Glenn Wallis

Post-traditional Buddhism: getting practical

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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.

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3.0 New Podcast Episode is out! The Dharma Oveground & the non-Buddhists

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Soundcloud: download or listen

In this episode, the Dharma Oveground and Buddhist Geeks get enlightened, Francois Laurelle and the non-Buddhists speculate, Hokai Sobol and Kenneth Folk do their own thing. Matthew and Stuart cross the line and fumble over names.

This is part 2 of our first real episode exploring a number of innovative elements in contemporary western Buddhism. We move on in our discussion from Tibet to look at the Pragmatists that emerged from the Dharma Underground and the intelligent destruction of Buddhism fuelled by French and German speaking philosophers in the form of Non-Buddhism.

We also bring in some considerations of the significance of the claims of enlightenment made by a number of the Pragmatists and the importance of some of the critique made by Glenn Wallis and his cohorts.

Enjoy and leave feedback, criticisms, complaints and observations at our Facebook page, Twitter feed or here.

The next episode will feature a special guest and discuss Buddhist cults!

Show notes can be find here with links to all the characters mentioned:

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Reconsidering enlightenment: A post-traditional reconfiguration (1)

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‘If you are too well connected, you stop thinking. The clamour, the immediacy, the tendency to absorb other people’s thoughts, interrupt the deep abstraction required to find your own way.’ George Monbiot

Introduction
This piece was written to fill a void. One that I see as being the denial of the more ambitious aims of Buddhism amongst many contemporary practitioners in the West, including those who self-define as secular and who share many of my own views and concerns. In this piece, I explore enlightenment, prominent terminology and a model for mapping it into four stages to demystify what is most likely the core abstract feature of contemporary spiritual discourse. I take a post-traditional approach and use Buddhist materials as sign posts rather than definitive truths so although this work is indebted to traditional Buddhism it will not be limited by it, or play by its rules.
Buddhism has failed to live up to its original promise to show the world a foolproof way out of the sorts of ignorance, confusion and suffering that it specialises in, becoming too often a means for developing a shared Buddhist identity or a basis for the pursuit of the ever ephemeral goal of happiness. As rich historical phenomena, it provides a wealth of valuable material that can aid our understanding of the human condition, including techniques and practices that lead to insight into our shared human condition and a moral framework to guide an individual to be less destructive. At the same time, Buddhism has stagnated in its traditional expressions whilst failing to evolve into a truly radical western form able to bring about individual and collective liberation to any meaningful scale. In undergoing cosmetic changes and evolving into user friendly packages, it has grown into what we might define as ‘Buddhism-Light’.
This text attempts to push the phenomenological value of Buddhist enlightenment into the shared human landscape, unhindered by cumbersome institutional politics and traditional ideological ties, in order to construct an imagining of spiritual enlightenment that is rooted in our embodied, finite nature, and that has little concern for super powers and eternal salvation in Buddha-fields.
The approach taken is post-traditional which means engaging critically with Buddhism and leaving all forms of traditional allegiance behind whilst utilizing other sources of knowledge to explore it as human phenomena. On a personal level, post-traditional involves risking personal investments made in specific Buddhist narratives to come to an honest, authentic reading and engagement with Buddhism and its central tenets: an ongoing process that requires dedication to examining the explicit and hidden pay offs that occur through allegiance with the Buddhist identity. It is often forgotten that identity is in great part the problem that is being got at through Buddhism’s methods.
A post-traditional approach refuses special claims or categories for Buddhism and its insights, and expects Buddhist materials to stand alone, without need of faith or a privileged status to validate their veracity. Because it is post-traditional, this piece is an exploration unhindered by the social mores of any specific Buddhist community, where discussing enlightenment and claims to such are taboo, and where norms regarding Buddhism’s end goal are established and often act to limit creative and critical engagement regarding its obtainment or lack thereof. Leaving aside such baggage, this piece hopefully builds a case for a reconfiguration of enlightenment in which its thoroughly human potential is made explicit and doable.

The Wording of the Thing
Buddhism is full of abstractions, terms that lend themselves to multiple translations, conceptual reformulations and biases. Ridding ourselves of the temptation to indulge in intangibles and absolutes is essential for an honest revaluation of Buddhism in the West and this is especially so when considering enlightenment. The way we talk about it must be examined carefully if we are to make sense of what it alludes to and the first step involves examining the terminology commonly used to define the thing. If the act of achieving some form of spiritual enlightenment is a genuine worthwhile human attainment, then it must be definable outside of a religious or spiritual tradition’s idiom. The type of language that is used to describe spiritual enlightenment is too often bombastic, supernatural, and out of touch with people’s experience within the traditions. What’s more, enlightenment is often described as ineffable which opens it up to all manner of interpretation, and basically implies that such a possibility is beyond examination, leading back to the dead end of trust in wiser authorities and a division between those who know and those that don’t. Rather than blind faith, I would suggest that we need a clearer way of talking about the thing. Rather than dismissive assertions that it is something beyond words, we can start by looking at some of the key terms within Buddhism used to define enlightenment and see what they are actually pointing to.

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Critical thinking, creativity & the problem with beliefs: The NKT, Rigpa and SGI

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Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’ Albert Einstein
The NKT is a pure tradition free from politics.Kelsang Jangdom

Belief
n.
1. An acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof
1.1. Something one accepts as true or real; a firmly held opinion: we’re prepared to fight for our beliefs
1.2. A religious conviction

We are all ignorant: every single one of us. Some of us don’t like to acknowledge this fact, but that doesn’t change it from being one. Even the brightest among us is blind to most of what takes place in the world. Ignorance may be obligatory; an indiscriminate factor of the human condition, but persistent refusal to engage with reality is not, especially when institutionalised. I think of certain forms of entrenched belief as voluntary ignorance. A person or group chooses to ignore facts, refuses to engage with reality, and sticks to their beliefs in spite of all the evidence. This is a problem we see primarily emerging from religious and political organisations and it will be no surprise that when these two come together, the situation worsens.

Religion is the hotbed of voluntary ignorance and Buddhism makes its own contribution with three organisations standing out; the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), Sogyal Rinpoche’s Rigpa and Soka Gakkai International (SGI). Each of these organisations has received ongoing condemnation, accusations of abuse, as well as ex-members speaking out in similar tones over repressive behaviour, groupthink and cult-like behaviours. The NKT is the only one of the three to have a large number of dedicated websites from ex-members countering the organisation’s public image and to be involved in political activity targeting and defaming the Dalai Lama, in spite of their claims to be apolitical and ‘pure’ as the tweet from Jangdom above shows. I shall link to websites critiquing all three organisations at the end.

Rather than write a piece pulling apart the ideological structure and network of beliefs of the NKT or SGI, this piece was conceived of so that it might provide some resources for people who are unable to contextualise the collective forms of delusion that these organisations engage in. When speaking to NKT members, some of whom are old friends of mine, I have become aware of the sharp distinction between belief and reality visible in their claims, especially when discussing their political agenda. This is coupled with a lack of critical thinking. The sort of dialogue that NKT followers use is fairly consistent and as I wrote in my piece on Buddhist Bullshit last year, after leaving the organisation almost 20 years ago, I was genuinely surprised to find that the way members talk about their organisation and themselves has not evolved much at all; it is still infused with the same sort of self-referential groupspeak, blind faith and ignorance that motivated me to leave in the first place. Interestingly, the way they self-define resonates very strongly with the language used by members of the SGI I have had dealings with as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who I was once foolish enough to debate with when they came knocking at my door.

It is possible that a good deal of alternative religious movements both within and outside mainstream religion are expressing anti-modernist sentiments of the like discussed in the works of David McMahan and Andrei Znamenski and certainly some of the forms of ignorance I talk about in this article are not exclusive to these three organisations. What troubles me is how these sorts of ignorance translate into abuse and aggressive self-promotion based on deception. Combine this with the evangelical nature of the NKT and SGI and the insular problems of an organisation and their behaviour becomes a public concern. The second reason for writing this piece is to illustrate the sort of distorted thinking that goes on in all of these organisations and the fascinating capacity of the mind to delude itself. My hope would be to better explain the mechanisms by which an individual succumbs to and then supports the action of an organisation which promulgates ignorance in the name of religion.

‘Religious belief by its very nature is problematic and presents many logical problems…which do not withstand rational thought.’
Margaret Placentra Johnston

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Post-Traditional Buddhism Redux

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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 (especially in Asia) 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.

What is a Post-Traditional approach to Buddhism?
I first came across the notion of post-traditional Buddhism in a blog post by Hokai Sobol, a Croatian Shingon teacher who’s been involved with the Buddhist Geeks since its inception, whilst exploring the intersection of Vajrayana Buddhism and Western culture in his own practice and teaching. 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

As he indicates, approaching Buddhism post-traditionally entails leaving behind faithful continuity with tradition, or at least its forms. This implies freedom from the need to replicate a specific ideal of Buddhism as it has been received or sanctified. The extent of departure from tradition will vary according to the extent of disillusionment with tradition that a person has experienced and the personal connection they have to that tradition. Hokai continues with Shingon for his own reasons whilst others leave all forms of Buddhism behind.
A post-traditional approach entails a particular form of freedom when examining Buddhist materials, including teachings, beliefs, symbols, moral behavioural guidelines, key claims and ultimate truth, without having to adopt a Buddhist identity, internalize Buddhist beliefs, and/or be blinded by a tradition’s particular formulation of Buddhism at a personal, social, and cultural level.
A post-traditional approach signifies a desire to unpack, deconstruct and evaluate elements of Buddhism as phenomena rather than as formulations of revealed and ultimate truths. It means being critical and placing Buddhism alongside other sources of human history, human knowing, human understanding and praxis, to test claims and experiment. In this sense, the way I conceive of post-traditional Buddhism has much in common with non-Buddhism which further moves away from Buddhism as a fountain of truth:

“Non-Buddhism is acutely interested in the uses of Buddhist teachings, but in a way that remains unbeholden to–and hence, unbound by and unaccountable to–the very norms that govern those teachings. Once we have suspended the structures that constitute “Buddhism,” once we have muted what to the believer is Buddhism’s very vibrato, we are free to hear fresh resonances.” Glenn Wallis (more…)