Secular

Buddhist Bullshit

I generally avoid getting political on this blog. Not because I am apolitical, or think it too messy a subject to broach, but because I have used this blog primarily as an exercise in exploring ideas and experiences I personally find curious and interesting so it’s been a primarily personal affair.
Although I have been attempting to write a blog post on non-duality this December, I have failed three times and the pleasure in the task has evaporated, which is never a good sign. In wondering what to write next, I was surfing the net on Boxing Day and came across a couple of videos by ex-members of a Western Buddhist organisation of which I was a solid member for a number of years, even once considering ordination (yikes!). The organisation is called the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition) and is to be found on many cult-watch websites.
I was involved with the NKT back in the early 90s and I moved out of their failed South-western Buddhist college project after realising how similar they were to Scientology and how incompatible I was with their group think approach. There is much that can be said about them and their nefarious activities, but I will leave that up to others: links can be found below if you are curious. The content of the Youtube videos reminded me of the issue of ignorance so many Westerners have regarding the history of Buddhism and the general lack of knowledge regarding Buddhism as a political and cultural phenomenon.
The videos lead to a website with an article making the same comparison with Scientology and in doing so highlights much of what is suspect about the organisation. As an entity, it is a fascinating case study for it seems to demonstrate all of what is wrong with Tibetan Buddhism in the West, but in a hyper-real fashion. One tactic regularly carried out by the organisation is to white-wash criticism and they have worked their Wikipedia entry countless times. For anyone who reads anti-China, or anti-Russia articles on the Independent or Guardian, their behaviour will be familiar. NKT followers troll sites that criticise any aspect of their tradition and shout as loudly as possible whilst posting links to their own highly politicised website, spookily named ‘NKT Truth’: George Orwell must be shivering in his grave.

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Meditation; some post-traditional thoughts

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Who’s meditating?

Many who come to Buddhism see meditation as being its essence. However, as many Buddhist scholars like to point out, in most Asian countries, meditation is, and always has been, practised by an extremely small percentage of Buddhists, like really, almost nobody. Buddhism for the masses has long been primarily about worship, prayer, supplication and rituals. Although some might say that there is inherent within such practices meditative states, and though that may well be so for some, explicit formal meditation practice has long been the domain of the elite: either the aristocrats and spiritual specialists in countries such as Tibet and Japan, or of the very few in South East Asian countries who dedicated their lives to the renunciate way of life. In the West then we are doing something quite different from the traditions that have gone before. Western Buddhism is already very different at a lay level to what it has ever been. We might even argue that modern Western Buddhism as practised by westerners is already post-traditional. That said my post-traditional is an attempt at self-description outside of tradition, meaning free of attempts to transpose an exotic Eastern Buddhist form into Western society with all the mimicry and the adoption of a Buddhist identity that goes along with it. And in spite of my fondness for much of Glenn Wallis’ work, I have to confess to being a Buddhist.

Post-traditional and meditation

What would post-traditional Buddhist meditation look like? What does it look like to deeply practice a Buddhist meditation technique outside of a tradition? Is there any value or worth in removing Buddhist meditation techniques from the tradition in which they have been developed and shared, and stood the test of time? In truth, each of these questions has already been answered and they are continuing to be answered by the many people that stumble along with varying degrees of success, finding their own way through books, videos, podcasts, and different degrees of experience had within established Buddhist groups. Meditation techniques themselves were developed by people of course, many of whom were stepping outside of tradition, or adapting and modernising existing traditions. Every time we place ourselves in sincere relationship with a meditation practice, we are adapting the technique through our personal and individual process, bringing new material into relationship with the practice, that is say, making the practice our own. Every time you sit down to meditate, it is a new moment, a new act. This immediacy, if conscious, is an antidote to complacency and a challenge to prescriptive behavioural modification that many traditional forms and approaches to meditation practice take or condone. How far an individual will go in this process will determine how radically they change. After all, if Buddhism has any worth, it is this, change.

My relationship with Buddhism is one of fluctuation, shifting in and out of a sort of intimate embrace, going deeply into shifting possibilities, whilst stepping back and examining with Western eyes and hands: teasing apart delicately and testing through personal experience the human potential within Buddhism’s human articles. Arguing over the ideological content and agenda inherent within politicised religious formations is one approach to take in reviewing Buddhism as a whole, especially if serious disillusionment has settled in and the rot has begun. Another is to deny it its supernatural claims and see it as a rich and varied history of human endeavour, and as such, open to a very human interpretation and reformulation, and this is the approach I like to take here. I feel I go further than the Secular Buddhists, but not as far as Wallis, Steingass and Pepper.

A post-traditional approach, as the British sociologist Anthony Giddens points out, is aware of choice and the constructed nature of tradition. Post-traditional goes beyond prescription to self-determination. If I am not a product of tradition, if I am not an autonym that acts in accordance with a fixed past, then I must necessarily choose how to engage and how to act in a (hopefully) conscious relationship with tradition/s. Post-traditional implies a degree of freedom then and awareness about that freedom. If deference to tradition sits opposite modern self-reflection, then a question that emerges is why do people grasp at the seeming solidity of tradition and not embrace a more self-aware relationship with Buddhism as the construct that it is? Well, in part, traditions, especially of the religious persuasion, have a nasty habit of defending themselves from progress and change. Impermanence has long been the enemy of stability and Buddhist institutions are no strangers to this in spite of what they preach. The old anti-modernity pursuit of a pure past, authentic tradition, the guarantor of expertise and so forth are the weapons raised in defence against the uncertainty and destabilising nature of change. Of course this friction plays out constantly at all levels of society, but, perhaps we, as in you and I, can embrace uncertainty and recognise Darwin’s claim that it is not the strongest that survive, but those most able to adapt to change.

Considering enlightenment: a project in reconfiguration (1)

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A post-traditional reconfiguration of Enlightenment

By Matthew O’Connell

“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 attempt tentative steps to resolve this by exploring enlightenment, its terminology in early Buddhism, and a model for mapping it into four stages, in order to demystify what is possibly 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. As rich historical phenomena, Buddhism 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. It also provides the historical roots for much of what we understand to be involved in the business of enlightenment.

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.

Post-traditional approach

A post-traditional approach 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 reading and engagement with Buddhism and its central tenets: an ongoing process that requires dedication to examining explicit and hidden pay offs that occur through allegiance with the Buddhist identity. 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 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 are often established that 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.

Mapping the way forward

There are multiple maps that lay out the route to enlightenment in Buddhism. Buddhist traditions have a habit of disagreeing which each other, so there are all sorts of potential outcomes that occur in the stories traditions tell themselves. Many Buddhist maps have turned the pursuit of enlightenment into a superhuman feat; others have made it into a form of increasingly inhuman self-control and denial. Many maps are extremely complex and worded poorly. I have chosen perhaps the oldest map to be found which has the great merit of being simple as it is set into four stages and is relatively accessible. There is a degree of tension in this piece though as this model comes originally from the Theravada School and I will be using a non-dualistic perspective more closely associated with later developments in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism to analyse and reconfigure it. The reasons for this will be made clear as the piece unfolds though this may seem a rather eccentric endeavour initially. What’s more, one might assume that the descriptive maps of meditational insight and progress are inseparable from the culture, time and place of their inception. Although in part this must be true, I find it motivating for it illustrates how in need we are of updated maps that are usable in our current cultural milieu. It may though simply be dismissive of the shared human landscapes that are accessed and traversed through meditation practice and the progress of insight. Suffering and ignorance are suffering and ignorance after all. Finally, since this text is conceived of within a post-traditional approach, anything is possible. It is along the creative lines of experimentation and daring that something of use may emerge and therein I shall travel. I do so unconcerned with the inevitable critique that may emerge from Buddhists following traditional lines of practice and community.

Big up Post-Traditional Buddhism

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(This is part two of an article on Post-Traditional Buddhism written for the Elephant Journal. Part.1 can be found here: Post-traditional Buddhism: the quiet revolution?)

Part 2: Big up Post-Traditional Buddhism 

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.