What got left out of “meditation”?

Buddhist meditation methods have been forced through a series of filters over the last 120 years:

  • Christianity: Everything offensive to Victorian Christian morality had to be removed, in Asia, in the 1800s.
  • Scientism: Meditation has to claim to be compatible with “science” and “rationality.” Popular ideas about what’s “scientific” have changed in the West over the past 150 years. What’s left of meditation has survived challenges from each version.
  • Romantic mysticism: Westerners thought the goal of meditation was a spiritual experience—oneness with all beings, maybe—through attention to the self. Meditation methods that weren’t about spiritual experience, or not about the self, got dropped.
  • Late 20th-century morality: Meditation had be eco-granola-consensus-therapy-correct in the 1970s through ’90s.

Only something extremely bland could pass all these challenges. That’s what we’re left with: modern “mindfulness meditation.” It’s relentlessly nice and couldn’t possibly offend anyone’s ideological sensitivities.

But is that the only practice we need? Is it the best practice for most Western Buddhists now?

How high a price are we willing to pay for ideological correctness? Do we want to restrict ourselves to meditation methods that were acceptable to Christian missionaries in the 1800s?

Many Western Buddhists may be unaware of how much they have lost. In this overview post, I’ll briefly describe some types of Buddhist meditation that were eliminated from the Western mainstream. In the next few posts, I’ll explain why some of them might be hugely valuable, maybe even critical to Buddhism’s survival—though they may squick some people.

“I don’t care, it’s all good”

A possible objection: “It’s all meditation, right? Who cares about all these different techniques! This sounds like posturing to me. A lot of esoteric nonsense so intellectuals who read too many books can feel superior. Plus, if different Buddhist groups promote different kinds of meditation, they’re probably all just selling their own brand. That’s just religious politics and marketing. The kind of meditation I learned works for me; that’s all I need to know.”

“Meditation” is sold as the solution to all problems. It calms you down, revs you up, solves all known mental health issues, fixes your love life, and cures cancer. Oh, yeah, and leads to enlightenment, whatever that is.

Within Buddhism, there are many different things that get called “meditation.” Supposedly, they have quite different goals and results.

Buddhist tradition could be wrong about that. Maybe one method can do everything. However, apparently, neuroscience studies show that different kinds of meditation have quite different effects on the brain. Also, my experience—and the experience of people who have meditated a lot more than me—is that different practices are really different.

This could be a sore point. Discussing religious differences is not nice. Disagreement about religion is supposedly aggressive, and Buddhists shouldn’t be aggressive. Also, if you’ve been doing your one meditation for many years, the possibility that your time would have been better spent doing something different, or other things as well, might be unacceptable.

But, how well is your meditation working for you? Are you getting all the results you want, as fast as you want? I suspect for most people the answer is “no.”

It’s not about “me”

Westerners mostly have the idea that meditation is all about “me.” “Meditation” means examining your self; your own experience. (This is the Romantic/mystical criterion.)

Most Buddhist meditation practices are not about “me.” They are not about experience. They are about all kinds of other things. Here are some:

  • Buddhist doctrines
  • Gods and demons
  • Other people
  • Sacred symbols
  • Food
  • Energy
  • Nature

“Yes, but the point of meditating on those things is to produce a personal experience, right?” No; usually not, in traditional Buddhism. If your meditation is all about “me,” you risk completely missing the point.

“Well, I don’t want to meditate on those things. Buddhist doctrines are boring and stuffy; I don’t believe in gods or demons; etc.” You might be missing out on good things. You don’t need to believe in gods to make them part of your meditation… and meditating on “me” risks causing the exact problems it tries to solve. (I’ll explain that in a later post.)

Renunciation

Traditionally, the main path in Buddhism was renunciation. The point was to get rid of bad emotions, especially desire.

Buddhism has lots of ways to get rid of desire. Step #1 is to stop trying to satisfy it. You should definitely not have sex, or enjoy eating tasty food. After a while, you’ll crave them less. That’s the easy part.

Step #2 is meditation. Once you’ve abandoned the “objects of desire,” you use meditation to get rid of whatever desire is left. That’s the main point of meditation in mainstream traditional Buddhism.

Most Westerners don’t see meditation this way. We have zero interest in renouncing sex. (Or even chocolate.) We don’t think getting rid of emotions is a good idea. These are non-negotiable principles of both Romanticism and late-20th-century morality.

So, Western Buddhist teachers usually play down renunciation, or quietly drop it altogether. And non-Buddhist teachers of mindfulness meditation certainly won’t tell you what the practice was originally used for.

There’s been 120 years worth of reinterpretation, starting in Asia, so you can easily find books that tell you “it’s not about that.” But that is an adaptation. The meditation methods most common in the West were traditionally aids on the path of killing desire.

Renunciation is a valid and valuable path. Maybe it would be good for more Western Buddhists to actually pursue it.

If you have a different goal, you might instead want to ask whether you are using the right tools for the job.

“Consensus Buddhism”—the Western mainstream—started from a renunciative tradition: Thai and Burmese Theravada. It abandoned the path of renunciation, but kept some of its methods. I find the result incoherent.

Buddhism needs rituals

For many people, the fact that “Buddhism doesn’t have rituals” is what’s so great about it. Or they may know that Buddhism used to have rituals; but those were a stupid Asian thing that we’ve gotten rid of.

There are good reasons to dislike rituals. Often they are boring and pointless. Often they exist only to give a religious organization something to sell.

There are also bad reasons to dislike them. Protestant Buddhism rejects rituals because Protestant Christianity does. Scientism rejects rituals because it can’t see a physical result and concludes that it’s all about the supernatural.

And then there is individualism, the sacred law of late 20th-century morality. We don’t want to be limited by social conventions. We want to be spontaneous and free. We want everyone to be equal to everyone else.

The fixed form of ritual seems like an unacceptable imposition. You have to follow rules. In most rituals, different people have different, unequal roles. They make some people look “special.”

The paradox is, at the same time we reject social roles, we feel alienated from society and from each other. We crave connection. For many people, the whole point of meditation is discover connectedness, and end that alienation.

That is not what mindfulness meditation was designed for. Exactly the opposite! It was meant to break your connections with the world, which was supposedly a mass of suffering. To quote Thanissaro Bikkhu: “Traditional dharma calls for renunciation and sacrifice, on the grounds that all interconnectedness is essentially unstable, and any happiness based on this instability is an invitation to suffering.”

Ritual, on the other hand, is the enactment of connectedness. It ends alienation. That’s what it’s for; that’s what it can do.

OK: most rituals suck. That doesn’t mean Buddhism doesn’t need rituals. It means Buddhism needs rituals that don’t suck.

Tantra

Buddhist Tantra is the path of transformation through enjoyment.

According to scripture, Tantra was created by the Buddha as the path for people who don’t want to be monks or nuns, who didn’t want to renounce pleasure, who wanted to get things done in the real world. Supposedly, Tantra is a faster, more powerful method than renunciation. Supposedly, it can lead to enlightenment in your current lifetime.

Consensus Buddhism has tried to adapt renunciative Buddhism for Westerners by removing the renunciation. But renunciative Buddhism is almost entirely about renunciation. There’s not much Buddhism left in the Consensus.

It seems like Tantra might be a better starting point. Tantric meditation methods are at least aiming at goals most Western Buddhists value.

Unfortunately, Tantra fails all the challenges the West has put Buddhism through. It’s the perfect nightmare for a Victorian clergyman: it’s polytheistic demon worship, it’s all about sex and violence, and it revels in filth. (I’ll come back to filth in a later post. Something to look forward to!) Tantra is about magic, which is unacceptable to Scientism. It’s mainly not about “me,” which is unacceptable to Romanticism. And it’s hopelessly politically incorrect according to eco-granola-consensus-therapy morality.

Can it work anyway?

Trapped in a marketing juggernaut

Consensus Buddhist teachers recognize most of what I’ve said in this post.

I’ve been particularly impressed with articles by Gil Fronsdal, who teaches vipassana and Zen in California, squarely in the Western Buddhism mainstream. Yet his “Treasures of the Theravada,” “Living Two Traditions,” and other writing point out the limitations in the approach. (If you prefer to listen than read, he has a great podcast on the history of vipassana. It discusses some of the same material I’m covering in this blog series.) He sees the importance of recovering meditation methods that have been dropped because they didn’t seem “nice.”

Here are some quotes from him:

“I am concerned that a full spiritual life is not found through vipassana practice alone. Furthermore I am concerned that some of the riches of the Theravada tradition will be lost to Western students who are only learning vipassana meditation.

Recently, many diverse Theravada practices were brought to Spirit Rock through the visit of Achaan Jumnien, a sixty-year-old monk from the jungles of Southern Thailand. In the course of nine days he taught thirty different practices. These included chakra practices (opening of the wisdom-eye and the heart center), skeleton practices (on the nature of the body), and meditations with the elements of earth, air, fire, water and space. He trained people to understand emptiness by resting in what he called the “Original Mind” or the “Natural State” and he offered practices unifying participants’ consciousnesses with his own. He also performed many kinds of blessings, described exorcisms, taught chants, and offered protection rituals, visualizations and vows (including bodhisattva vows, practice vows and refuge vows). [Many of these practices would be considered tantric in other Buddhist systems.]

By focusing on the relatively individualistic insight meditation practice, the Western vipassana community has also largely ignored the communal practices of Theravada Buddhism. The tradition offers a whole range of ritual practices which help foster community, connect us with the land on which we live and mark birth, death and the seasons.

The American Vipassana movement emphasizes interconnectedness when teaching anatta, or “not-self.” This is emphasized so much that a person might get the idea that realizing interconnectedness is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. It’s not; this is a very American emphasis. I think interconnectedness is inspiring to us as an antidote to American individualism and the pain of alienation it can cause.

To conclude that the self is one with the universe or that there is a “nonseparate self’ is still a view of self. It is all too easy for people to take a profound experience as the goal of the path or to relate the experience to some concept of self. The feeling of interconnectedness with all life is very powerful. But if a person thinks that’s it—I’ve reached the final goal—they’re shortchanging themselves, because liberation is beyond conditioned experience. Meditative or mystical experiences of interconnectedness may be one of the most wonderful conditioned experiences, a pinnacle of conditioned life, but it’s still conditioned.

When such central Buddhist tenets as no-self (anatta) can be reformulated so that at least one American teacher [Jack Kornfield] can refer to a “true self,” will the movement eventually lack a uniform enough doctrinal foundation to hold it together, even loosely?”

What I don’t see is that he, or any of the other “Consensus” teachers, are acting on this understanding. Why not?

I suspect that they have created a marketing juggernaut that has spun out of their control. Westerners now all know what “Buddhism” is: soothing spiritual pablum. “Buddhism” is sort of like vitamin C. No one thinks it really does much, but you take it because, well, it can’t hurt, and maybe it will make you feel a little better.

This sells really well—to Americans of a certain age—and it now has a whole industry behind it. It’s unstoppable. The people who invented it are prisoners to it. They have to give their customers what the customers want.

But I suspect this “Buddhism” will die with their generation. The super-tanker is heading for an iceberg.

Unless Buddhism is rescued from “Buddhism”—unless the ship is yanked round in a wrenching change of direction—it’s doomed.

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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

61 thoughts on “What got left out of “meditation”?”

  1. The emphasis on interconnectedness is not entirely Western, although I can understand why our particular flavor may not seem so familiar to Thanissaro Bhikkhu. It is derived from the Huayan school’s understanding of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, as incorporated into Chan and then Zen.

  2. Also Thanissaro Bhikkhu is pretty hardcore and writes myth debunking articles (such as the “Romancing the Buddha” one that inspired your series) left and right, so I don’t think is particularly fair to label him a “Consensus” teacher or ask why he isn’t acting on his understanding.

  3. Hi Greg,

    Re the Avatamsaka Sutra: Yes. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, my main source for this series, discusses that. McMahan argues that this theme, although genuinely found in some Buddhisms, has been highlighted and transformed through mixing it with Romanticism.

    My point here was that “mindfulness meditation”, the mainstream Consensus method, is derived from Theravada, which (as Thanissaro Bikkhu points out) does not value connection positively.

    I didn’t suggest that Thanissaro Bikkhu was a Consensus teacher—as you say, he’s hardcore Theravada. It’s Gil Fronsdal who I described as Consensus, and I asked why he’s not acting on his understanding.

  4. David,

    you said: “Only something extremely bland could pass all these challenges. That’s what we’re left with: modern “mindfulness meditation.” It’s relentlessly nice and couldn’t possibly offend anyone’s ideological sensitivities.”

    i think you are only very partially right with your assessment. i’m not sure how broadly you scanned the different modern approaches to “mindfulness meditation” but i can point you to a modern reformulation of mindfulness practice which is not only far from “extremely bland” but also passes all the (4) challenges you mentioned above, including the challenge of subjective scientific empirical observation (as opposed to mere “scientism”).

    see Shinzen Young’s summary – “The Five Ways – A Contemporary Toolkit for Classical Enlightenment” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SE5O9tjqMo

    granted, i’ll admit that i’m biased on this because i’m a student of Shinzen. but you don’t have to take my word for it. check it out. and let me know what you think.

    as for your general point regarding “Consensus Buddhism”, i do share your concerns with watering down the dharma for the purpose of making it appealing to the mainstream. but i’m also equally concerned with too much postmodern deconstruction. in my own approach i prefer to look at the basic premise and the common threads across traditions, including the secular domain, rather than attempt to “rescue” Buddhism. i look at Buddhism as only one of the technologies for awakening (albeit, one of the best, if not the best technology that i know of because of its emphasis on “sila” or virtue). and since i view Buddhism as a “technology” i put it under the lens of this famous Richard Feynman quote:

    “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

    my two cents.

    ~C

  5. C4Chaos, thanks for the youtube link. I also looked at his written Five Ways document.

    He’s teaching a whole bunch of different methods (in five categories), and explicitly draws on Vajrayana (tantra). That seems promising! This is not what I was criticizing.

    I suspect he’s adopted “mindfulness meditation” as a buzzphrase because that’s what people think they want. (Based on Google search statistics, I wanted to do that too, when setting up the Aro meditation site. Rinpoche said “no”—he refuses to use the word “mindfulness.”)

  6. @ David,
    Concerning Ritual:

    Here is your outline of Ritual. My comments are in parenthesis.
    You can tell, you did not persuade me.

    Good Reasons to dislike Rituals</u>:
    1. Boring (agree)
    2. Pointless (agree)
    3. Selling Gimmick (agree)

    Bad Reasons to dislike Rituals:
    1. Disliking because Protestantism does (but what if Protestantism dislikes them for good reasons. Is this “Anti-Protestantism” <– a bad reasoning method?)
    2. Scientism does not see them as pragmatic — no physical result. (But science has evolved to see other results too. Is this bad mouthing science?)
    3. Individualism (didn't individualism save us from Feudalism? Is there not some virtue there?) (Individualism does not equal Uniformitism)

    Finally in the ritual paragraph you tell us that we need to seek connectedness and not run from social roles. Then you agreeingly quote Fronsdal who tells us that over-emphasizing connectedness (the Western tendency) we mistakenly see it as the point of Buddhism.

    All in all, I don't see you as making a clear case for why ritual should be preserved or not preserved. I see no guidelines or clear corrections.

    I see how ritual can be meaningful and how it can be abused or reinforcing of bad habits. I see ritual as neutral — it all depends on how it is used — the method. And that is hard to judge.

  7. @ David:

    On Tantra:

    I get how perhaps a Buddhism which are aiming at enjoyment may have greater value for many. I get how the transformation also may be faster and how this is appealing to Western Buddhists. But Tantra is typically wrapped deeply in traditional, complexities and foreignness which is unattractive to the majority. Instead, it is the the minority who love it for its weirdness or venerate or are rebelling from modernism. How do you imagine Tantra repackaged, morphed or re-terma-ized to survive into the late 2000s?

  8. In Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s recorded teachings on the Satipatthana Sutta, someone makes a comment regarding the charnel ground meditations being unpleasant. I’ll never forget Bhikkhu Bodhi’s response, “Well, that’s not really the point, is it.”

  9. In many ways your treatment of this material is quite odd to me. The description of “renunciation” both here, and in your links, seems to lack an awareness of one thing in particular–that merely “giving things up” does absolutely nothing to eradicate the “seeds” of our conflicting emotions. It doesn’t even stop us from creating more such seeds, because those seeds are in our mindstream and not in our actions. What mere “giving things up” does do for us is economize our time so we can put more of it to work dealing directly with the problem of eradicating those “seeds”. As long as we create such seeds we will continue to suffer.

    In that sense a return of Buddhism to merely “giving things up” in any significantly greater form is unlikely to do very much more than make all us Buddhists better behaved in the short term and, maybe, return us to higher realm rebirth in the long term. But this is mere treading of water. Even with higher realm rebirth, there is no guarantee that we will recontact the Dharma and be in a position to practice it. This is, frankly, the “doom” that every individual Buddhist should be worrying about, and not whether Buddhism will survive as a religious institution.

    If you do “give things up”, the crux of the matter is what you do with the time you save. What destroys the seeds of conflicting emotions is the Insight that eliminates our misinterpretation of our world. Nothing else does it.

    The way “renunciation” has been explained to me is as the inner conviction that life is completely worthless and hopeless without the Dharma. Not without “Buddhism” the institution, but without the Dharma, both the literal teachings themselves and the Insight that properly applying the teachings produces. Anything that interferes with your pursuit of Insight is of no help to you and, if it is possible, you should let it go. Everything else will take care of itself as long as you are diligent in your pursuit and careful in applying the teachings correctly.

    Based on my own practice experience I think this description is true. But it really has very little to do with the institution of Buddhism, whose only point, in the end, is to make the Dharma available to those with the karmic accumulation to take on the practice of it, In our current world, the Dharma is just about as available as it ever has been, or ever will be. Beyond that, everything else will take care of itself.

  10. David,

    you said: “He’s [Shinzen Young] teaching a whole bunch of different methods (in five categories), and explicitly draws on Vajrayana (tantra). That seems promising! This is not what I was criticizing.”

    exactly. each of the Five Ways represent a tradition. i have written an overview of this and it’s also posted on Vince Horn’s “Pragmatic Dharma” Guide Book. see: http://www.pragmaticdharma.com/the-five-ways/

    you said: “I suspect he’s adopted “mindfulness meditation” as a buzzphrase because that’s what people think they want.”

    i think you have a good point there. i’ll ask him about this to confirm his intention. but for now, i have no problem agreeing with your above statement.

    that said, Shinzen’s approach to “mindfulness” is not the same as the popular “Consensus Buddhism.” he likes to define his terms like a scientist would define a scientific idea. i find his style of teaching to be quite refreshing (and yes, geeky). for example, he painstakingly addressed the question “what is mindfulness?” in this essay: see “What is Mindfulness?” – http://www.shinzen.org/Retreat%20Reading/What%20is%20Mindfulness.pdf

    Shinzen calls his teaching “Basic Mindfulness” but that is a technical term that packs a lot of punch. then again, as Shinzen readily admits, his style of teaching can be perceived as complicated and would most probably not attract people who like their dharma to be feel-good and fluffy.

    ~C

  11. @ Michelle — I totally love that!

    I have a post coming on the Satipatthana Sutra’s charnel ground and disgust-at-food practices.

    @ Sabio — All good questions, which I mostly intend to address in follow-up posts. (This one was an overview only.) Some replies here:

    • Buddhists disliking ritual because because Protestant Christianity dislikes it seems dumb. Disliking it for the same reasons could make sense. I am not sure I know Protestant theology well enough to know those reasons—do you?
    • I’m not bad-mouthing science, only Scientism. Saying “I don’t see the point, so there isn’t one” is not science, it’s dogma.
    • Individualism is mostly a great thing. Insisting on absolute individualism in all contexts makes social coordination impossible and results in isolation and alienation.
    • Social roles are not good or bad as a category. Particular social relationships can be beneficial or harmful.
    • Connectedness is not the primary goal of most types of Buddhism. It’s an anti-goal for some. But if you want connectedness, which most Western Buddhists do, then using a meditation method that was designed to disconnect you is probably a bad idea! If you want connectedness, ritual is probably the tool for the job.
    • So, I agree with “I see ritual as neutral — it all depends on how it is used.”
    • On Tantra: stay tuned. Or, in the mean time, you could read about Trungpa Rinpoche’s Sacred Path program—that’s the closest thing to modernist Buddhist Tantra I know well.
  12. @ Sabio Re: “I get how perhaps a Buddhism which are aiming at enjoyment may have greater value for many. . . But Tantra is typically wrapped deeply in traditional, complexities and foreignness which is unattractive to the majority.” Your point about *the majority* may well be valid. My experience of vajrayana is quite focussed, although if I’m aware of 4 different lines practising quite radically accessible forms of Tsog, so I suspect there are a number of others.

    Are you aware of HH Dud’jom Rinpoche’s ‘Drinking Song’ practised in the lineages of many of his students, including the line of HH Chhi’med Rig’dzin Rinpoche? There is also the practice of Celebration in the Aro Tradition, which is close to many of the informal practices Trungpa Rinpoche engaged in with students (fine dining etc.) All of these are Tsog (amongst other things) – but Tsog in a far more varied and (in my view) accessible form for Westerners than the traditional mode.

  13. @ David:
    I agree with all your points. Thanx for the link to Shambala — but I must say, if some form is to survive, I don’t think it can be like Shamabala with costs like that and seminars that are needed. Looks like Scientology — that model is, however, proven to work with those with money. I wonder what Shamabala’s demographics look like.

    @ Namgyal
    Yes, I am familiar with the “Drinking Song” and have done it once with some Aro practitioners — loved the song. And David writes about “Celebration” on his site. Much of it sounds refreshingly creative and instructive.

  14. On revisiting McMahon, I’m not sure I’m still willing to concede that he argues that Western understanding of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra presentation of interdependence in particular was
    “highlighted and transformed through mixing it with Romanticism,” as you say. He writes that according to the Huayan understanding “There is no need to escape from the process of dependent origination, only to see it aright as the marvelous manifestation of the cosmic Buddha.”

    Sounds a lot like what you are arguing is a Romantic interpolation.

  15. @ Michele

    “In Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi’s recorded teachings on the Satipatthana Sutta, someone makes a comment regarding the charnel ground meditations being unpleasant. I’ll never forget Bhikkhu Bodhi’s response, ‘Well, that’s not really the point, is it.'”
    :D

    @ David

    “eco-granola-consensus-therapy”
    :D
    – – – –

    Come for the Buddhism; stay for the humor!

  16. @ Namgyal: Ah, ha! ( なるほど, in Japanese) Greetings !

    @ KarmakShanti:

    You said:

    “…life is completely worthless and hopeless without the Dharma”

    Wow! I have heard:

    “Life is meaningless without Jesus.”

    But that is the first time I have heard someone bold enough to utter your quote. Can’t say I disagree more. I just could not let that go un-protested. I wonder if David’s up-coming posts will address this sort of Buddhist belief you illustrated for us.

  17. The actually parallel statement would be ‘Life is meaningless without the Buddha’.

    To say life is hopeless without the Dharma is to say that without the practice of understanding reality ‘as it is’, life is hopeless. Can’t say I disagree.

  18. @ Kate Gowen,

    Without practice of understanding reality ‘as it is’, life is hopeless.

    Well, that is a little better only because it takes the obvious sectarian term “Dharma” out. But what would “without practice of understanding reality ‘as it is’ ” mean? For me, it is either vague enough to be a tautology and meaningless or it is focused enough to make the word “hopeless” just plain wrongly applied.

    Calling life hopeless without “X” is just bad form from the very get go. IMHO

  19. What I was attempting to point to is the difference between ‘believing in the zombie Savior’ and ‘practicing a method and seeing results for oneself.’ ‘Dharma’ is neither sectarian nor dogmatic: as a written/ orally transmitted corpus, it refers to a couple of thousand years worth of instructions about methods of practice, ‘lab notes’ and anecdotes about practitioners.

    In the most essential sense, ‘dharma’ means ‘the way things are/the way things work.’

  20. @ Kate Gowen

    So as to not be totally off-thread, I love & agree totally with David’s paragraph entitled “I don’t care, it’s all good”, where he talks about all the various effects of meditation and wondering if folks get out of it, what they think they should.

    So question for you:

    Can a Christian who “believes in a zombie Savior” lead anything but a “hopeless life” if they don’t meditate, listen to dharma talks, or spend any time in contemplation? You can make that list longer, hopefully, to help me make my point.

    Perhaps with your standard, and the implications of David’s essay, you could say that many people who call themselves Buddhists are living “hopeless” lives. (of course I don’t believe this either)

    Are the myriad of meditation techniques David mention all looking at thing “the way things are/ the way things work.” David tells us they all do very different things. I wonder how many are seeing things “the way things are”, if any at all. Scientists try to see things for what they are, so maybe they don’t have hopeless lives. Ah, but they don’t do it by meditating, chanting or …

    Maybe you and KarmakShanti can give us examples of people who do live hopeless lives. [My goodness, doesn’t that even begin to sound horrible to you? — but I think KarmakShanti was indeed being brave when he confessed it. It is like many Christians think I am going to hell but they are polite enough to only say it behind my back.]

  21. @ Sabio

    KarmakShanti said:

    “The way ‘renunciation’ has been explained to me is as the inner conviction that life is completely worthless and hopeless without the Dharma.”

    And, “Based on my own practice experience I think this description is true.”

    Sabio, did you take what he said to be some sort of OBJECTIVE declaration for EVERYONE? First, he said that that was how renunciation had been explained to him, then he said that “BASED ON [HIS] OWN PRACTICE EXPERIENCE”, he “THINK[S]” that the explanation is true.

    May I ask what your experiences have been with regard to the importance of the Dharma? I mean, I doubt you have a “take-it-or-leave-it” mentality towards Buddhist teachings. Why would one be a Buddhist if they didn’t think Buddhist teachings (be they from a book, or from a Lama) were paramount? I guess I’m assuming you are a Buddhist. Do you consider yourself to be?

    In whatever way a Buddhist might interpret the idea of the Dharma, it does indeed makes sense to me that without it life could be considered “worthless” and “hopeless”. Or are we jettisoning the concept of unending self-created suffering here? A life – many lives, infinite lives – of self-created suffering (which always seems to spill over and make others suffer) does indeed sound completely “worthless” to me.

    How about you?

  22. @ Sabio

    “Can a Christian who “believes in a zombie Savior” lead anything but a “hopeless life” if they don’t meditate, listen to dharma talks, or spend any time in contemplation?”

    Theoretically, from a Buddhist perspective (as my undoubtedly inadequate mind understand things), regarding their perception or reality, and regarding rebirth, yes, I would say that Christians DO live hopeless lives. Oooo, that wasn’t very politically correct of me at all, was it?

    Frankly (get ready for it!), I’m a Buddhist (one very interested in Vajrayana, specifically) because everything else seems fucking ridiculous. Sorry if that doesn’t jive with you, but POPULAR opinion has never held much value for me.

    You aren’t saying that KarmakShanti shouldn’t say what he said because he might UPSET some people, are you?

  23. Hey Noah,
    Thank you. So maybe KarmakShanti is just saying that the renunciate folks feel that way. Maybe he is not saying that he feels that way. Hmmm. that would be my misreading then.

    Maybe he will come back and tell us

    You said,

    You aren’t saying that KarmakShanti shouldn’t say what he said because he might UPSET some people, are you?

    No, of course not. He should shout it from the house tops. As you can see, I don’t care if people get upset. But I wanted him to know (if he meant that) that one person thought it was hogwash.

    Either way, it seems both you and Kate agree that life is hopeless for those who don’t embrace the dharma.

    May I ask what your experiences have been with regard to the importance of the Dharma?

    I think some dharma can be extremely enriching. But I believe life can be enriched in many ways – not just dharma.

    Why would one be a Buddhist if they didn’t think Buddhist teachings (be they from a book, or from a Lama) were paramount?

    I don’t think Buddhist teachings are paramount. If I did, I certainly don’t act like that. I value much that I have learned from the various Buddhisms, but that is it.

    I guess I’m assuming you are a Buddhist. Do you consider yourself to be?

    I drew a diagram addressing that. The title of the post is “Do I qualify as a Buddhist?” But most readers don’t realize that the post has much irony intended.

    I am a person first, Noah. I am lazy, dumb, sloppy and inconsistent. The label Buddhist is not important to me in any deep way. But I can not think of any labels that I hold dear. Labels seem very odd things to hold dear to me, actually.

    Or are we jettisoning the concept of unending self-created suffering here?

    Yes, I don’t believe in unending self-created suffering in the sense of re-birth.

    I think I understand your belief. I see how it can help motivate and inspire you. I think it is mistaken in ways that could also cause or reinforce ways of suffering. Perhaps you don’t use them that way at all.

    But for the most part, I am wrong on most things and I am full of foolishness. I certainly don’t take myself too seriously. But I hope I answered your questions faithfully.

  24. @ Sabio

    “But for the most part, I am wrong on most things and I am full of foolishness…”

    Yes, me too. At least we have THAT in common. :D

    “Yes, I don’t believe in unending self-created suffering in the sense of re-birth.”

    Oh! Well, never mind then. As David seems to be showing, it’s very hard to talk about something that, as it turns out, has no real definition For example, I thought Buddhism wasn’t Buddhism without meditation. David has shown that meditation was absent from much of Buddhism in the past, so…there goes THAT definition! I ALSO thought that unending, self-created suffering was part of all Buddhism, but in light of all the crazy stuff that David has written about, I’m probably wrong about that too.

    Hey David, are/were there Buddhist traditions that you know of that don’t have unending, self-created suffering as part of their view?

    SO, Sabio, may I ask, how do you decide what parts you will take and what parts you will leave of the Dharma to which you’ve been exposed? I, too, “…am wrong on most things and I am full of foolishness…”. This has made me very wary when it comes to cherry-picking. If I make so many stupid choices (and believe me, I DO!), how do I know that my stupidity isn’t misinforming my decision-making process?

    I guess that that is why I’m so attracted to Vajrayana – THE LAMA: I know enough to know that I don’t know enough to NOT fuck myself over on a regular basis. Perhaps some people think that reliance on a Lama suggests that people don’t want to take responsibility for their decisions, but the Vajra-Relationship has been described to me as just the OPPOSITE in fact. If I can wring-out just enough intelligence from my silly little mind, then maybe I can choose to work with a Lama that won’t LET me fail to responsibility for my life and for my choices, and perhaps might actually kick my ass into full blown sanity! :D

    Without a Lama, or without strict adherence to a tradition, how do you know you aren’t deluding yourself, cherry-picking according to your (to put in some Buddhist terms I’ve heard) samsaric rationale?

    Thank you for talking with me about all this, by the way.

  25. @ David

    Just in case it got lost in that long post of mine:

    Hey David, are/were there Buddhist traditions that you know of that don’t have unending, self-created suffering as part of their view?

  26. @ Sabio

    Sorry for asking another question without waiting for a response to the previous post, but:

    I looked at your diagram. Pretty neat.
    How do you think the concept of the Lama/Guru would fit into that picture?

  27. Hey David, are/were there Buddhist traditions that you know of that don’t have unending, self-created suffering as part of their view?

    Hmm… I can’t think of one offhand… interesting. Although, to quibble, anatman sort of implies that suffering isn’t exactly self-created… And Mahayana and Vajrayana suggest that eventually all suffering will end… And Dzogchen regards suffering as illusory… So Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala refused to talk about “suffering” at all… But then he claimed it wasn’t Buddhist, so maybe that doesn’t count!

    A quarter hour ago I ate way too much chocolate cake, because I’m writing the next episode of The Vetali’s Gift, and is intensely depressing. Trying to answer your question is making me feel like vomiting it back up, so I will stop now! :-)

    Can anyone else think of an example?

  28. @ David

    “Trying to answer your question is making me feel like vomiting it back up, so I will stop now!”

    Oh, God! Sorry. I’ll try to ask less vomit-inducing questions in the future. Sorry. (I’m sure you were just joking, but if you weren’t – was that a stupid question or something?)

    “Although, to quibble, anatman sort of implies that suffering isn’t exactly self-created… And Mahayana and Vajrayana suggest that eventually all suffering will end… And Dzogchen regards suffering as illusory… So Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala refused to talk about “suffering” at all…”

    Shit. Kind of a mighty quibble there.

    Okay, right – “self”-created suffering, then, because we have no actual self.
    But since no one is making our stupid, “suffering”-creating (in quotes because perhaps it’s illusory) decisions FOR us, how else can we describe our samsaric cycles, other than that they are “self”-created?

    And I meant the “unending” part in regards to what would happen if one DIDN’T apply the dharma. I didn’t mean to say we are all unendingly going to suffer even if we practice. I mean, what the hell would be the point then? Capt. Super Buddha isn’t going to swoop down from the sky and save the day, no matter how long we wait, so, if we don’t practice, aren’t we, at least theoretically, going to make decisions based off our samsaric vision FOR EVER (assuming one believes in rebirth, and I see no reason NOT to – EVERYTHING seems to cycle in the phenomenal world)?

    And Mahayana and Vajrayana don’t say that all suffering will AUTOMATICALLY end, right? I mean, that would be pretty sweet and everything, but that’s just eternalism, isn’t it?

    And Dzogchen is for Buddhas………or would be if we/Buddhas existed………but since we don’t (anatman)……….um………hmm. How does someone who doesn’t exist apply methods, or type this sentence for that matter? Spooky…

    Okay – so either I’m a Buddha, or I don’t exist.
    Seems like a good deal to me, I guess. I mean “me”.
    – – – –

    Glad to hear “you” ‘re writing B4V stuff again, by the way. :) “We” ‘ve been waiting.

  29. Hey Noah,

    Your reply made me smile. I love what we have in common and your openness.

    SO, Sabio, may I ask, how do you decide what parts you will take and what parts you will leave of the Dharma to which you’ve been exposed?

    Very good question. The deeper question is how do I (or any of us) do that about politics, science theories, ethical proposals, religion and relationships. I write about that on my blog. I don’t find the answer easy. I am an ex-vegetarian, ex-homeopathy, ex-Marxist …. So you see, I don’t have that question answered by any means. But I am OK with that vagueness.

    But I agree, when it comes to focused areas of expertise, skilled teachers who have demonstrated themselves are a real blessing.

    Concerning a Lama/Guru — I have seen many people deceived by teachers both in political, dietary and religious realms. Blind trust with no real measures or anchors can be dangerous. Having friends outside of a your circle can help as a check for extremism or foolishness. But as I said above, commitment and trust of a proven teacher can be extremely valuable.

  30. Given that it has provided an opportunity for Noah to say some interesting things, I don’t regret the misreading of my tiny little observation about the logic of Sabio’s argument. I was just trying to true the parallel. I have no particular opinion about Christians, or about suffering and its inevitability, for that matter. I’m Buddish because I like it conceptually and in practice; what works for someone else in his or her own terms– as long as it doesn’t attack others– is a jolly good thing.

    There can hardly be anything more subjective than ‘meaninglessness’ or ‘hopelessness’– so those are not something I judge about anyone else– they were part of Sabio’s syllogism, is all. My personal stance on hope is something along the lines of T.S. Eliot’s “…Wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing…”

    The thing that does rile me some, is the persistent conflation of Buddhism with Christianity, dharma with catechism– both because the logic is bent out of shape, and because it seems disrespectful.

  31. @ Noah, David– Wouldn’t Dzogchen be an example of Buddhism that doesn’t posit ‘unending suffering’? Since it is ‘created’ moment-by-moment, just like the ‘self’– isn’t it possible to just … stop?

  32. — and the practice traditions of Ch’an and Zen seem akin to Dzogchen in this way, in not getting into suffering beyond acknowledging it as a motivation for practice; but it is the Mahayana view of the suffering of others and the aspiration to ease it.

  33. @ Noah — sorry, no, your question was fine; the chocolate cake was the culprit. My stomach did battle with it in the night, and has emerged bloodied but victorious.

    @ Kate, Noah — Yes, the Dzogchen view is that you can just stop creating suffering, “on the dot” as Trungpa Rinpoche put it. Instantaneous self-liberation. Unfortunately, that usually only lasts for about a quarter of a second… But then you can stop again…

    @ Noah — Yes, Dzogchen is the practice for Buddhas; but there is the sem-dé ngöndro for everyone else. That was basically the first half of the Shambhala Training curriculum (in its original incarnation). The ngöndro doesn’t talk about suffering either. It doesn’t deny that suffering exists, it just isn’t interested in it. It starts from always-already enlightenment (“basic goodness” in Shambhala, tathāgatagarbha if you like Sanskrit) rather than the Four Noble Truths.

    Aro is mostly Dzogchen, so it doesn’t talk about suffering all that much either. But it includes all the yanas, so there’s some suffering. Shambhala was Dzogchen without the other yanas, so no Four Noble Truths there at all.

    I’m not sure how serious the rest of your questions were. They’re probably above my pay-grade, if you mean them really seriously. But, yes, I think nearly all Buddhisms would say that suffering is endless unless you do something about it. As for how you can practice if you don’t exist… If two serious Buddhists ever agreed about exactly what anatman means and implies, the sky would probably fall.

  34. The thing that does rile me some, is the persistent conflation of Buddhism with Christianity, dharma with catechism– both because the logic is bent out of shape, and because it seems disrespectful.

    I have run into that sentiment often. I jotted down a quick post to wonder why here.
    Meanwhile, David’s post compares Modern Buddhism to Christianity and indeed I do think that does fuel some people’s reactiveness — whether they are aware or not.

  35. “Meanwhile, David’s post compares Modern Buddhism to Christianity and indeed I do think that does fuel some people’s reactiveness — whether they are aware or not.”

    — I guess that seemed not to be the gist of this post, as I read it. I’d thought it was about more-or-less contemporary Western views overlaid onto Buddhism: Christianity, German Romanticism, Scientism, and late 20th-century morality. I’d understood him to be saying that this distorts Buddhism. My reaction to this is to agree. I could be misunderstanding and thinking David is representing my own view when he is not, of course.

  36. @ Noah,
    Indeed! The art of comparison necessarily entails not conflating. One important function of comparison is to find underlying similar functions at work. Religions are complex with many functions all generated by people. Patterns are very easy to find. David is comparing various flavors of Buddhism to expose dissimilarities and lack of homogeneity. He is rattling images we have of each other and ourselves. By throwing comparisons to Protestantism and German Monistic Romanticism he shows similarities that shake some people’s self-views.
    Funny, a large part of our “Buddhism” is what we think it means to be a Buddhist.

    @ Kate Gowen,

    I’d understood him to be saying that this distorts Buddhism.

    I think David would be slow to say:
    (1) There is one thing called Buddhism [to be distorted…]
    (2) We can really know what original Buddhism was
    (3) Knowing what original Buddhism was is drastically important

    So, I don’t think David is pursuing the prescriptionist agenda at all. He is not pointing at distortion but at the facts on the ground.

  37. @ Kate, Sabio — I found myself agreeing with both of your descriptions of what I’m doing. Since they seem to contradict, that forced me to think; thank you both. My thinking may still be muddled, but at the moment I’d say:

    • Carefully disentangling the strands of history is important to understanding what Buddhism is now. That’s a neutral, descriptive task.
    • What Buddhism should be is a values-laden, prescriptive task. There won’t be agreement about it, and that’s fine.
    • “Buddhism” was already a family of quite different religions before Westerners got involved. And, those were created partly by mixing earlier Buddhisms with various non-Buddhist systems (Tantra, Taoism, Vedanta, Shinto, …). So mixing Buddhism with Western systems (Christianity, Romanticism, psychotherapy, …) is not inherently illegitimate.
    • Buddhists like to sell their stuff as “ancient wisdom from a far-off, super-spiritual land.” For some reason, many people accept “exotic ancient wisdom” without asking hard questions.
    • Buddhists like to say “According to Buddhism, X.” I do this too, although I’m trying not to nowadays. The problem here is that, for every X, there is some version of Buddhism that says the opposite.
    • Different Buddhisms have different purposes, so it matters which one you use for a given job. Some will be more or less effective, depending on your goals.

    Now, here come the distortions. If you say, “According to Buddhism, X”, and X is actually Christianity or Romanticism, you are perpetrating a triple lie. First, you are implicitly selling something as “exotic ancient wisdom” that isn’t. That makes some people willing to buy into ideas that they would immediately reject if you were honest about where they came from.

    Second, you are hiding the versions of Buddhism that say the opposite of X. Those versions may be better—not just different—for some people.

    Third, X may just not work together with what you have taken from traditional Buddhism. Not every collection of attractive-looking pieces can be assembled into a functional system. Thanissaro Bikkhu argues this strongly in several articles. Some Western ideas or practices just don’t go with some traditional Buddhist ideas or practices.

    So… what?

    Later in this series, I will have a post titled “The ethics of mash-ups.” I’ll suggest that Western Buddhist teachers have a responsibility to be clear and honest about what they are teaching and where it came from.

    I’d like to see an Accurate Religious Labeling Act: If you are teaching 37% German Romanticism, 18% Christianity, 23% “green meme” morality, 13% Theravada and 9% Zen, you ought to put that on the package label.

    This means you need to know where the stuff you are teaching came from, which most Western Buddhist teachers don’t. So there’s a responsibility to find out.

  38. Your ability to turn sow’s ears into silk purses continues to astound!

    You grapple with these vexed questions in such a cool, yet engaged and engaging, way that it encourages me to be more patient with them than I’d be left to my own devices. So thank you for that.

  39. @ David
    I don’t know if you saw my “Share Thyself” tables. I created these so that Christians could tell us what flavor of Christian they are. Likewise, I made a Philosophy one and a Atheist one. I have always wanted to make something for Buddhists. That way blogging Buddhists could put up a “My Flavor of Buddhism” post and link to it so their dialogue partners could quickly realize the most fruitful points for discussion.

    Likewise, I know you have seen my “Spiritual Facts” card — your comments reminded me of it. We could make a “Buddhist Nutrition” card.

  40. @ Sabio @ David regarding Sabio’s suggestion that “We could make a “Buddhist Nutrition” card.” Please don’t. There’s a Yes Minister episode where the European Parliament wants to rename the British Sausage the ‘Emulsified High-Fat Offal Tube’ because that more accurately describes it’s contents (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OzeDZtx3wUw) and the Minister nearly vomits because he had one for breakfast. I think it’s enough to say there are influences from a number of quarters, and one can detect them at a gross level. You’ll never get down into the subtleties – at least not unless you spend the rest of your life on it, alienate many of the more casual less academic readers of the blog, and turn into a dusty old professor. You’ll have to study a vat load of ancient Eastern languages for a start. Sanskrit ‘has 56 different terms for Elephant’, as my old tutor used to quip – oh how those Sanksrit lessons flew by. And then each of those names is a yoga posture, the name of a girl, a sexual position. . . don’t go there.

  41. @ Namgyal
    COTTM ! (cavorting on the tattami mats)
    But seriously, though, my “Share Thyself” charts were very helpful in many dialogues — Christians and Atheists of other sites borrowed them and used them.
    You never know. Being hush, hush hasn’t helped us to date, why not give it a chance.

  42. I’m just gonna stick to my Emulsified High-Fat Offal Tube (with Daddy’s sauce).

    I find your treatment of the authentic British sausage degrading and immoral. It’s clear you have never tasted the Real Thing. You appear to confuse the Gloucester Old Spot and Cumberland and Mustard with the superficial American ‘link’ sausage, degenerate fodder for the mass market. I personally buy my sausages from a local market supplied by farmers that share my values.

    Anyhow, I prefer not to get involved with this kind of discussion. I’d rather sit at home and eat sausages.

  43. Maybe a side note to the Romantic mysticism cathegory: meditation as altered state of consciousness (wahetever that means), marketed as having the same effects as hallucinogen drugs without their side effects. Is seems a feature of the hippie-era, but lives on e.g. in the teachings of Ole Nydahl.

  44. @ Roni
    Excellent. I agree, that “altered state of consciousness” has always been my least favorite expression full of the nuances you say. Language is so loaded.

    @ Rind’zin and Namgyal
    We choose the animals that become our sausage — and the fatter the better! I devour sausages while having these conversations — they go well together!

  45. What a very interesting tidbit of information.
    Re: “Recently, many diverse Theravada practices were brought to Spirit Rock through the visit of Achaan Jumnien, a sixty-year-old monk from the jungles of Southern Thailand. In the course of nine days he taught thirty different practices. These included chakra practices (opening of the wisdom-eye and the heart center), skeleton practices (on the nature of the body), and meditations with the elements of earth, air, fire, water and space. He trained people to understand emptiness by resting in what he called the “Original Mind” or the “Natural State” and he offered practices unifying participants’ consciousnesses with his own.”

    It reminds me of Tibetan Buddhism, where, within the larger umbrella of the tradition, there are very differing views and emphasis. Thanks for doing all this research. It’s really quite interesting.

  46. @David. Thanks for the links and the overviews on the three main traditions. Reading them have made me want to branch out a bit more in regards to my own meditation practice, which so far hasn’t really encroached on much more than the renunciation tradition. Apparently there’s a fourth tradition that is kept quite secret called sakia or sakya, but I can’t seem to find much about it online, apart from the mention of the buddha boy in Nepal using it as a technique to sit long periods without food and water, but I’m not entirely sure how genuine that is. I was wondering if you had come across it before or knew anything about it?

  47. Hi, Lawrence,

    The Sakya School is one of the four main branches of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a sect, not a method. It’s not very different from the other Tibetan sects; it’s closest to the Geluk School, which the Dalai Lama belongs to. They make a bit more of a fuss about secrecy than other Tibetan traditions, but I don’t think they have any special secret sauce the other brands lack.

    Within all the Tibetan traditions, there is the practice of chu len, which supposedly allows you to go without food and water for long periods. That is probably what this Sakya lama implies the “Buddha Boy” is doing. The sweating might be interpreted as a sign of the practice of tummo, inner heat.

    I’m pretty skeptical about the “Buddha Boy”… although tummo at least seems to be a real thing.

    David

  48. David,
    Your suspicions are correct about the IMS planting seeds of monist mysticism. And you said a mouthful in October 20, 2011, with, “The meditation methods that go along with renunciate activity are those that aim at realization of no-self (anatta, anatman, emptiness/shunyata).”
    I am writing a technical paper for limited distribution concerning the psychological outcomes of different meditation methods and the details of execution. The class of what I deem “Brahmanic” meditation methods produce experiences that reinforce teachings of monist mysticism. My take on “Insight” meditation methods, on the other hand, is that these result in syncing the conscious mind to the subconscious mind. The practice of Insight methods tends toward social deconstruction, and “renunciation” when practiced with fully motivated intentions. The critical difference between the two classes of meditation methods is in how “mindfulness” is addressed on the cushion.
    I agree that the Pali Canon deserves no confidence in regard to factuality, but it is an attractive trash heap of traces of what longago people longago believed. I read the Sutta Pitakka and all later Buddhist scriptures as cascades of erasures of the immediately preceding discourses, and the first discourse to go was that of original meditative discovery, then the Four Noble Truths, and thereafter a continuous “rebrahmanisation of Buddhism”, partly by way of confusions about meditation methods, e.g., “jhana versus insight”.
    I want to send you a copy of this paper when I finish it, probably about year end, but I also want you to give me an email address for that purpose, , being that I am outside your stated domain of inquiry, a social renunciate. I am contemptuous of all religions and all supernaturals, and most folks cannot keep meditation inquiry apart from that. When I finish “The Birth of Insight”, I will go back to working on my paper. One of Jayarava’s posts on your blog ends with “we don’t know What Happens in Meditation”, so that is my working title.
    P.S.: “Nihilism” is PERFECT for social renunciates.

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