Imperfect Buddha podcast

Stages of maturation, Dzogchen, and the future of Buddhism.

Matthew O’Connell interviewed me recently for the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. Our conversation is now up on Soundcloud, and should appear above. If that’s not working, try this link.

The Imperfect Buddha Podcast, often cohosted with Stuart Baldwin,

aims to tackle the limits of Buddhism in the West and the taboos surrounding it, whilst pushing for its radical transformation into a genuine means for individual and collective liberation.

That would be a good description of what I’m trying to do here at Vividness also, so we had lots to talk about. We ranged over many topics; Matthew titled the episode “Stages of maturation, Dzogchen, and the future of Buddhism,” and those may be the highlights.

The Imperfect Buddha Podcast has been consistently interesting. Recently Matthew and Stuart have really hit their stride, and developed a clear and distinctive voice. At the beginning of this episode, Matthew gives an impressively clear and accurate introduction to our discussion (which I hadn’t heard when we recorded it).

Matthew practices as a coach and counsellor, writing that:

My style of working is most likely suitable for, but not limited to, the following types; spiritual but not religious, ex- or current Buddhists, ex-New Agers looking for direction (and reality), critical thinkers and rationalists that hide a desire for meaning and some sort of humanistic spiritual practice, atheists interested in meditation, intuitives fed up with the woo-woo, the spiritually disillusioned, those after an approach to change and/or self-development that doesn’t require the suspension of intelligence or blind faith, spiritual types looking to leave the spiritual bubble and change their lives for the better.

That is similar to how I think of my audience also.

Immediately before my episode, Imperfect Buddha featured three discussions with Glenn Wallis, which I thought particularly serious and deep. Glenn has led the Speculative Non-Buddhism project and web site, which has also asked what—if anything—Buddhism can offer contemporary Western culture. We all share the belief that Buddhism in the West has lost its relevance and lapsed into a dogmatic slumber.

In discussion with Matthew, I asserted that “Buddhism is dead”—by which I meant that, in the West, it no longer functions as a forward-looking cultural force. It only seeks to preserve the Consensus approach that merged mid-20th-century Asian Buddhist Modernism with the Western monist counterculture of the 1970s. Both are irrelevant to current concerns. If Buddhism is to have any future, it must address the current cultural condition of postmodern atomization. It must engage Western/global ideas on an equal footing—just as it did in the 1890s and in the 1970s. This does not currently seem on the horizon in the West.

However, many Asian Buddhists recognize that the Buddhisms they have inherited are all either traditional or modern, neither of which is adequate any longer. Some of them are looking explicitly to innovate, which I find heartening.

As an example, the government of Bhutan—the last Vajrayana Buddhist state in the world—sponsored an international conference on “Tradition and Innovation in Vajrayāna Buddhism: A Mandala of 21st Century Perspectives” a few months ago. The Prime Minister of Bhutan delivered a keynote address remarkable for its openness and cluefulness:

This creative adaptability is, of course, the very essence of the Tantric tradition, with the root meaning of the word ‘Tantra’ being to stretch and expand…. This mutability is not a fault, but rather Vajrayāna’s greatest strength. But unless we discern the core principles of Vajrayāna, its innermost essence could be misrepresented.

My friend Métsal Wangmo and her sangyum Ja’gyür Dorje, white European lamas in the Aro gTér lineage, were invited speakers at this conference. They were regarded by Asian attendees as not only legitimate, but something of a Big Deal. This, among many other signs, suggests to me that a new synthesis, and a rebirth of Buddhism, may be possible after all. Interest in that is coming this time—as in the late 1800s—more from Asians rather than Westerners.

Anyway… I seem to have wandered off-topic.

I’m very happy with the way my Imperfect Buddha Podcast episode came out. Credit for that goes almost entirely to Matthew, whose questions and explanations were spot-on. I just babbled a bit.

Give it a listen—I hope you like it!

If you have any follow-on questions or comments, feel free to enter the discussion below, or over on the Soundcloud page.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

7 thoughts on “Imperfect Buddha podcast”

  1. Buddha is a statue or a picture. No statue or picture is perfect because the perfect one is unknown.
    The title is meaningless.

  2. I quite enjoyed the podcast, keep up the good work!

    I have a point of curiosity:

    If it is the case, as it appears to be, that Buddhism is so drastically re-shaped by teachers/students over time, and if there is this desire to have a Buddhism of a certain kind (i.e. cured of the ills of the mainstream politicization/eternalism/closet-racism), then why does it need to be Buddhism at all?

    It is as though the Buddha came up with the whole notion of ‘mindfulness’, and so should be honored in name, and yet, there is so much to contrast the Buddhism of yesterday from today’s. Why this obligation to the name? Weren’t people having insightful experiences before/after? Surely, the guy can’t be singled out THAT strongly for encouraging people to ‘think critically’, right?

    I hope that I’m articulating this in a decent enough way. If not, I can perhaps elaborate further. It is likely that I simply do not know enough history and so am failing to recognize just how unique his ideas are (and therefore how valuable they are, in terms of culture, in the preservation of the association between his name and principle/function of critical thinking).

    I should add (in case you’re wondering why I’m bringing this up here): I think the Imperfect Buddha Podcast slogan about “going where other Buddhist podcasts fear to tread” captures the reason for my curiosity better than most things. Why go by the precedent of treading where others apparently fear to? I don’t mean to come off as too harshly critical, or anything, but this (in some ways) reminds me of the pop culture obsession with ‘revolutionary’ or ‘rebellious’ language that is so prevalent.

    I’m familiar (personally) with the desire to socially signal about ‘intellectually-sounding stuff’, so this just reminds me of similar signaling where there’s an obsession with being ‘nuanced’ in one’s approach to something.

    Again, it was a wonderful discussion on the podcast. I, too, am optimistic about what the race/nationalities of certain attendees of that conference could mean in terms of the Vajrayana zeitgeist. I very much look forward to your response.

  3. Also, @D.C. Wijeratna, that’s very deep and all, but how is your comment any more meaningful than the title of a podcast? I find it impressive, actually, that you can simultaneously call something ‘unknown’ and so confidently tie that thing to the attribute of ‘perfection’. But, I suppose that may be because you are drawing an identity between nothingness and perfection. After all, if it never bothered being a thing, it can’t be called imperfect, right? But, by the same token, how can the dichotomy be justified at all, in that case?

    I hope I’m not sounding facetious, here. I’m genuinely curious.

  4. “But, by the same token, how can the dichotomy be justified at all, in that case?”

    Oops, that was redundant. I don’t think I’m doing my best writing here at all, come to think of it.

  5. Hi James. I’m not sure what you are asking here, so I’m not sure how to reply. I think you may be asking about the podcast series, rather than about the episode I appeared in. If so, you’d need to ask Matthew rather than me!

  6. I really enjoyed your discussion. It’s encouraging to hear two people thinking deeply about how buddhist practice can transform the culture in the West. I appreciate the critique of consensus buddhism, which I originally encountered on the Buddhist Geeks Podcast. It named something I myself had experienced in several communities over the years. Thanks for that! Buddhism certainly isn’t what I want it to be, but I am quite thankful that it made it is available in one form or another. I’m not surprised that buddhism has succumbed to the dominant culture forces that everything else has succumbed to. Innovation is typically carried out at the fringes. Maybe with the “buddhism is dead” declaration you are saying that innovation isn’t happening at the fringes either. I don’t know if it is, but if it is happening on some level than I hope it will have an impact on the culture-at-large and help wake people up along the way. In some way the conversations and activities you and other like minded folks are engaged in is a form of innovation.
    I also see the steady growth in the study of meditation in the neurosciences, the field I studied, as a positive sign. I think innovative things are happening in this domain, alongside more consensus-y, status quo approaches. It’s still early days for the science so there may be hope there. I’m certainly not putting all of it in neuroscience, but it is still early days so I think it’s a worthwhile piece of the puzzle.

  7. Innovation is typically carried out at the fringes. Maybe with the “buddhism is dead” declaration you are saying that innovation isn’t happening at the fringes either.

    That’s a great insight! I hadn’t thought it that way… but I think it’s an accurate summary, and I also think it’s what’s (not) happening.

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