it common). Spiritual groups, like all human groups, are subject to dysfunctional dynamics and since we are all flawed, one safeguard against being caught up unwittingly in the dysfunction is to make personal choice transparent and have an intention to do so even when it may be difficult to do so. On a micro level, each time you sit down to meditate you make a choice and you are responsible for that choice. This is quite different from feeling morally compelled to do things because you have to, or because the teacher told you to, or because the path demands it of you. All those motivating forces probably work to drive a person to be disciplined enough to carry forward practices, but for a mature approach, personal responsibility and autonomy must come into play and this requires greater transparency and ownership of one’s choices.
Ownership: reflect on why you meditate or engage with Buddhist practices, a group or teacher. There are a wide range of questions that could be posed but these are perhaps a good enough selection to start with. What motivation/s is/are at play? Where does/do it/they come from? Did I drift into such practices without planning or make a concrete choice of my own volition to sign up? Why am I part of the group? Are my motivations formulated in the language of the group? Am I parroting kosher formulations? Who is choosing to meditate? How autonomous am I in the choices I make around the practices, group and teacher? Have I aligned my motivation with a vague, ultimately unrealisable goal? Am I using Buddhism or practices specifically to avoid areas of my life or self or am I even attempting to assert a consistent experience of being?
Commentary: this task can be quite challenging depending on the depth and complexity of relationship an individual has with practices, a teacher and group. It can be useful to repeat these questions and your answers to them with a critical, frank interlocutor. What’s more even for those who are involved in DIY practices, the tendency to adopt prepared motivations and formulaic responses is strong. Viewing motivation as fluid and shifting over time can be very helpful.
Autonomy binds the first two shifts. To define practices in language that does not draw on the social conventions of Buddhism is to think outside of conformity to the orthodoxy of the group or tradition. To take ownership for your engagement and review what drives you to practice without confirming the group consensus requires autonomy. Reviewing motivation periodically is to align with the norm of change and resist resting in frozen stances.
This relates to integrity and naturally leads on from the second. Hokai states that we must reduce the gap between spiritual practice, realisation and our personal lives. One of the reasons I started off by talking about anti-intellectualism and escapism is because Buddhism ideally should refute both and demand that we address the drives and motivations behind being anti- and wanting to escape from anything. To reduce the gap between the spiritual and the mundane means that we must integrate or bring into better relationship the whole idea of spiritual along with practice and awakening and suffering and meditation and death and so on and so on. This is one of those things that often seems obvious but it is not done and dusted with a mere small gesture. To live a human life takes a whole life, from birth to death, so it stands to reason that integrating what appears to be separate or special in the first place must be a lifelong process, subject to change, complexity and richness; this requires us to embrace the very real circumstances of change as a constant. The vast majority of spiritual folks are caught up in a desire for transcendence; a very human desire. The ramifications of this desire are huge and are far bigger than almost every spiritual person realises. To confront this could be said to be the Granddaddy shift, the one that makes spiritual practice change from a form of solipsism that focuses in on the self or is always in service to the self to a form of genuine enquiry into our shared human lot that transcends, not this world, but our own self-obsession.
Shift three gains greater depth and power when it becomes part of the final point from Hokai’s Buddhist Geeks event which is that we must become much more aware of the limitations of tradition and the challenges of modernity and post-modernity. Being aware of these limitations does not involve shitting on them, but rather gaining a far more thorough understanding of the historical forces that have led to traditions being formed in specific ways, not as reflections of a perfect, ideal, and therefore transcendent form, but as contingent human efforts to construct decent responses to our human condition and desires.
This shift then accompanies two movements; the first is historical and involves looking backwards, critically. The second involves looking forwards from this emergent present in order to appreciate and understand the fundamental issues that are driving us culturally as a species at this time, and this means appreciating how at the level of ideas and social practices there is a fascinating conflict going on between pre-modern, modern and post-modern ideals, values, conceptions, conclusions and ethical priorities. The tension between these three is playing out all around us, every day, in local communities, nationally and internationally. We are in some ways pawns in all this, which doesn’t mean we have to be victims, but rather we ought recognise that these forces are greater than we are and are at play whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.
Turning Buddhist materials and practices so that they may have greater relevance, usefulness and power to help us resolve some of these tensions means becoming much more aware of these tensions. It also means acknowledging that these cultural tensions play out in Buddhism too and in our relationship to it. Acknowledging that final answers are few and far between is also necessary to get away from the old transcendence trap. Finally, to add a bit of idealism and ambition, if we want to be good Bodhisattvas, we ought to step up and equip ourselves much more thoroughly with awareness and the knowledge and insight necessary to engage with these global and very human tensions and shifts more effectively and incorporate them as elements for ripe exploration in our concept of practice.
Reducing the gap: this step is not so much about Buddhism per se but rather requires us to be good students and read up on the history and role of ideas and the emergent responses to such ideas. Knowledge acquisition is what it’s all about! Continuing education, reading, learning, discussing, getting it wrong, and striving for better knowledge and understanding, testing assumptions, embracing complexity, and so on, and so on: living a well examined life that opens up the individual to the social, the historical, and the political. No more locking Buddhism, spirituality or practice into the personal. It’s social too! If you are in a relationship with Buddhism, then it behoves you to learn more about its history, read commentary by non-Buddhists on its ideas, read work by its critics and by the secular critics of religion.
Commentary: this is the most demanding of all the steps and like step two is an ongoing process. The good news is that much of the world’s great knowledge is available online and for free. There are also a greater number of accessible books on all manner of topics than ever before. You can read up on the essentials of philosophy, sociology, psychology, critical theory and religious studies. You can dig out free podcasts and buy reasonably priced books aimed at lay readers. Follow what excites you and reflect on the significance of big and small ideas. Some recommended materials on Buddhism include; Rita Gross’s work, David McMahan’s work on Buddhist modernism, John Peacock’s research, John Dunne’s, David Chapman’s stuff, Slavoj Zizek’s critique of Buddhism, Richard K Payne’s work, all of the more accessible non-Buddhism work, and anything that stops seeing Buddhist materials as pure and untainted. If you have your own suggestiosn to add to the list, please do so in the comment section and leave a link.
This is a warmer of sorts and an introduction to the second part of the podcast on post-traditional Buddhism.
More to come soon.