The Practising Life: updates!


What is practice? This is the fundamental question driving the new season of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast, which is about to start its journey out into the world. Practice, initially, is intended to be understood here in its most basic form; as that which humans do. Stripped bare so as to be only minimally caught in one ideology or another, practice will start off simple and return as often as possible to the most straightforward of human acts.

My interest in human practice really starts with the rudimentaries of all human lives; eating, sleeping, speaking, shitting, resting, as well as perceiving, thinking, and feeling as our most intimate practices. Yes, I think it wise to consider these last three as practices in themselves; as acts we repeatedly engage in within boundaries and confines that allow us to distinguish this from that and give value, or not, to what is carried out habitually.

My challenge in part for this season is to convince guests to chart terrain in a similarly, minimally ideological vein, in spite of whatever ideological commitments they will bring to conversation as practising beings living practising lives. We should all expect regular failure; me, you, and future guests. The striving is important all the same. Thinking from and beyond the limitations of existing thought is a noble task. Feeling beyond the familiar and sticking to it is a revelatory endeavour.

If we can do this together, then all the better for it.

Because of this stripped down relationship with practice, I will be little interested in discussing the ins-and-outs of self-contained systems of practice, or their accompanying theoretical justifications, or the promotion of teachers or traditions. Rather, I am after the leaky corners where tradition is broken out of its own stories about itself and is required to be human again and speak beyond its own special categories. I am after the leaky moments where people’s ideas and feelings are disrupted, and their humanity shines through, or where such things are reconsidered after an engagement with a new or other world of thought and feeling and practice.

None of this means I lack respect for traditions and their wares. On the contrary, I find almost all Buddhist traditions fascinating. It is rather that a living practice is always a human practice and by being so it is messy, unpredictable and beset by the concerns of the time and age in which it is practised. It is to that horizon that my gaze is fixed and to that land of emergent and unknowing possibility that I am compelled to head. If such a journey attracts you too, then I will see you on the way over the next months, and we shall find out to what degree the conversations that follow effect the practising lives we all live.

Side Note One

I recorded an interview with Cleo Kearns for Incite Seminars that was rather wonderful. I am using the past tense because technical issues strangled it dead and time constraints have meant a second chance was out of the question. Cleo, however, deserves your attention. We had a riveting discussion of ritual, ceremony and practice and her workshop this coming weekend deserves your attention if you are in the Philadelphia area (Saturday, May 12th). She will be coming on for a full, regular conversation somewhere down the line and we will discuss the practising life in relation to religion, spirituality, Shamanism, Catholicism (that’s right, I’m not kidding), and Buddhism.

For now, here’s the link to the event:

Side Note Two

The first conversation in this new series has already taken place. When opportunity knocks, well, you know the rest. I recently spent time in Rijeka in a three-way conversation with Ken McLeod and Hokai Sobol. Anybody paying attention to these two knows that they are both fully immersed in the practising life. They have also been past guests and already in those conversations the emphasis was on practice. The three-way format is a good one and I hope to make more such conversations take place. Conversing is always an art and I often fail to reach the fine art levels of discourse I would envision possible, but a practising life, if it is anything, is a reminder that imperfection is the nature of the thing. Within the imperfection we can find the human struggling and striving and playing out his or her life. Hokai and Ken are great examples of fellow humans committed to practice and coming to terms with it in the messy lived life.  Both have disrupted their relationship with tradition and both are striving to make sense of the rich heritage they have grown up in with the challenges of the world we inhabit today. Our conversation covers much ground and many topics.

End Note

The shift from the theoretical to the practical is not total. Thought, theory, ideology, and identity all come along for the ride. For those with a more critical bent, I invite you to stay critical, but to do so from the perspective and experience of practice, even as you engage theoretically. I think you will find it more fruitful to do so and the thought that emerges as a consequence will be of a different flavour. Of course, you can do as you wish, but why not see these conversations and interviews firstly as a practice in themselves?

Wish me luck fellow travellers. On to terrain anew and places unknown.

IBP 49: Donald S. Lopez on the Buddha, Tibet, Myth, & Context

Donald S. Lopez

We have come to the end of our series engaging with academics from the world of Buddhist studies and other relevant disciplines and what better way to complete it than with an interview with Donald S. Lopez Jr. Donald is the Arthur E. Link distinguished professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at Michigan University and the well-known author of many books on Buddhism. He specialises in late Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism and his books include Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, The Madman’s Middle Way, Buddhism and Science: a Guide for the Perplexed, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a Biography, and two titles that will be coming out this year with one on the Lotus Sutra that I am looking forward to. Donald’s books are aimed at the general public as well as fellow academics and they are entertaining and very well written. He draws on rich historical analysis and contemporary analytical tools for understanding complex religious phenomena and the West’s relationship with them in a way that is insightful and illuminating. They are also full of laugh out loud moments and wit.

Donald and I talk about his work, his writing, his books, Buddhism, philosophy, and more. It was a pleasure and honour for me to speak with him and I think this is a great way to round up this series before we move on to the practitioner and teacher cycle later this year. Thank you for listening to the podcast and I hope you have found it as stimulating as I have.

O’Connell Coaching:
Post-Traditional Buddhism:


IBP 48: Critical Reflections on Western Buddhism

Payne 1

We reach our penultimate episode in this series with Buddhist academics. Richard K. Payne is former Dean of the Institute of Buddhist Studies and Yehan Numata Professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at Berkley. Richard also trained as a Shingon Priest, and provides interesting insight into Buddhism at his blog, Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought.

We get stuck into a whole range of topics in the conversation, from White Buddhism to perennialism, from Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True? to mind-body dualism. We also touch on popular themes to the podcast such as transcendence, ideology and anti-intellectualism. Below you will find the article on Traditionalist Representations of Buddhism, which is discussed and it is is a must read for contextualizing some of the odd fantasies Westerners still hold onto regarding Buddhism.

Payne Traditionalist Representations PW

There is also a slightly longer introduction than usual which contextualizes this year’s output, gives a view to where we’re heading, and provides a few updates.


Richard K. Payne’s University website:

Richard K. Payne’s blog, Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought:

Incite Events advertised in the intro:

Podcast Updates & Request (…not for money!)


Here are a few updates for the podcast. We have two episodes left from the wonderful world of academia with the next one being a conversation with Richard K. Payne, Yehan Numata professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkley, and senior editor of the Pacific World Journal. Richard also trained as a Shingon priest in Japan, and has an insightful blog called Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought. We talk about aspects of online Buddhist culture, White Buddhism, why Richard Wright’s “Why Buddhism is True” may not be true at all, perennialism, ideology and transcendence, as well as anti-intellectualism in Buddhism. As I mention on the podcast interview, I highly recommend reading a text by Richard on traditionalism and perennialism and the role they have played in forming many of our enduring fantasies about Buddhism.

After that, you will get to hear an interview with Donald S. Lopez, Arthur E. Link distinguished professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan. Many of you will be familiar with Donald’s work already, in particular his texts that look at the history of Buddhism with a very original twist. From Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism in the West, to The Scientific Buddha, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a Biography, Donald has written entertaining accessible books thoroughly rooted in deep scholarly work that dismantle many of the enduring myths we hold regarding Buddhism and its authentic past. Many of you will also be familiar with The Madman’s Middle Way, and we talk about this text along with his others throughout the interview. I’m a big fan of Donald’s work, and if you are too, you will no doubt find this conversation highly stimulating.


Rounding up with post-modernity: Ann Gleig on American Dharma & Buddhism Beyond Modernity


Here we are, the last in our three-part series on Buddhist Modernism, post-Modernism, and what comes after. We hope you’ve enjoyed it and found it educational so far and are ready for the final episode!

Professor Ann Gleig joins the podcast from sunny Florida for a discussion of her brand new book ‘American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity‘. Our discussion centers on her text, and expands out to touch on issues such as social justice, recent sexual scandals in Buddhist communities, the loss of boundaries between the academic and practitioner, and obviously, lots more. A big theme in Ann’s book is the development of post-modern influences in the current western Buddhist landscape and she explores multiple modernities and the ways scholars are attempting to make sense of the changes afoot, which you dear listener are part of. Ann’s book is as new as can be, surveying the current landscape of American Buddhism and beyond and extremely affordable, so why not get yourself a copy.

Find out more about Ann at:

O’Connell Coaching:
Post-Traditional Buddhism:


Music from Bristol’s Idles. I couldn’t resist putting on their very punky ‘White Privilege‘, which will make sense when you get to  end of the interview. Be warned though, it is very punky.

David L. McMahan on Buddhism, Science & the Humanities, & Modernity


In this second part of the series on Buddhist modernism, Buddhist post-modernism, and what comes next, I interview David L. McMahan, who is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in the US. David is the well-known author of The Makings of Buddhist Modernism, which had a serious impact on more learned, thinking Buddhists in the West who were willing to challenge some of their assumptions about Buddhism and its development here. David’s book acted as an analysis of the Western influences on how Buddhism was shaped and showed that they had an insipid influence in ways that practitioners were generally oblivious to. From the role of romanticism, to secularism, to notions of selfhood, David’s book was an incredible journey into the underlying structure of Western Buddhism itself, revealing how this often described ancient wisdom tradition was actually in great part the creation of Westerners.

9780195183276 (more…)

From Modernity to Post-Modernity, and Beyond


And so it begins. This post signals the start of a three-part podcast series exploring Buddhist Modernism, Buddhist Post-Modernism and what comes after. These are three conversations with three different academics exploring contemporary Buddhism, mostly in the West, but also bridging across to Asian countries.

The three conversations in many ways highlight the difficulty in conceptualising historical change in the complexity of the globalised culture within which we are situated; even as we sit on our meditation cushions. At one point the focus of my questions was on post-modernity and the influence of post-modern and poststructuralist thinkers on contemporary Buddhism, but this proved to be too limited for understanding what is taking place in the current Buddhist landscape. The fact is that post-modernity has provided a number of critical tools for thinking about Buddhism and critiquing Buddhist modernity, but its limitations, visible elsewhere, are also present in an analysis of contemporary Buddhism, or better, Buddhisms. These three academics are all attempting to make sense of our contemporary moment, and the impact and role this has on Buddhism. Each is drawing on a variety of conceptual tools, asking important questions, and grappling with complex issues which are contemporary for any thinking practitioner.

The three guests are all members of generation X and the tone of each conversation is slightly different from some of my conversations with those defined as boomers. I find this interesting and many of the characteristics that define generation X can be heard in my conversation with the first guest Scott Mitchell: there is humour, playfulness, a sense of irony, curiosity and a sense of honesty about limitations in terms of knowledge. I had listened to a conversation Scott had on the New Books in Buddhism podcast in which he discussed his most noted work Buddhism in America: Global Religion, Local Contexts and I confess to finding the conversation rather boring. This meant my expectations for our conversation were quite low, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Scott was a great interlocutor. He was really game in exploring a wide variety of topics with me that went beyond the questions I initially gave him and we look at bridging Buddhism from America to the rest of the globe, the rise of China and its potential impact on Buddhism globally, the fallacy of believing in a single true Buddhism, and a critical engagement with Buddhism more broadly. The link to our conversation can be found below and I highly recommend giving it a listen.

The second conversation is with David L. McMahan, who is probably best known for his book The Makings of Buddhist Modernism. I was ill during our conversation, but that didn’t stop us from discussing his work, his more recent publications and a variety of topics which I think are all important and relevant to practitioners. We get into discussing the need for balance in thinking about and engaging with meditation in the current climate with its fetish for science and the scientific reading of decontextualised practices. David rightly reminds us that you cannot take context, history, and politics out of the meditation practice and we look at the significance of this conversation.

The third conversation is with Ann Gleig and rounds off the series nicely with a look at her freshly published book American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity. The book and our discussion link back through the previous interviews, and forwards to some of the challenges of definitions, categories, and the desire to make sense of complexity in a fast paced changing global world. Ann has carried out the most up-to-date survey of the contemporary Buddhist landscape in America and beyond, and many of the non-academic figures we have interviewed appear in her text. I’m even in the book! In fact, I assume some French philosopher or sociologist has come up with some term to describe the odd situation in which I am interviewing an author about a book in which I appear. If you know it, feel free to share in the comments section.

Enjoy the series and get stuck into the ideas. The line that separates academics and practitioners is thinner than it’s ever been so feel free to invest your own intelligence and time into thinking about the challenges presented in these three conversations. These are exciting times.