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.