We finally got Mr Sobol on the podcast folks. He has been on our top three list for guests since the inception of the project so we are rather chuffed he agreed to come on. As always, Hokai has lots to say and his sharp mind and insight into Buddhism are well worth listening to. We attempted to record an episode about a month back but it didn’t work out so this is actually our second go. We created enough talk time for two episodes and this is part one. We split the conversation nicely by having lunch in the middle. The two halves are connected but discuss different themes. The first looks at approaches to Buddhism and the second focusses on practice and expands on the idea of mysticism.
We have agreed to entertain the possibility of a third chat. Hokai and I live close to each other, which makes it easy for a person to person conversation to take place. To this end, he has suggested listeners write questions or inquiries in the comments section here, at the Soundcloud page, or on the Imperfect Buddha Twitter feed to be used as the basis for a further discussion. If you have Qs of your own and you’re reading this, go ahead and add them below.
Bear with me please. This post goes in a number of directions but each is linked and important. It is also representative of an Italian rhetorical style which begins with a good deal of preamble before making the central point at the end. This is a writing style that requires a degree of faith on the part of the reader, and is certainly unfashionable in today’s culture of bite-size nuggets and stimulation triggering.
I’ll assume that if you make it to the end, you are a thinker, and if not, enjoy your social media fix and close the door on your way off this page.
When I examined my own set of practices in the last years, I was often been brought back to the flurry of insults thrown at certain meditation traditions, teachers and practices by the non-Speculative Buddhism chaps. I also recall a frequent utterance made that was aimed at claims of results or pro-positive feelings that might emerge from them: “So what?” they would ask. Was this a question, a sneer, or an expression of disinterest on their part? Perhaps it was a mixture of all three. Either way, I took such brusk commentary as a useful reminder to avoid repeating three mistakes; using meditation as a retreat from the world, assuming it was obvious that meditation was always good, and that meditation was what it was being defined as by my fellow Buddhists. Since those days, I have been concerned with the idea that meditation techniques and the framework used to discuss, understand and expand on them be connected more closely with immanence and the non Buddhist world of knowledge and insight, and that the concept of immanence not be taken for granted or encoded within Buddhist lingo. What does it mean to be present to life? What does it mean to be present to the world? What does it mean to engage with something called the present? We take so much for granted; we take so much on blind faith. How often do we stop to ask questions of the exultations that beckon us on into practice? How often do we challenge what can seem so natural? These were just some of the questions that challenged me and brought back a sense of excitement into thinking about meditation, spirituality and Buddhism anew.
To question your assumptions is an essential aspect of practice. This is quite different from forming yourself into the image of a good Buddhist. Questions can radically upset what we take as given. How do you feel if someone undermines everything you hold dear? How do you feel if someone exposes your practice and view of yourself as a practitioner as fraudulent? When our assumptions are challenged and the normalisation of a personally held view is prodded vigorously, typical reactions tend to ensue. They usually include the famous three: retreat, avoidance, or defence. How many are capable of opening to the critique at hand instead, and accepting it may destroy what you hold dear and that this may be exactly what you need in your life? Who is willing to see critique as an opportunity rather than a personal attack in this age of outrage and victimhood? Surely humility involves being willing to be wrong and shown what is hidden behind our ignorance. To be shaken by the world is an invaluable opportunity for genuine transformation. It’s a shame most of us are culturally trained to avoid it. It’s even worse when we bullshit ourselves into justifying our excuses for cowardice in excusing ourselves for disengaging when life invites us to step up.
The intention of this series is to strip away a good deal of the religious and spiritual packaging surrounding meditation to dig around for that imperfect human underneath. If you are one of these imperfect humans, you may find this task useful too. To this end, it is necessary to start off by de-essentializing meditation, and additionally recognise that human minds and human bodies are always the ones enacting meditation techniques. What’s more, it can be helpful to be wary of claims by traditions that they have the highest, most powerful, purest, original, and most authentic, bestest ever technique…ever. It is perhaps worth asking yourself ‘Why the hell do they make such claims?’ if you follow a tradition that says as much, as the answers can be rather enlightening.
My meditation is all meditation
So what is meditation? Ask anyone who practices it and they will likely reply with confidence that what they do IS meditation. At most you might get a Buddhist, Hindu or New Age reading of the types of meditation practised by those following such pathways. Sometimes the obvious is not as obvious as it might seem which is why it is worth remembering that there really are masses and masses of meditation techniques out there with myriad schools of thought providing wide-ranging reasoning behind them. Is it possible therefore to find an essential practise underlying all of them? In one word: no! Not at all; there is no essential, universal, underlying, meditation practice. This means that not all meditation techniques or the reasoning behind them are equal and we may need to make some value judgements folks. The only sameness to be found is the physical one; meditation practices take place within human bodies, and interact effectively, or ineffectively, with our shared human world; the social and physical reality we live in. Meditation techniques viewed from this perspective are always relational practices as nothing is truly taking place in isolation. No technique is utterly pure or devoid of the human animal performing it. This is a perspective that will be painfully obvious for some of you, a taboo for others, and never seriously appreciated by too many others still.
(Lobsang Jivaka, aka, Cyril Hoskin, aka, New Age Gangster, aka, fake Tibetan lama)
I am adding a couple of thoughts here before starting a short cycle of blog posts in the next few weeks. This is because the audience at this site has increased markedly over the last year which makes it necessary for me to be clearer in my intentions and more explicit with my basic assumptions, which is an ongoing challenge for us all. The textual form still lends itself to certain instinctual interpretations on the part of the reader; one being that what is written is a final declaration on the part of the writer. Another is that the views within are fixed in stone or not open to change. Neither of these assumptions would be true in my case. It is for this reason that I always invite readers to chime in.
I will be applying a post-traditional reading to meditation in the next two blog posts. I am mainly interested in meditation practices that come from Tibet and they act as the basis for the questions I ask of meditation and the direction I will take in my exploration and elaboration of contemporary reformulations and interpretations. Because of the way I intend to do so, it is worth me spending a few words on ownership, and cultural appropriation. I won’t say a great deal but would like to anticipate some potential concerns from the more scholarly leaning readers. The issues of exploitation and cultural theft and their relationship with the steam rolling driving Capitalism and its need to profit from literally every aspect of human activity makes issues of ownership and identity a delicate issue and this applies to Western engagements with Buddhism.
Shamanism and Buddhism share history bro
Historically speaking, there are very strong parallels between western interest in Shamanism and Buddhism. The history of modern interest in Buddhism laid out in books such as David McMahan’s The Makings of Buddhist Modernism or Donald S. Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La are mirrored in an historical analysis of Western interest in Shamanism, and Native American spirituality and religion, in Andrei A. Znamenski’s wonderful The Beauty of the Primitive. I highly recommend all three books if you have any personal connection to these traditions, especially the latter two which are highly readable. The role of romanticism, anti-modern sentiments and a desire for a long-lost past united initial fascination with both of these exotic traditions and are at the base of the often dysfunctional relationship that has characterised white Westerners’ engagement with them ever since. I am all too aware that many folks still fall for the romantic narratives exposed in all three texts and traces of these narratives still linger on in the imagination of many Western followers of Buddhism. The relationship with what were once exotic and foreign religions is obviously going to be rather complex and as with many politically charged topics, it is very easy for those enchanted by them to drift towards one side of the ownership debate and judge accordingly. In part, divisions and judgements over what is perceived of as theft or cultural appropriation, and the free exploration of knowledge and adoption of profound spiritual truth (which are believed should be freely available to all) have been stimulated by the mixing of religion and spirituality with money making. This has been compounded by unscrupulous folks posing as something they are not with titles such as Tulku, Rinpoche, Lama, and Guru being adopted by those who have no claim to them. Check out the story of Lobsang Rampa, otherwise known as Cyril Hoskin, for insight into a very British case of false identity, delusion and money making. He wrote what is apparently still the bestselling book on Tibetan Buddhism in the West: the absurdly fantastical The Third Eye.
We finally made it. Our latest episode of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast has just been published over at Soundcloud and readers are invited to go and check it out. It is actually our twentieth episode and we have been going for well over a year now. Like all creative projects, there is a need for renewal and inspiration and you will likely notice some of this going on in the direction our conversation takes.
This episode takes forward our exploration of post-traditional approaches to Buddhism but we choose to begin with a discussion that touches on a variety of topics including Jordan B. Peterson, Sam Harris, archetypes, political correctness, and more.
We then move onto the discussion and exploration of post-traditional Buddhism, drawing on the original ideas of Hokai Sobol, and tying together all of the themes into a wonderful unitary whole…of sorts.
This episode represents change, not only for the content of our discussion, which is more serious than usual, but also for a number of sound bites which bring Sam, Jordan and Slavoj Zizek into the conversation. We hope you enjoy these and that they don’t upset the flow of the conversation, which goes deeper down the rabbit hole than usual.
When you say the word spiritual, what do you actually mean? What is it that you are referring to in the world or in yourself? If you can define it in other terms, what does calling it spiritual add?
Look at the definition of the word spiritual above. Now ask yourself how much of this should have a place in Buddhism and Buddhist meditation. Is meditation itself really a form of spiritual practice? If so, I personally may no longer be interested in it. I believe that the language we continue to use to talk about Buddhism and meditation in the West is bound too closely to the original baby boomer Buddhists who took their strong Judaeo-Christian cultural roots to the once exotic East and mixed them together with Hinduism and a rather romantic interpretation of Buddhism to produce a muddled hybrid. We are still caught up in their experiences and understanding of Buddhism and this stickiness has been further complicated by the infiltration into western Buddhist discourse of language and concepts that gained prominent usage in the New-Age of the 80s and 90s. Surely it is time we moved on! Surely we can find a better term than spiritual to describe what we are doing when we dedicate a sufficient part of our existence to an examined life, informed at a significant level by some form of Buddhism, whether traditional or post-traditional.
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 American culture. 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.