Monday, August 30, 2010

Western Gurus?

This post appeared last week as part of the new, weekly 21st-Century Buddhism feature at the Interdependence Project.

A recent article on Huffington Post by David Nichtern -- one of my earliest Buddhist teachers and father of the notorious Ethan Nichtern -- asked some hard-hitting questions about The Future of Buddhism in the West. David and I are apparently sharing brainwaves, because I've been chewing on many of the same questions recently.

Nichtern points out the puzzling shortage of Westerners being fully empowered as teachers in the Vajrayana tradition, commonly known as Tibetan Buddhism. He says: "Either the time has not yet come for Western Buddhist gurus to manifest fully, or we have a major culture clash on our hands here." I'm thinking that it may actually be a little of both.

Clearly, Vajrayana is lagging behind other Buddhist traditions in the process of empowering Westerners as full-blown lineage holders. In the Zen and Vipassana traditions, Western teachers are now fully empowered and passing the torch from one Westerner to another. But high-level Vajrayana teachers who are not culturally and ethnically Tibetan (or Nepali or Bhutanese) are, today, few and far between. The reasons for this are complex and multifaceted, including:

  • Guru principle. The guru-student relationship is a particularly intense kind of bond that is unique to the Vajrayana tradition. It remains to be seen if Western Buddhists can relate to one another as gurus and students -- or if we're only comfortable having gurus from another culture.
  • The politics of reincarnation. In Tibetan Buddhism, lineage transmission is bound up with the institution of tulkus (reincarnated teachers) and recognition across multiple lifetimes. How this will play out as Western teachers begin to hold the lineage also remains to be seen.
  • The Tibetan diaspora. Tibetan culture is threatened with extinction in its native land. At the same time as Tibetan teachers living in exile are transmitting the dharma, they are also struggling to preserve their culture -- a culture that is, itself, intimately fused with the dharma. It is understandable if this makes Tibetan teachers reluctant to pass the lineage to Westerners who have little investment in preserving their endangered culture.
  • Bad examples. It doesn't help our case that in several of the rare instances when full lineage transmission has been given to Westerners, the subsequent conduct of those new lineage holders has blown up into scandal and embarrassment. Just this past week, we've seen scandalous articles in the New York Times and the New York Post about two high-profile Buddhist teachers, Eido Shimano Roshi and Geshe Michael Roach. Perhaps this kind of thing, which is all too common, signals to Tibetan teachers that we're not quite ready to hold the Vajrayana lineage fully, in the way gurus do.

Those are all legitimate factors to consider in assessing why the Vajrayana is lagging behind the Zen and Vipassana traditions in terms of giving lineage transmission to Westerners. You could say there are good reasons for it.

What concerns me in this is the disempowering effect it might have on Western students. Given the widely acknowledged fact that we tend to have rather low self-esteem in the first place, we might come to believe that genuine wisdom and realization is something foreign and relatively inaccessible, and that we have to make ourselves more like Tibetans in order to hopefully get a little bit of their wisdom to rub off on us. There is a common tendency to idolize and mystify the Asian teacher and believe that wisdom exists "out there" somewhere, embodied predominantly in representatives from another (exotic) culture -- when, really, those very teachers are always reminding us that wisdom exists right here, right now, in the palm of our own hand.

In a recent article on One Human Journey, I called this tendency "cultural theism." Under the spell of cultural theism, Western students may -- consciously or not -- come to regard wisdom and genuine realization as something culturally foreign and therefore relatively unattainable. Because the power differential between teachers and students in the Vajrayana tradition falls more consistently along cultural and ethnic lines, Westerners may feel they are not capable of holding the lineage or manifesting the same degree of wisdom as their Tibetan teachers.

Cultural theism probably won't begin to go away until we start seeing more fully empowered Western teachers holding lineages in the Vajrayana tradition. But then, as David Nichtern hinted at in his article, will people really be ready to accept that when it does finally happen? Will Westerners feel the same respect and devotion for a realized and empowered Westerner as they do for a more culturally exotic Tibetan teacher?

If you assume the answer is yes, take a look at how many people show up when a Tibetan lama who's barely out of high school gives a talk, versus how many show up to hear a Western teacher who's been studying and practicing for 30 or 40 years. In some cases there may be reasons for the disparity -- maybe the young Tibetan lama is recognized as a tulku, and his previous incarnation was an important teacher -- but when this sort of thing manifests as a consistent pattern, it suggests that cultural theism may also be at work.

Are we ready for Western gurus? Share your thoughts.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Don't Meditate

Often when I meditate I'm involved in some kind of subtle (or really obvious) form of manipulation. I want to be more settled, more focused on the object of meditation -- less distracted and discursive. I want to be more contented and peaceful, more compassionate, more blissful. I want to have more profound insights into emptiness, a deeper experience of the nature of mind.

Those are all nice things to aspire to, and most of us on the spiritual path (at least the Buddhist one) share those goals. The only problem is that when you're sitting there wishing you were experiencing something other than you are right now, you're not really meditating.

Some Buddhist teacher or other once said that "Hope is poison." By definition, hope involves projecting into the future, wishing for something to be different. When we bring hope into our meditation practice, it can turn meditation into a self-defeating cycle. We sit down with the intention to remain anchored in the present moment, but we end up spending a lot of our time subtly thinking about what we hope to become in the future.

A famous Tibetan Buddhist proverb says: "Abandon all hope of fruition." That might sound like bleak advice, but it's actually very practical. Abandon your hope of becoming something better than you are right now (and your fear of becoming something worse), because that hope (and that fear) keeps you trapped in fantasies about the future.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, who is quite the Twitter aficionado, recently tweeted: "Don't think about NEXT, think about NOW!"

That is a profound meditation instruction, and proof that Twitter isn't all bad. How often, when we meditate, are we thinking about NEXT -- whether it's the next breath, the next hour, the next few years, the next stage on our path, the next item on our spiritual agenda? How often are we really staying with NOW? What makes us think we're going to find enlightenment up ahead somewhere, always lurking in the NEXT moment, the NEXT one, the NEXT one? Isn't it always right here, right now?

"This moment is the perfect teacher," said Pema Chodron. Surprisingly, though, its perfection has nothing to do with whether we like it or not, whether it's pleasant or not, whether we're happy or not, whether we've accomplished the things we think we need to accomplish or become what we think we need to become. Whatever is happening now, in this very moment, is just what it is. When we can open to that and stay present with it, without glomming onto it or trying to manipulate it to become something else, we are seeing its perfection. Whatever arises in this moment is fresh, the essence of realization. It might be fresh like dog poop, but it's fresh.

One way of getting into this space, and one of my favorite meditation instructions of all time, is this: Don't meditate.

Seriously, try it. Sit down on your cushion or your chair and take your meditation posture. Give it your best shot. Do a few minutes of meditating on the breath if it makes you feel better. And then just drop it. Break the cycle. Don't meditate. Don't do anything that looks or feels like meditation. Don't try to hold your mind to an object, don't try to shew away thoughts if they come. Just look at whatever you're experiencing in this moment, with no agenda and no attachment or aversion. Don't think about NEXT. Think about NOW. And don't meditate.

Where else are you hoping to find enlightenment, if not right here, right now? And how much of your so-called meditation practice is actually keeping you from being here now?

In the Mahamudra tradition they say that the highest form of meditation is non-meditation: when you've completely gone beyond the idea that there's a difference between meditating and not meditating. In the state of non-meditation, you're just completely here, completely now. It requires no particular effort, and there's no longer any need to crank it up through some contrived idea of "meditation." At that point, there is something artificial about the whole notion of meditating, because it's a subtle way of trying to manipulate the present moment.

The supreme state of non-meditation. Sounds like something to aspire to. Oh, wait -- there I go again! Drop it. Abandon all hope of fruition. Don't think about NEXT, think about NOW.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Koan of Christian Buddhism

Are you on Facebook? Now you can "Like" One Human Journey's Facebook page. Get updates about the latest posts, and interact with other readers.

Now on Buddhist Geeks: "The Koan of Christian Buddhism," my follow-up to last week's controversial article, "Christian Buddhism?" In this second piece, I look at the range of reactions people have had to the suggestion of "Christian Buddhism" -- from people who identify with that label and feel it describes their spiritual experience, to people who gruffly denounce the very idea as madness. It is, without a doubt, a charged topic.

But as I suggest in this second article, it's also a bit more than that. That very charge is an invitation for us to look within and discover something about ourselves.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

A number of readers commented that they, too, were actively exploring how to bring together their Christian and Buddhist beliefs and practices. One remarked that as a Quaker and a Buddhist, she often gets criticized by both Quakers and Buddhists for combining the two faiths in her own life. Others expressed a sense of relief at seeing someone talking about this under-explored issue openly—like a taboo was broken.

Even more surprising were some of the reactions that didn’t appear online. A former Buddhist nun from Vancouver confided in me that when she was struggling with depression last year, she found her Buddhist practice wasn’t helping at all; she realized she “really needed to talk to God.” For her, returning for a time to the prayer of her Christian childhood, not sitting in shamatha or doing sadhana practice, was what relieved her suffering. And a Buddhist monk from Eastern Europe, practicing in the Tibetan tradition, confessed that he connects more deeply to his sadhana practice when he visualizes Jesus than he does when he visualizes Padmasambhava. These personal stories—both from Western monastics in the Buddhist tradition—suggest once again that, for many of us, our Christian roots are deeply embedded in the ground of our psyche, and it can sometimes be profoundly healing to reconnect with those roots even in the context of identifying as a practicing Buddhist.


Another way of saying this is that people who deny that one could meaningfully practice both Christianity and Buddhism are probably looking myopically at the exoteric or outer aspects of the two traditions: their dogmas, creeds, rituals, myths, institutions, and so on. But those who proceed to the esoteric or inner dimension of these wisdom traditions find little or no conflict between them. As Louis Claude de St. Martin famously said, “All mystics speak the same language, for they come from the same country.”

Check out the full article at Buddhist Geeks, and add your thoughts to the discussion.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

21st-Century Buddhism Blog Launches at IDP

Today I launched a new weekly feature on the Interdependence Project's cool new blog platform, with an article exploring the question of why there aren't more qualified and empowered Western gurus in the Vajrayana tradition.

The weekly column is called "21st-Century Buddhism" and will look at the issues that face practitioners of Buddhism and other spiritual traditions in our postmodern, Western culture. Next week I'll share the first article -- "Western Gurus?" -- here, but in the meantime you can read it at the ID Project. Check it out and share your comments.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Christian Buddhism?

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My article "Christian Buddhism?" -- which appeared today on Buddhist Geeks -- looks at how some people are bringing together Buddhist practice with elements of the more familiar Judaeo-Christian traditions most of us grew up with. In the article I profile a teacher named Clark Strand who is exploring this ground in Woodstock, NY, and I explain Strand's view on why it makes sense to utilize our Judaeo-Christian roots to plant Buddhism more firmly in our culture.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

Our Judaeo-Christian roots are indigenous to the soil of American culture in a way that the exotic flowers of Asian Buddhism simply are not. According to Strand, the best way to help Buddhism truly flourish here is to graft it to those roots, not to try to dig them up and replace them.

I left behind the Southern Baptist faith of my childhood nearly three decades ago. But despite all that distance from my earliest roots, and despite having embraced Buddhism as the spiritual path that makes the most sense to me, the stories and iconography and teachings of Christianity and Judaism are still more familiar and often more resonant for me than the culturally foreign imagery and metaphors of Buddhism. Like the Cherokee rose, they have been growing in me longer, and they are better adapted to the soil of my mind.

That core of our earliest exposures to Christian or Jewish beliefs and practices might lie deeply buried in us, so deeply that we can be unaware of its presence—especially if we buried it there intentionally, out of rebellion against our upbringing. But the fact that we don’t often look at it doesn’t mean it’s not still there.

As Strand and I each found, in some cases all it takes to penetrate those outer layers and bring that long-buried core to the surface is a single moment of sheer existential terror, which sweeps away all other considerations. In that surge of naked fear, when it’s all you can do not to soil your underpants, who will you instinctively call on? Shakyamuni? Amitabha? Amitayus? Akshobhya? Avalokiteshvara? Kuan Yin? Padmakara? The Rigden King? Vajrasattva? Vajradhara? Vajrayogini? Vajratopa? Yeshe Tsogyal? Green Tara? Black Mahakala? White Manjushri? Samantabhadra? Kuntuzangpo? Or maybe just plain, old, fuzzy, formless, nameless God—the one you grew up with?

And let’s be honest: in that moment of total helplessness, when you are praying for mercy, will all the elaborate conceptual and philosophical distinctions you’ve made between these different traditions really matter one iota?

The article sparked quite a few comments from both sides of the aisle. In response to some of those comments, I posted this observation (among numerous other comments):

It's interesting to see the mix of reactions to this story. Seems like most of the positive comments are coming from people who share this kind of experience, and appreciate seeing it talked about openly. And it seems like the negative comments are coming from sort of judgmental-sounding Buddhists who don't share this experience and think other people shouldn't be having it either. Judgmental and opinionated Buddhists probably have a lot in common with the Religious Right folks who have given Christianity such a bad name.

There's much more in the full article, along with many good comments that provide food for thought.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Western Eyes


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The most recent post on One Human Journey, "Coming Out of the Closet About Enlightenment," sparked a lot of conversation. The question of whether, and how, people who attain some level of realization should talk openly about it is hotly contested. Check out the comments stream on that post for some great thoughts from readers (including a response from Kenneth Folk).

One reader who commented on Facebook prefaced his comment with this remark: "We could only be having this conversation in the West...." While the thoughts that follow were sparked by that comment, they are not a response to that particular reader. But his remark did get me thinking about a larger set of related issues.

The implication of such a statement seems to be that this conversation could only arise out of ignorance, because we (in the West) are new at Buddhism and we haven't figured out what Buddhists in Asia know from 2,500 years of experience. We have a lot of catching up to do. When we finally do catch up, we'll understand why Buddhists have traditionally been so reticent to speak openly about enlightenment or attainments on the path.

And of course, in some ways, it's true: we do have a lot of catching up to do. Buddhism is new in our culture, and we are only beginning to understand the ways Buddhism will change us, and the ways we will change Buddhism. The debate over people "coming out" and speaking openly about their level of realization -- whatever you think of that issue -- is just one illustration of where we are with that process.

Cultural Theism

It seems to me, in general, that a lot of Buddhists in the West carry some kind of self-deprecating, anti-Western sentiment inside. We hold up our Asian teachers and their cultures as the embodiments of wisdom -- and, of course, in many ways they are. But while we are holding them up with one hand, we are often putting down our own culture and denigrating our capacity for wisdom with the other hand.

Speaking from personal observation, I suspect this tendency may be particularly acute in the Tibetan Buddhist world, where relatively little has been done in the way of transfer of power and lineage to Western students, compared to the Zen or Theravada traditions. While many Westerners in those traditions are now fully empowered and passing on the lineage from one Westerner to another, most Tibetan Buddhists in the West are still studying with Tibetans; Western lineage holders in the Tibetan tradition are few and far between.

The reasons for this are complex and beyond the scope of this commentary. What I'm concerned with here is the disempowering effect this has upon Western students, who may -- consciously or not -- come to regard wisdom and genuine realization as something culturally foreign and therefore relatively unattainable. Because the power differential between teachers and students in that tradition falls more consistently along cultural and ethnic lines, Westerners may feel they are not capable of holding the lineage or manifesting the same degree of wisdom as their Tibetan teachers. Wisdom is out there somewhere, separate from us, embodied in representatives from another culture, and the best we can hope for is to model ourselves after that culture and hope that some of the wisdom rubs off on us. This kind of cultural theism can be especially acute in sanghas where all the practice liturgies are in Tibetan and embedded with intensely foreign cultural references and iconography. In some quarters, one finds Western students dressing like Tibetans and studying the Tibetan language and following Tibetan customs and eating Tibetan food, all in the belief that growing in the wisdom of the dharma somehow requires one to become more like a Tibetan.

With western eyes and serpent's breath
We lay our own conscience to rest
But I'm aching at the view
Yes I'm breaking at the seams just like you.

-- Portishead, "Western Eyes"

It is beautiful and proper to recognize wisdom in those who hold it, and to express devotion and respect for the lineages they represent -- lineages that have been holding that wisdom for two-and-a-half millennia. But everything in the light also has its shadow side. When we idolize the way Asian cultures have practiced the dharma and try to imitate them unquestioningly, we risk losing sight of the wisdom that is already in our own back yard. Even worse, when we put on rose-colored glasses and see only the bright and shiny side of those exotic cultures and traditions, we are not seeing the whole picture.

The wisdom that is held within the embrace of the cultural forms and traditions of Asian Buddhism is not the same thing as those forms and traditions. And those forms and traditions, themselves, are not faultless or immutable. As Buddhism goes west, it is being asked to change in profound ways -- and some of those changes are definitely for the better. The misogyny that has been enshrined in Asian Buddhist institutions for 2,500 years is being confronted by Western feminism, and the traditional subservient role of women in the dharma is increasingly recognized as unacceptable. So, too, is Buddhism's traditional homophobia being deconstructed as it encounters Western sexual mores. The Dalai Lama has been embroiled in controversy for certain remarks that were perceived by Western students as homophobic, yet a few progressive Tibetan teachers who live in the West, such as Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, are now reaching out to LGBT Buddhists and being more inclusive. And just as Western science is exploring new frontiers by studying ancient Buddhist practices in the laboratory, so too is Buddhism being forced to rethink old, outdated views in its encounter with modern science (like admitting, for starters, that the world is round, not flat -- an admission that didn't come easily to Tibetan monks, even in the 20th century).

Think for Yourself

In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha taught that we should not accept anything simply because it is handed down in tradition, or because someone in authority said it is so, or because it is written in holy books. Rather, we should use our own prajna, our intelligence, our eye of wisdom, to analyze what we receive. If it accords with reason and leads to benefit -- then, and only then, should we accept it. As Buddhism takes root in the West, we are engaged in precisely this process of analyzing and testing the teachings we are receiving from the source cultures in Asia. Inevitably, some aspects of the Asian presentation of Buddhism will be rejected in the West, and new forms will evolve. This is only natural, and is no doubt what has happened in every other instance of Buddhism transmigrating to a new culture. The exchange of wisdom is a sword that cuts both ways. Yet some will cry that the sky is falling when they see Westerners thinking for themselves and engaging with the dharma in a different way than their Asian forebears.

Many conditions are converging to make this a very unique moment in the history of Buddhism. In the West, we are not (as has happened in probably every other case throughout history) receiving just a single tradition of Buddhism, in a one-to-one cultural exchange. We are receiving *all* of the traditions of Buddhism in the West, all at once, and they are all mixing with all of the various cultures and languages in Europe and the Americas and Australasia. Urbanization and global travel and the Internet make it possible for people to study and practice more than one Buddhist tradition, and the degree of fertile cross-pollination that is occurring among Western Buddhist practitioners today is unprecedented. People reading this blog run the gamut from Tibetan Buddhists to Zen Buddhists to Theravadan Buddhists to non-Buddhists, and we are all sharing radically different perspectives on the dharma. No one can predict what the fruit of such cross-pollination will look like in a hundred years, or even twenty.

If our goal is to transform ourselves into little Tibetans or Japanese or whatever the case may be, then it's fine to create a Western Buddhism that is a carbon copy of its Asian predecessors. But if we are to have an expression of the dharma that is more suited to our place and time, more capable of taking root and flourishing in the soil of our minds, then we must apply our own discerning intelligence and work with the dharma in the context of our own cultural situation. Obviously, we are children at this, and we risk mistakes and misunderstandings. But those are nothing to fear; every child learns by making mistakes. What is to be feared is that we might never have a chance to grow up and find our own way because we're too busy trying to be just like our new adoptive Buddhist parents.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Coming Out of the Closet About Enlightenment

Imagine that you're a baker, and that you've trained for years as an apprentice under a master baker from some faraway land where baking is an ancient and venerated art. You've studied and practiced the old craft and learned all the recipes by heart. You now produce authentic baked goods that nourish and delight countless people. You have, in fact, emerged from this training with a level of experience and skill and -- bear with the metaphor here -- "realization" that qualifies you, in turn, as a freshly minted master baker.

But you have also become part of a strange culture of bakers where talking about your skill and experience is strictly forbidden. You are, in fact, discouraged from thinking that you have attained anything, much less from talking to others about it. "There is no attainment and no non-attainment," says one of the classic, mystifying baking manuals taught at your school. You are allowed to bake, and to take on students in order to transmit what you have learned as a baker, but at the same time you are required to follow a bizarre policy of denying, if you say anything about it at all, that you have attained any particular skill as a baker. You see even the most accomplished and wise bakers, from whom you have learned everything you know, feigning a kind of false humility and calling themselves mere beginners. To do otherwise would be considered a display of sheer arrogance and ego and attachment.

This is, roughly speaking, the culture that exists in Buddhism today on the question of enlightenment or spiritual realization. In the Tibetan tradition, for example, even the most senior teachers -- the Dalai Lama and the Gyalwang Karmapa, who are acknowledged by all of their followers as being at least hugely realized, and maybe totally enlightened -- downplay their own attainments and make no claims to having accomplished much of anything. "I am just a simple monk," the Dalai Lama famously said.

But in one corner of the Buddhist world there are a growing number of Western practitioners who are breaking with tradition and talking openly and plainly about their attainments. Teachers like Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram, emerging largely from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, are experimenting with "coming out the closet" about enlightenment. They are part of what some are calling the new "hardcore dharma movement," and they are using technologies like the Internet to talk frankly about the steps towards enlightenment and their own experience of each of those steps.

Daniel Ingram's book, "Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha," heralds its author on the book's front cover as "The Arahat Daniel M. Ingram," and his biographical page on his website makes no bones about it:

"I am an arahat with mastery of the formed jhanas, formless realms, Nirodha Samapatti, and a few other traditional attainments. I am one of the few teachers I know of who will talk about high-level practice directly and unambiguously without relying on dogma, making things taboo or coating simple truths in mystery. I assume that most practitioners are mature enough to handle straight-forward and honest answers. My fundamental assumption is that many more people will be empowered to realize that they can master these things if they are out in the open."

To note that such bold statements and personal claims to realization are controversial would be stating the obvious. Critics holding the traditional line have decried Ingram, Folk and others for making such claims and even accused them of being deluded and misguiding students. Some have noted the particular dangers, which also seem fairly obvious, of making claims to enlightenment on the Internet -- where pretty much anyone can claim pretty much anything and find someone to believe it. Aside from that, they ask, even when you meet someone in person, how do you really judge whether they have realized what they say they have realized? Yet many others regard Ingram's and Folk's claims as being credible, and have welcomed this emerging counterculture of straight-talk with open arms.

Kenneth Folk acknowledges the danger of people, intentionally or not, making false claims to enlightenment, but says that is not the real problem -- and, moreover, that it's not very difficult for him to spot someone making false claims. "The real problem, in my opinion," he says, "is the lack of disclosure. When you do not have disclosure, you have this weird situation where nobody can even tell who the competent teachers are because you’ve got competent teachers who are saying, 'Oh I’m not enlightened. I would never claim enlightenment.' They sometimes do this even if they are enlightened because they believe it is somehow virtuous to pretend they are not. This to me is just absolutely asinine."

The Birth of a Taboo

This belief in the virtue of pretending not to be enlightened or realized is something that may not have existed at the time of the Buddha. Some of the Buddha's early discourses from the Pali canon include explicit declarations of how many people listened to the teaching and what level of attainment they realized as a result. It was, arguably, only later that monastic institutions codified the belief that openly speaking about one's level of attainment should be considered taboo. Maybe part of why it is such a taboo in the monastic code is that misleading others by making false claims of realization that you don't actually have is considered one of the most vile and karmically destructive ethical downfalls possible, because of its negative impact on the students. The danger of making such a misstep, whether intentionally or through one's own ignorance, is perhaps seen as so great that it's better to avoid talking about attainment altogether.

Folk calls this consensus policy of silence about enlightenment "the mushroom culture" -- because, like mushrooms, people are "kept in the dark and fed shit." One of the dangers, says Folk, is that "because of the mushroom culture and because of the darkness, we’ve got teachers who frankly have no idea what they’re talking about who are very popular and have all kinds of students, and they are just leading students down the primrose path because, after all, we don’t talk about these things. So I ask, what kind of legitimate pedagogy would allow for that?"

Another issue that comes up is that different traditions and teachers have different concepts of what enlightenment is. The "progress of insight" path described by Folk that culminates in becoming an "arahat" is based largely on the Theravadan model of practice and fruition, familiar to many students in our culture as "Insight" or "Vipassana" meditation. That model of enlightenment is radically different from the Mahayana model put forward in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism; the Mahayana, to put it bluntly, sees becoming an arahat as, at best, a temporary pit-stop and, at worst, a bog in which to get stuck on the path to becoming a full-blown Buddha. Students steeped in the Mahayana vision of paths and bhumis culminating in Buddhahood may be especially ill-equipped to judge the claims of people like Folk and Ingram, who are following an altogether different model of enlightenment and working with a different set of paths and fruitions.

At the end of the day, though, the same benefits and risks apply to every model. Whether you're looking at Theravada or Mahayana or Vajrayana, you can find bogus teachers making false claims and leading students, as Folk says, "down the primrose path" that goes nowhere. You can also find, if you look in the right places, legitimately realized teachers who are guiding sincere students to their own realization. Folk and Ingram are part of a new wave of teachers who are breaking ranks and speaking openly, for perhaps the first time in the West, about exactly what that realization consists of and how they experienced it and how their students have experienced it -- how, in fact, anyone can experience it. Whether you believe this new revolution of straight-talk about enlightenment will prove beneficial or destructive probably depends which side of the traditional line you stand on.

So where do you stand? Are Folk and Ingram and other "hardcore dharma" practitioners doing the right thing by talking openly about their enlightenment? Share your thoughts with other readers on One Human Journey.

Related Links:

Daniel Ingram
Kenneth Folk
You Can’t Script Enlightenment: Moving Beyond Magical Thinking - A conversation between Kenneth Folk and Joel Groover

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Kept in the Dark and Fed Sh*t

Guest Blogger: Ron Crouch

The movie Eat, Pray, Love will be coming out soon and will likely get a lot of people interested in, for lack of a better phrase, the “spiritual lifestyle.” For those who don’t know, it’s the story of a woman who goes to India in search of enlightenment but instead of enlightenment, she finds - love. Yeah, pretty silly. But, then again, most of what people think of when they think of spirituality is pretty damn silly.

I’ve run into a lot of seekers like the one portrayed by Julia Roberts in the movie. They are searching for something that will help them transcend their worries: a mystical experience that will finally transform them into the kind of person they have always wanted to be. They believe that being a “spiritual” person will finally make them a happy person. They really need therapy.

There are a lot of people seeking self-improvement or self-transformation on the spiritual path. Deep down they believe that if they can just improve themselves, become more spiritual in some way, then their suffering will vanish. And since this is America, the route to self-improvement is done mostly through the power of the purchase. These are men and women who literally wear their spirituality on their sleeves, on their shirts, on their pants, around their necks, and tattooed on their skin. They take expensive trips to exotic Ashrams. They buy Buddha statue souvenirs, incense, bells, cushions, prayer flags and literally hundreds, thousands, of products that cater to a lifestyle centered around their spiritual journey. There is, and this is not a joke, an entire industry dedicated to nothing but manufacturing products for a lifestyle based on “letting go.” I call the target market for this industry the “spiritual lifestylers.”

What the spiritual lifestylers don’t know, and what no one ever tells them, is that the self-improvement they want has nothing to do with the very thing that spirituality is all about - enlightenment. Why? Because enlightenment is the exact opposite of what most people in the spiritual lifestyle scene are seeking. Hell, it’s the exact opposite of what almost everyone on Earth is seeking! Enlightenment is the end of the whole project of seeking, because it is the end of taking your “self” seriously – literally. And no one takes themselves more seriously than spiritual lifestylers.

What many people in spiritual scenes are really seeking is not enlightenment, but a new and better version of themselves. A happier, wiser, more balanced version of themselves. And this makes sense. Almost every thing we do in life is in the service of a "self." All our projects, our work, our dreams, everything – our lives are chained to who we think we are, or should be. So it is no wonder that the spiritual lifestylers have approached the spiritual path with the same self-improvement ethic.

But the spiritual path is the opposite of self-improvement. It is the only thing I know of that can finally break the chain and liberate us from the little tyrant we call "me." And it does this by showing us that that little tyrant was never real in the first place. There is just no self important enough to improve or transform, so there was never any need to be happier, wiser or more balanced. Sound weird? Bizarre? Strange? It absolutely should. The truth of our lives is utterly baffling until we finally get the insights we need to enter the stream of enlightenment. Until then, our job is to work against the little tyrant by exposing it as false as many times as we can. Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what is happening in the spiritual lifestyle.

All of this spiritual self-improvement stuff is harmless and even ironically funny to a point. But what has led me, and many others, to be so concerned with movies like Eat, Pray, Love is that they support a whole subculture that distracts, confuses and misleads people who are sincerely searching for liberation and enlightenment.

For a person honestly seeking liberation there are very slim pickings out there. The bookstores are filled with feel-good-about-yourself books that cater to the spiritual lifestyle but have no actual instructions how to get enlightened. Meditation centers make their teachings less direct and more about lifestyle, retreats become more like spas, and teachers never even present the idea that enlightenment is something real and do-able, because it flies in the face of what many people actually want. The little tyrant never gets challenged -- instead, the spiritual path just becomes another ego trip. Really, everyone loses.

Bill Hamilton, a great American pioneer in opening up the practical spiritual path to westerners, the guy who taught my teacher (Kenneth Folk), called this whole mess the “mushroom culture.” Because just like mushrooms, lifestyle seekers are “kept in the dark and fed shit.” And I would add, that as long as they are on a self-improvement project, then they will want it that way. Real spiritual discovery would scare them off.

So, because of the mushroom culture, the rest of us have to work our way out of the shit-filled darkness to figure out what is really going on. I suspect many of us never make it out.

Some of you reading this may be trapped in the mushroom culture and may be looking for a way out. The good news is that you can relax and stop spending your hard-earned money. There are teachers out there who teach the real thing. Just look and you’ll find them. In the meantime you can truly “let go” of those things that are part of the spiritual lifestyle but which will absolutely not get you enlightened. For those of you looking for a way out of the mushroom patch, you can start with this declaration of independence:

You are hereby relieved from buying dharma-themed clothes (even yoga clothes), bells, jewelry (even handmade Tibetan jewelry), books (even spiritual books – lots of them are BS anyway), new cushions, incense, prayer flags and Buddha statues. You no longer have to put so much effort into having a warm and loving “aura,” or knowing the Suttas, the Gita, the Bible, the Kabbala or the teachings of any high mucky-mucks by heart. You do not have to burn sage, chant, smile, or follow rules intended for monastics from an entirely different time and culture. You do not have to have a guru, or get close to someone who is a guru. You do not have to travel to far-off places to seek the perfect place to get enlightened. You do not have to sit in meditation longer than anyone else or attend expensive retreats. You have nothing to prove. You are fine. You already have everything you need to become enlightened, because all you need to do is see that “you” don’t really exist.

So what does get you enlightened? Following the instructions for meditation (or other methods) as they are described. Not daydreaming. Not spacing out. Not "letting go" or "being with your stuff." That just feeds the little tyrant. But actually following the directions. They are incredibly simple. So why not give it a try?


Ron Crouch has been meditating seriously for about eight years and spent much of that time trying to find a way out of the “mushroom culture.” He is now engaged in what he calls “pragmatic dharma” and what some have called the “hardcore dharma movement.” He maintains a practice journal at his teacher’s website, and welcomes comments and readers’ thoughts. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Clinical/Community Psychology in Chicago.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Buddhism Beyond Religion?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche stirred up American Buddhists this week with an article at Huffington Post posing the question: "Is Buddhism a religion?" The question touched a nerve, prompting more than 1,000 reader comments in just over a day.

In the article, Ponlop Rinpoche cautioned readers against equating religion with the path to enlightenment:

Siddhartha was a truth seeker, nothing more. He wasn't looking for religion, as such -- he wasn't particularly interested in religion. He was searching for the truth. He was looking for a genuine path to freedom from suffering. Aren't all of us searching for the same thing? If we look at the life of Siddhartha, we can see that he found the truth and freedom he was seeking only after he abandoned religious practices. Isn't that significant? The one who became the Buddha, the "Awakened One," didn't find enlightenment through religion -- he found it when he began to leave religion behind.

Ponlop Rinpoche went on to describe what he called "Buddhism beyond religion," an authentic spiritual path free from the hangups of religiosity. "Like Siddhartha," he wrote, "if we really want spiritual enlightenment we have to go beyond religiosity. We have to let go of clinging to preconceived religious forms and ideas and practices."

Tricycle senior editor James Shaheen, posting on Tricycle's blog, wondered whether Ponlop Rinpoche's proposed Buddhism beyond religion "would include rebirth, let alone reincarnation, and other elements based on belief rather than science."

In a subsequent exchange of comments (edited here for brevity), One Human Journey's Dennis Hunter took on Shaheen's question. Hunter wondered if the question itself might contain a misleading assumption that science and belief are diametrically opposed:

...Not everyone who “believes” in reincarnation/rebirth is just blindly accepting it because it’s traditional, or because they haven’t thought it through carefully. Some very reasonable and well-trained Western scientists (Dr. Charles Tart, for example; and Dr. Ian Stevenson at the University of Virginia) have looked at all the evidence available and done their own analysis and come to the conclusion that you can’t just dismiss rebirth as pure fantasy. I think it’s good to hold a balanced perspective on these things and not to fall to either the extreme of blind faith or the extreme of blind skepticism....

I think Ponlop Rinpoche’s main point in that article is not that Buddhism isn’t a religion, which seems to be the way a lot of people are taking it.... It’s that the essence of the Buddhist path is not about the religious trappings, or being a good religious person: all of that stuff is secondary to what really matters, which is your own open heart and open mind searching for truth and freedom.

Shaheen replied:

I did not say everyone who believes in rebirth is blindly accepting it because it’s traditional. And yes, intelligent people can believe in it, just as intelligent people can believe in transubstantiation. I’m just saying there is no scientific basis for it (it’s not in the same league with, say, natural selection). That’s just a fact....

I would agree with you about what’s important though, and it’s notable that you do not include rebirth or reincarnation. I would also be interested in knowing what “religious trappings” you refer to.

Hunter responded:

...Of course, you are right — rebirth is not included in science’s commonly accepted set of theories about reality, the way natural selection is. But when you jump from there to saying “there is no scientific basis for it,” it sounds like you are dismissing the scientific research that *is* being done on rebirth (which, granted, isn’t a lot, because this isn’t a popular topic of research in Western science — in fact, the bias against it is so strong that it might be perceived as something of a career-killer). Dr. Stevenson at U.Va has analyzed thousands of cases and found many whose particulars cannot be adequately explained except through a theory of rebirth. Is it still a theory, that requires some degree of faith to accept? Yes, but in the same way as having faith that consciousness is purely a material function of the brain. Both are theories. In our society, one of those theories is commonly lauded as The Truth, and the other is most often dismissed as irrational superstition. It concerns me to see many Buddhists falling into that same pattern....

As for what qualifies as “religious trappings,” this is another very interesting question. I suspect it’s very personal: what works for one person as a way to really connect with meaning is a religious trapping to someone else. And it’s cultural: what works for Tibetans doesn’t necessarily work for Americans. DPR’s teachings and writings seem increasingly geared towards finding the expression of genuine dharma (truth) that is most suited to Western minds, as opposed to the expression of dharma that is most suited to Tibetan minds. In his sangha, a lot of what Westerners would commonly regard as Tibetan “religious trappings” are largely absent. He doesn’t encourage traditionally Tibetan religious displays such as being greeted in anjali by his students, or sitting on brocades or high thrones (unless it’s appropriate to the occasion). Instead, he looks for ways to relate to his Western students on their own terms, with less of the cultural baggage of the religion as it was traditionally practiced by Tibetans.

As he suggests, we can even relate to statues of the Buddha as religious trappings. It depends on whether we regard them as icons of something holy and far-removed from us (and nearly impossible to attain), or examples of something that we ourselves can manifest. The former, it seems to me, is religious — and the latter is spiritual.

Read the entire exchange, including Shaheen's follow-up response, and add your thoughts.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Texas Airplane Conversation

March 2005. I'm on a plane to San Antonio, TX. Sitting beside me is a young soldier on his way home from Iraq for a two-week leave, dressed in his desert-camouflage fatigues. With little knowledge of the war aside from what I see in the media, I jump at the chance to talk to someone who is actually there and find out his perspective. He, on the other hand, seems much more interested in chatting up the stewardess....but I do manage to get him to talk to me whenever she isn't around.

He takes out a piece of twisted, coppery metal from his pocket and offers it for me to hold. I hesitate, not knowing what it is, but after holding it and examining it for a moment I realize it is a bullet, or at least it used to be. Clearly, it impacted something with great violence. "They pulled that out of my chest," he explains, "out of my vest." He points to his abdomen and traces the 10-inch square of armor that (sort of) protects his heart and lungs.

"Was it an insurgent who shot you?" I ask. It's a stupid question, but if it irks him he doesn't show it. He nods. "He shot me once, and I shot him eight times." He puts the bullet into a little pouch of talismans that he wears around his neck.

I'm speechless for a moment after that, adjusting to the knowledge that the person I'm sitting next to has shot another human being eight times. Abruptly, I feel closer to the reality of war than I was just a moment ago. I know this is the sort of thing my father must have done in Vietnam and Korea -- I'm sure lots of people I know have done it. But somehow those other events have faded into the background, become remote and abstract. They're not sitting beside me.

We're in the very last row of seats in the back of the 737. "He was about as far away from me as the cockpit," the soldier explains, and then he repeats himself. "He got me once, and I got him eight times." There's a curious mixture of pride and sadness in his tone.

Later in the conversation it emerges that the insurgent who shot him wasn't his only casualty in Iraq. He has shot and killed about six people since he was stationed in Iraq seven months ago. "I have a hard time living with that on my conscience," he says. "But I do that for you guys. I hope that you don't ever have to see what I've seen."

"Kicking in doors and killing people, that's my job," he says at one point. Again, I am speechless. For a moment, all my personal beliefs and opinions about the injustice of the war seem pale, sitting next to someone whose average day consists of shooting people and getting shot at, someone for whom the carnage is not abstract or far-removed.

Digging for a political angle on the conversation, I ask him, "So what's your perspective on this whole thing?" He has been waiting for this question. "It's really stupid," he says without hesitating. "You know what? I get paid about a dollar a day, and I have the most dangerous job in Iraq. I have health coverage, but it sucks. I broke my finger," and he holds out his hand for me to see his finger, which is clearly swollen, "and you know what they told me? Take Motrin and drink lots of water. There's something wrong with my lungs, and they told me to take another pill." His list of grudges against the Army goes on, and gradually morphs into a litany of the atrocities he has witnessed in the past seven months: the friends whose heads were blown to bits or whose abdomens were torn in half. How do I respond to any of these things? For the most part I shake my head and simply try to show him that I'm listening. He explains that the fighting is much worse than what you see on TV, that the insurgents are coming right up to the fences of their camps and shooting at them; they regularly engage in firefights right in the middle of their camps. It's all going "very badly," he says.

"You want to know the stupidest thing? You see this uniform I'm wearing? I had to buy it myself. The soldiers who are coming in now, they get their uniforms paid for, but when I signed up, we had to buy our own uniforms. And these things are not cheap. The pants alone were $80." I try to imagine having to pay for several expensive uniforms -- clothes that I'm required to wear -- on the kind of salary he just described to me, but it doesn't make sense. I wonder if he was exaggerating about the salary, to make his point, but I don't ask.

Periodically during our conversation he turns away to pursue more interesting conversation with the stewardess in the nearby jumpseat, excitedly showing her pictures on his digital camera of his camp and his armored vehicle. At the end of the flight the stewardess stops in the aisle, next to his seat. She has a puzzled expression on her face, and seems to be hesitating about whether or not to say something. Then she makes up her mind, puts her hand firmly on his shoulder, and says it, with a note of urgency in her voice.

"Now listen. You take care of yourself over there. And don't forget what I told you before, about accepting Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior. It's the most important decision you can make in your life."

The soldier seems almost as flabbergasted as I am by this unabashedly prosletyzing airline stewardess, but he nods his head politely and thanks her and she goes on her way. “Ah,” I say to myself, “welcome to Texas.” The implication of her statement -- that she knows he will go back to Iraq in two weeks and that she suspects his chances for surviving the next year are perhaps less than average -- hangs like a cloud in the dry, recycled air of the plane cabin. I feel suddenly overwhelmed with irrational affection and tenderness for this young soldier, and I wish I could put my arms around him. I want to recklessly open my wallet and hand him all my cash and tell him to buy something nice for himself while he's on leave. But neither of these impetuous gestures would be understood correctly, or necessarily welcomed, and it seems the only thing I can do is to wish him well and wave goodbye as we part ways in the airport.

I notice his last name on the shirt pocket of his uniform and realize then that we didn't even exchange names. I know that he has killed six people, I know about his broken finger, and his lung problem, and assorted other details of his life -- but I don't know his first name. At that moment, I decide that I will remember his last name for the rest of my life. It seems the least I can do.