My new bride on the spiritual path is perhaps best defined as Post-Traditional Buddhism. A term I picked up from Hokai Sobol, who is a Buddhist Geeks associate. What a grand title that sounds. Yet, what it appears to imply in essence is the shedding of deference of authority for the path to traditional Buddhism, whether it be Zen, Gelugpa, Burmese, or Hokai’s own traditional roots, Shingon Buddhism. Emerging Western Buddhism that is post-traditional is in a very early stage of birth. What follows is my own understanding of this emerging phenomenon. Others will no doubt be wiser on this topic, but for now too few voices are discussing it in the public sphere, so, not one to fear for my safety, I’ll dive straight on in and do my best to paint a rather challenging picture with words.
It appears that the pregnancy started in earnest in the 1960s, although it seems to me that the birth has only really begun to take place in this century. Whereas Western Buddhism defines any form of Buddhism, traditional or otherwise, that is alive and functioning on western soil, Post-Traditional Buddhism is perhaps the most radical and accurate description for what is starting to show tentative signs of flowering in both North America and Europe as a response to the inadequacies of traditional Buddhism for a contemporary western audience. Secular Buddhism is one of the more well-known faces of this emerging phenomenon. Though most often this disconnected movement towards a radical re-engagement with Buddhism is found in very small pockets of physically disconnected individuals, couples and groups who are connecting primarily through the Internet and through informal meetings. Some of them came together at the Buddhist Geeks conferences in 2012 and 2011, but rumours abound that they were infiltrated by many traditional Buddhist buddies. In fact a key feature of Post-Traditional Buddhism is the mixing of old and new. Post-Traditional Buddhism is built on the work that has come before it.
Imagine a giant golden Buddha statue sat in front of you right now. The Buddha’s golden gaze stares out onto an invisible horizon, expressing an out of reach wisdom and supreme intellect. His hands are clasped in unifying grace and his legs are perfectly placed in a lotus posture. The statue gives off an aura of graceful bliss, of wisdom, compassion and perfect meditational equipoise. Surely this image represents the quintessence of Buddhist iconography, its most transcendent and instantly recognisable form.
Golden statues are accompanied by exotic robes in most traditional gathering places for Buddhists. Incense is lit and golden bowls may hold offerings for imagined beings. Other more mundane objects such as zafus still draw heavily on Eastern forms, colours and shapes and each adds to that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that inspires warm feelings in the bellies of curious seekers, and quite possibly a smidgen of confusion. Seekers of one kind or another are still attracted by the exotic, by other, by the symbolic matrices that accompany religion, and most likely always will be as we are visual, feeling creatures.
Although not up to Hinduism’s standards, Buddhism has its fair share of rich visual display that acts to seduce the observer. Why is it that we are so drawn to symbols? Why is it that so many are drawn to religion, in this case by Buddhism, through rich symbology and unarticulated appearance? Perhaps in part, such exotic symbolism provides us with an alternative experiential environment, within which, we can explore different meaning-making systems, and feel free, to some degree, to shed the binds that adhere us to pre-existing, culturally normalised realms of being. The exotic provides us with a back door exit from our mundane existence, and further, from the pain and suffocation of modernity. The problem is that such an exit can lead us not to freedom, but to escapism and the adoption of a new identity, a newly fabricated self that reflects its new environment, both ideologically and behaviourally. We become new all right. Though we emerge as a false image of a distorted self that is framed in new jargon, hidden and stifled beneath the surface in a prism that distorts our own voice, our own knowing, and lack of knowing, through the lens of a Buddhist persona.