Happy New Year folks!
Stuart finally makes his return to the Imperfect Buddha podcast in an in-depth discussion of the role theory and practice might play in a post-traditional engagement with Buddhism. This topic was inspired by a recent series of posts on exactly this topic over at the Post-Traditional Buddhism blog.
Our discussion goes critical as Stuart and I take our usual meander down the rabbit hole of taboos, and biting critique of the dysfunctional face of contemporary Western Buddhism.
This may just be our most controversial, critical issue yet! So, start 2018 with a bang and listen in. Any criticisms can be posted at the usual locations: here, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments section at the blog.
O’Connell Coaching: https://oconnellcoaching.com/
Post-Traditional Buddhism on Theory and Practice: https://posttraditionalbuddhism.com/2017/12/04/theory-and-practice/
Post-Traditional Buddhism on Performance: https://posttraditionalbuddhism.com/2017/12/11/theory-and-practice-part-two/
Post-Traditional Buddhism on Experience: https://posttraditionalbuddhism.com/2017/12/21/theory-and-practice-experience/
Hardcore History Podcast Khan episode: http://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-43-wrath-of-the-khans-i/
Speculative non-Buddhism and the online retreat: https://speculativenonbuddhism.com/2017/11/13/reality-and-retreat/
Music by Bristol band Scalping https://www.facebook.com/scalpingband/
To open up this exploration, it would be appropriate to add in a third category with a word that is omnipresent in western Buddhist discourse but rather problematic: experience. We can place this term on a triangle to show its interdependence with the other two. The idea of this simple diagram is that the three are in relationship with, feed into, and inform each other, and that leaving one or the other out may lead to a dysfunctional relationship with the other two.
Experience is one of those topics that solicit strong views from the philosophically trained, and for good reason, for experience is simultaneously simple and complex. What is experience, really? You may ask yourself this same question and an easy answer that fully satisfies will be hard to come by. For example, where does experience start and end? Is there a clear and abrupt shift from one experience to another? Where does experience go when it is complete? Where does it come from? The boundaries are less solid than we might initially believe them to be and yet we speak of experience as mine, easily identifiable and clear cut. For most folks it is enough to settle on a partial answer to the original question whilst happily skipping the awkward unanswerable, but this tends to reify experience. If experience is so central to Buddhism, then perhaps we shouldn’t take our relationship with it for granted.
This is the second part of a series of posts on theory and practice. If you haven’t already, you might want to start with part one. Click here to access it.
Seeing Buddhism and spirituality evaluated through a wider lens can help a practitioner to open up the Buddhist Sufficiency bubble and peek outside onto vast vistas of opportunities to grow and mature one’s idea of practice: although potentially destabilising, it is a liberating act and highly recommended. Before we proceed in that direction, it might be worth starting this section proper by reviewing some of the common meanings associated with the terms theory and practice. Depending on where you look, each can carry a good deal of additional and more precise meanings and no doubt many useful applications of the terms will be left out below. Though theory is used slightly differently in the humanities or the sciences each way can be related to one’s own practice and theoretical assumptions, so there is plenty of ripe ground for exploration. We can also tailor such terms to fit specifically to Buddhism. In consulting several dictionaries, we can find a wide range of useful definitions offered. You might like to read through the list and apply each to your own sense of Buddhism. Each of these definitions can be used to unlock a practice or theory and provide a simple means for gaining space from what may be a very personal and intimate thought or habit.
1. practical action
2. action geared towards change
3. the actual application or use of an idea
4. contemplation of belief, ideas or methods
5. the embodiment or enacting of theory
6. the customary, habitual, or expected procedure or way of doing something
7. repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it
2. a set of ideas
3. abstract or generalised thinking
4. the outcome of the process of thought
5. a body of knowledge
6. a set of principles on which the practice of an activity is based
7. speculative understanding
8. an idea used to account for a situation or justify a course of action
9. an analytical tool for understanding and making predictions about specific matters
10. a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, especially one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained
I will apply the terms more specifically to Buddhism below, but if we were to simplify the two terms dramatically for a moment, we might simply say that;
Practice is what you do.
Theory is what you think and believe about what you do.
These simplifications are workable as reset points, but although a simplistic definition is desirable, to stop there would be to miss out on a richer understanding of the roles these two play in our relationship with Buddhism, or spirituality.
Performing Buddhism, Performing Identity
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…”
(Shakespeare, via Edwardes, via Petronius)
There is an associated meaning left out by the dictionary definitions above that is of great importance: the notion of practice as performance. Performance is evident in the ritualised nature of sitting meditation, tantric practices or dharma centre behaviour, to name a few. Practice is additionally the repeated identification with a style of being (i.e. equanimous, compassionate, caring, concentrated) and the navigation of identities (i.e. Dzogchen practitioner, Zen Buddhist, non-Buddhist). Do we identify as Buddhist? Are we engaging with Buddhist practices but refuse that label? Either way, an identity is being practiced: “I am this, I am not that, and I know this because of X.”
A lot has happened over these last few months with chaos and conflict playing out in the political and social media spheres to an impressive degree. It’s all very dramatic and absorbing and it seems to me that we are living in some sort of soap opera these days, and I say that not to belittle or reduce the importance of many of the political battles being pitched, but rather, to recognise that reality appears to be becoming increasingly hyperreal[i], and brutally so. More than ever a few basic critical thinking skills would be beneficial for approaching the outrages of our time; especially as the big issues such as climate change, the decay of democracy, and environmental destruction keep getting pushed to the back of the queue in terms of importance. Needless to say, it is worth reminding ourselves to choose our battles more carefully than ever and decide where to place our attention and energies the best we can and be suspicious of whatever screams out for attention on Twitter or the daily news.
As a result of these thoughts, I find myself using social media less than I once did and feeling all the better for doing so. I am not a social media addict and have generally spent time online absorbing more substantial fare than tweets. Even so, it has been far too easy for me to get absorbed into essays, articles, videos, and debates on topics, and find that three hours plus have passed and nothing of lasting value or meaning has been achieved. This has robbed time from writing as it has stolen time from other pleasures. I intend to break this habit but not go all puritanical; just manage my relationship with those magical screens far better. As an immediate result, I have picked out some of the unfinished articles and essays I had started for this blog, reshaping the following text on theory and practice into something semi-decent.
One of the desires of the writing here and the podcast has been to introduce space between the practitioner and practice, between Buddhism and the Buddhist, so that more perspective, whether expanded or new, can be experienced, in order to widen and enrich understanding of what is taking place behind appearances and see how consequences result from choices and practices that may be invisible if Buddhism is the only lens used to frame what is at play. To this end, the podcast and this site have had a pedagogical aim (as much for us as the presenters, as may be, or not, for readers and listeners). Practice then within this purview, is an opportunity to expand our sense of what we are doing and not doing when we engage in Buddhist practices.
I have recently been thinking about delivery. I like to think carefully about the topics I write about and this translates into longer texts. I personally find ultra-short postings to be unsatisfactory but I am also keenly aware that few folks read long texts these days so this time round I will not post a long essay/article, but a series of short posts with specific themes that are united under the heading of theory and practice.
Finally, these two topics are ones I hope to tackle with Stuart in a podcast episode once he has completed his damn studies: A return to banter and discussion would be a welcome step forward for the Imperfect Buddha podcast.
“Ignorance is the cause of suffering” Shantideva
Contemporary western Buddhism has generally prioritised the end of anxiety, emotional suffering, and existential confusion over the pursuit of wisdom and the striving for an end to ignorance. When more conceptually leaning approaches are taken, the wisdom to be realised is strictly that of the Buddhist world and its doctrines, and this can lead to a form of intellectual poverty, and what Glenn Wallis has called Buddhist Sufficiency – the idea that Buddhism has a complete set of answers for solving all of our existential and ideational problems. Compassion for pain is not enough; the wisdom to examine ignorance in its widest sense might also be considered one of the higher purposes of Buddhism and seeing it as such changes quite dramatically the scope and goals of practice.
I will consider three thoughts in this series of posts; (1) practice needs to be more consciously aligned with better theory, (2) theory should be wielded more conscientiously and creatively, (3) the pursuit of wisdom is far richer, varied and exciting than a mere wander around in the fields of Buddhist teachings. This will all be undertaken through an exploration of a most intimate couple: theory and practice. These two comprise a wonderfully simple, yet highly useful conceptual pairing for thinking about one’s relationship with meditation, path goals, and the ideas that underpin both. Theory and practice additionally hold a central role in debates over the gradual and instant paths described in Buddhism and I will attempt to explore these two along the way.
Retreat V Radical Opening
My main interest in what follows is the degree to which a personal practice opens us up to the world, rather than act as a form of retreat from it. I have long viewed any long-term spiritual practice that leads to a retreat from the wider world and the creation of a new identity as highly dysfunctional. The opposite direction away from this is back into the shared world we all inhabit. An approach that takes this as the basis of practice might be summarised as radical opening. The implications of radical openness to this world transcend personal well-being and the realisation of path goals within an enclosed system of practice. What’s more, opening to the world in this context does not mean a primarily emotional act coupled with compassion or loving-kindness, but rather a wholesale engagement with our species, its concerns, and complexities, and the current and historical attempts of the whole to come to terms with its existence and find solutions to its problems and collective questions. Although such a pursuit will always be partial, it is in the spirit of unrestrained openness that a path of practice remains radical and transcends the limitations of tradition.
The starting point for radical openness is to assume one’s ignorance as perpetual and only ever partially resolved. Thus not seeking final, totalizing answers is part and parcel of this approach and ought to result in seeing that positions are fluid and changing, that knowledge be related to as living culture, and that theories enacted in practice are also alive, and part of far richer and wider cultural forms that transcends local identities of Buddhist, spiritual, awake, unawake, and so on. It is not just a question of encompassing as many beings as possible in our sense of well-being, care and concern; it’s encompassing as wide a field of knowledge as we are capable and releasing our self-referential, tradition-referential tendencies into the process. This a movement away from Buddhist practice as refuge from the world towards an open engagement with the great feast of human knowledge as living dharma. The personal may inspire us to look in one direction rather than another, but the looking must transcend the enclosure of self-referential thought spaces to peek over walls into diverse courtyards of knowledge, questioning and exploration. This approach takes the unknown as the way and requires courage, daring and a healthy dose of imagination.
[i] “In semiotics and postmodernism, hyperreality is an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality, especially in technologically advanced postmodern societies. Hyperreality is seen as a condition in which what is real and what is fiction are seamlessly blended together so that there is no clear distinction between where one ends and the other begins.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperreality
In this episode, I spoke to Ken McLeod in person in Croatia and we discussed a variety of topics, including; Vajrayana Buddhism, his writing project, issues of language, his appreciation for Wittgenstein, direct experience V the conceptual mind, challenges for advanced practitioners, his ongoing relationship with practice, and more. The episode starts with a longer introduction than usual to prime newer listeners to the podcast and the direction it’s taking. I hope you will find this addition useful. For new listeners, check out some of our past episodes for a different take on western Buddhism. Here’s the episode;
Ken McLeod is a senior Western translator, author, and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. He received traditional training mainly in the Shangpa Kagyu lineage through a long association with his principal teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, whom he met in 1970. McLeod resides in Northern California, where he founded Unfettered Mind. He has currently withdrawn from teaching, and no longer conducts classes, workshops, meditation retreats, individual practice consultations, or teacher training.
Thoughts: this episode has a preparation piece for regular listeners to investigate if they so wish. It’s here. I think this episode raises further questions and we cannot get away from some of the issues that have come up in past episodes. To what degree is our experience unconditioned is the stand out one. Feel free to leave comments as usual below or get in touch through; Facebook, Twitter, or the Soundcloud page.
Unfettered Mind: http://unfetteredmind.org/
Ken’s Musings: http://musingsbyken.blogspot.co.uk/?m=1
Tricycle articles by Ken: https://tricycle.org/author/kenmcleod/
David Chapman’s review of A Trackless Path: https://vividness.live/2015/12/01/dzogchen-a-trackless-path-ken-mcleod-review/
O’Connell Coaching: https://oconnellcoaching.com
(The reason for my absence here is a rather fine one: He’s called Julian)
Stuart and I have had busy summers with little activity taking place in terms of the podcast and my writing here at the Post-traditional Buddhism site. I’ve been promising to produce something for readers and listeners, and can now provide you with this post and the reality of a soon-to-be-released podcast. The latest episode has actually been recorded and will require some editing before becoming available at the end of the coming week. This time round we interviewed Ken McLeod, a prominent figure in Western Buddhism with a rich background in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. Ken has authored a number of books that have broken the mould in presenting aspects of Tibetan Buddhism in a pragmatic, western approach, with care paid to language and metaphors (more on this below). His works have been heavily informed by his own experience as a practitioner, and his role in teaching and coaching westerners over a long career. I found his last book A Trackless Path to be most interesting as an attempt by a westerner to decode the Tibetan language into the western vernacular with priority being given to the sort of message being transmitted in the original text rather than a faithfully rigid, word for word translation (BTW, It would be good to see much more of this taking place amongst translators and authors).
The choice of guest was deliberate. We had planned to have Ken on for some time now and he was on the list of our desired guests when we were starting out with the podcast. As luck would have it, he was in Croatia close to where I live this past weekend and so I met up with him in person and recorded enough material for a decent episode. I wasn’t 100% sure of the direction to take, which is unusual for me. I tend to have a clear intention and set of concerns when approaching guests but in spite of giving it considerable thought beforehand, I found myself driving from Italy through Slovenia down to the Croatian coast clutching a handful of loosely connected themes, and I had to play it by ear as the interview went on. Ken was generous with his time and candid in his responses and I felt we touched on a number of interesting and relevant topics. The content of the podcast additionally reflects an important and unexpressed desire that I have for the podcast as a whole, which I would like to write about here.
Ken is an important choice of guest but one that may concern some of our more critical listeners, importantly though, he represents the second strand that informs our podcast episodes. Hiss interview signals an important opportunity to talk to the different types of listeners the podcast gets. For, although we have put out a lot of episodes exploring a critical evaluation of western Buddhism, Stuart and I are practitioners first and foremost, who have deeply personal relationships with Buddhist practices and ideas. Although I consider myself to be post-traditional in my approach and dedicated to the frail, temporal, inquisitive human within these practices, I continue to find Buddhism to be a most meaningful source for the practices I draw on in navigating my life. The question then becomes not whether to be Buddhist, but rather how to relate to Buddhist materials in the sanest, most intelligent way possible, and this is necessarily a work in progress. It is a relationship that is very much personal and very much shared and the podcast navigates these two realms. The whole project is run through with these two primary strands and I cannot see how any meaningful engagement with Buddhism could dismiss one or the other. In fact, part of the desire for the podcast has always been to bridge this divide.