Tradition, baggage and innovating


(I’m big & beautiful & cost a fortune: tradition resisting impermanence)

This coming week’s collection of posts continues to explore a post-traditional approach to Buddhism, and possibly life in general. There is experimentation and speculation and both are work in progress. I start out by looking at tradition, and then articulate further some of the characteristics of a post-traditional approach, before looking at identity formation and the ubiquity of stories.

Fingers crossed, Stuart and I will find time this week to get cracking with the next episode of the Imperfect Buddha podcast. For now, here’s the first of the posts that will complete the first cycle of this primer. The second cycle will be much more concerned with practices and methods but will not be available until the new year.

Exploring Tradition and its unavoidable baggage

Tradition is complex and features a number of characteristics in whatever form it takes. Tradition emerges as a response to human needs in a specific time and place and is only kept alive by the repetitive actions of its adherents and their sufficient dedication to its ecology. Traditions typically hold to fixed formulations of truth and ritualised practices for understanding and relating to that truth. Its forms are by their very nature formulaic invoking emotions, instigating reliable lines of thought, and providing a moral direction or code. At their most consistent, they provide models of selfhood that can be deeply attractive. Traditions provide answers and they pose problems too. Examining a number of them would be useful at this point. In the spirit of generosity, it is worth considering what need the tradition is trying to meet as it creates ideological forms; because traditions are an example of both the solidification and calcification of human ideals and endeavours. One of the great features of modernity is that it has helped us to understand how the structures and forms of tradition are historically formed and manmade. This leads to  awareness of their fallibility. Good ideological subjects resist this awareness and must, in a sense, believe the narratives that prop up their specific tradition, its legitimacy, and origins. Although much criticism of religion has been deconstructive, and rightly so, it has often led to an impoverished view of religion without appreciating why such cultural forms emerge, or providing answers to how to build and present alternatives. This is a common complaint from those who are wed to some form of traditional Buddhism. Deconstruction has very specific aims of course and its job is not to fix problems or provide alternatives: that is for other exercises in thought and practice. It can lead to intelligent folks being overtly dismissive of traditions, however, and a refusal to appreciate how flawed we all are, and how traditions are often a decent attempt to respond to very real human needs. There are real reasons why Evangelical Christians are so numerous in the States, for example, and they are only partially explained by politics, economy and race. The transparency of the absurdity of their fundamentalist beliefs seems to have very little effect on their religious commitments and this illustrates how powerful needs are being met and solid identities are being formed. Buddhism, of course, can find itself performing the exact same service.


Warming up with non-Buddhism


Considered controversial for his attacks on the failings of contemporary Buddhists to take their Buddhist claims seriously and for their appeasement of global capitalism, Wallis has elaborated a number of concepts useful for understanding what drives some folks to dramatically change their relationship with Buddhism. Drawing a great deal on philosophy and critical theory, Wallis has constructed a critique of Buddhism as much informed by his own academic background (he holds a PHD in Buddhist Studies from Harvard University), as his own dissatisfaction with the failings of Western Buddhism to live up to its ideals. Whatever one might make of his approach, Wallis’ writing is of immense value to anybody interested in deconstructing Buddhism and identification with it. His original work represents a treasure trove for those intellectually dissatisfied with Buddhism and already in the advance stages of a relational break with it. Those becoming increasingly disappointed with Buddhism may find themselves in a state of what Glenn defines as ‘aporetic dissonance’:

Aporetic Dissonance: An affective condition. The believer‘s discovery within himself or herself of a dissonant ring of perplexity, puzzlement, confusion, and loss concerning the integrity of Buddhism‘s self-presentation. It involves an apprehension that buddhistic rhetorics of self-display are but instances of acataleptic impassability. This ring is the signal for aporetic inquiry. Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism

The language Glenn uses can be challenging to those less academically inclined but, basically, he means a person starts to feel a form of discomfort or dissatisfaction towards his or her tradition, or Buddhism in general. Something starts to feel off and ideas that were once awe inspiring seem to be incoherent or even make believe. Practices that produced positive feelings may start to produce indifference or ongoing frustration. There is a process of separation between one’s own sense of integrity and the Buddhist ideas or practices being presented and the romance begins to fade, leading to:

Ancoric loss. An affective condition. The irreversible termination of hope that ―Buddhism indexes the thaumaturgical refuge adduced in its rhetorics of selfdisplay.  Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism

This means that a person has lost unquestioning faith in Buddhism and that it no longer represents a guarantee of salvation. This is an interesting condition for it initially appears to contradict many Buddhist teachings. The notion of salvation is usually thought of as being incompatible with Buddhism, isn’t it? And didn’t the Buddha tell us to rely on ourselves? Isn’t Buddhism a religion of immanence strongly opposed to notions of transcendence, whether in the form of heaven or union with the godhead? Those are fair questions but they remain at the theoretical level. Various manifestations of Buddhism do hold to the notion of heaven. But more interestingly, perhaps, at the experiential level, we are driven to hold onto our existence and are constantly seeking to transcend experiences we wish to avoid. We are patterned creatures that resist the implications of the core insights of Buddhism too with meditation practices even becoming a means of escape or respite from reality; an ascent to heavenly realms, perhaps. What’s more, in adapting itself to middle-class concerns and the capitalist model for distribution, Western Buddhism is increasingly being modelled as compatible with self-development and the pursuit of happiness, which sets up a number of contradictions. It is easy enough to see how happiness can be a form of transcendent escapism and its pursuit a form of refuge, especially if a practitioner has been infantilised by expectations of happy-ever-after enlightenment. Appearance, interpretation and reality are in constant tension. What we imagine Buddhism to be may be different to how it is actually practised. Its idealised image is never truly faithful to the imperfect human’s creations and acts that stem from them. Ideals do not match those imperfect forms, whether it be a tradition obsessed with ideas of purity or authentic lineage, or our own imperfect attempts to live up to ideals. If we humanise the whole affair, we are left to see how the insights of Buddhism have played out in our lives and whether they still make sense in our struggles and striving.


post + traditional + Buddhism


post + traditional + Buddhism

Post-traditional approaches to Buddhism have a long history. Breaks from existing tradition, emergences of new trends, new forms and divergence from orthodoxy are initially post-traditional. Of course, once solidified into new orthodoxy and with enough patronage, post-traditional becomes the new traditional.

These two words post- and traditional should be self-explanatory. But just in case, here is a closer look at their conventional definitions.

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 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.
I first came across the idea of a post-traditional approach to Buddhism in the work of Hokai Sobol, a Croatian Shingon teacher who’s been exploring the intersection of Shingon Buddhism and Western culture in his own practice and teaching for decades. 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

Described in this way, post-traditional implies an immense challenge. As a gateway to a very different relationship with Buddhism, approaching Buddhism post-traditionally entails freedom from the need to replicate a specific ideal of Buddhism as it has been received or sanctified. This implies leaving behind faithful continuity with tradition and its forms and the objective of remaking oneself in the image of the tradition. The extent of departure from tradition can vary a great deal, from the refusal to blindly carry out ritual or adopt clothing and mannerisms, to a radical break from beliefs, language and ritualised practices. It is often the extent of disillusionment that determines the degree of such change. The personally meaningful connections that have been established are also determinate. For Buddhist teachers, the adoption of a post-traditional approach might involve an extensive revaluation of the given norms they have been faithful to and a greater degree of openness to experimentation. It may also involve conscious reassessment after many years of practice and a potential reinvigoration of their path.


Post-traditional Buddhism Primer: oh no! It’s ideology.


What will follow over the next few weeks is a series of blog posts designed to take the next step in the exploration of a post-traditional approach to Buddhism. It will summarise much of the work taken place at the site and expand where necessary. It will also employ two key additions. Firstly, a number of new topics will be looked at and, secondly, a consideration of more practical applications will take place that readers may find useful in re-examining their own relationship with Buddhism.  In this way, we might define it as a primer.

Posts will be in the form of short sections for people to browse through, skip or return to, with a presentation style designed for shorter attention spans and the quick location of personally relevant material, although a narrative line does run through, unifying the different posts.

This primer also acts as either a general introduction to post-traditional Buddhism for those pondering whether to listen to the upcoming Imperfect Buddha Podcast episode, or as a return to document for reviewing some of the ideas therein. At the very least, it should give readers something to think about and a means for approaching Buddhism more consciously (i.e. creatively and critically). If you have criticisms, additions, questions or doubts after reading, feel free to leave a comment.


Where to begin? Well, with ideology of course. A 20th century buzzword, it has evolved and expanded in its usage and usefulness over the last decades. It no longer defines solely the major political ideologies of Capitalism and Communism, but any seemingly self-contained system of ideas, behaviours and norms that people identify with. Ideology may not be everything, but it is everywhere, and this makes it a necessary topic of study. What follows is a short essay of sorts on ideology and Buddhism as religion. It also sets the initial ground for the sort of exploration I intend to take in subsequent posts.

Do enjoy…if your idealogical leanings allow it.


Feeling Trumped?

The world is not America. Thank goodness for that. We do all live in crazy times though. If you’re a good Buddhist, you might want to send compassion out to those lost souls that voted for the orange one out of desperation and anger at the neo-liberal agenda. You may choose to send out a dharma slap to the evangelicals and neo-fascists instead. They will all need it as Trump will inevitably disappoint with his big talk. If you’re more the nihilist, you might embrace the mad hat brigade with a wry smile and a drop of whiskey sourced from the Scottish island where he’s been shitting on the locals’ lives with his golf course project, cutting off water to old women and ruining the community as he goes. If you’re just your regular human struggling through samsara, here’s a song that captures the feel of the moment from my favourite group. They’re Canadian, which means something in this precise moment.

New podcast is being projected and a huge piece of super sexy writing is in the works. Please be patient. We have lives, jobs and families to care for.

Here are links to some interesting takes on the Trump win that I read this morning. You may read them whilst chanting a mantra of your choice and holding an image of the world surrounded by a beautiful white light, purifying the whole place of its racism, misogyny and ‘anger’;

In bolstering this tidbit of a blog post after Matthias’ complaints, I’ll add a film recommendation too. Hell or High Water is a film about the America that voted for Trump. It’s also very well made and acted. Go check it out.

9.3 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: Glenn Wallis on the Immanence & Transcendence Divide


In this episode, writer, critic, Buddhist scholar and Philadelphia punk legend punk Glen Wallis returns to the Imperfect Buddha podcast for the second part of our discussion on non-Buddhism and its consequences. We go deep into an issue at the heart of contemporary western Buddhism: the seemingly irresolvable division between immanence and transcendence, which in lay man’s terms is the distinction between spirituality as escape or as embodiedness. You may not know how deep these two go down the rabbit hole of modern spirituality and how they sit right at the dysfunctional heart of Buddhism. Applying constructive critique, we look at how Buddhists and teachers avoid the consequences of thinking them through to the very end and how that lack of insight leads to all manner of escapism and confusion.


9.2 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: Glenn Wallis on non-Buddhism(P.1)


Show Notes 9.2 Glenn Wallis Interview

Why would a modern day Buddhist engage with the work of non-Buddhism? Why bother to be forced to question your relationship with Buddhism? Why risk destabilising the status quo? Why not carry on as usual? If the last episode didn’t convince you, maybe the man who started the thing will.

The instigator of the non-Buddhism project graces the Imperfect Buddha podcast with his presence and with such rich material and such a sharp mind, we couldn’t contain everything in a single episode. Glenn’s interview straddles two episodes and the development of ideas across them. The humanity shines through and for those who may have been unsettled when approaching the revolutionary work at the Speculative non-Buddhism site, the content of the podcast may be surprising.