Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Buddhism in Stereo (-type)

The attitudes and preconceptions you come across regarding Buddhism tend to run in themes. One theme is that of a stereotypical crystal powered New-Ager; a hippie-(not)-wannabe who is into annoying existential poetry; a vegan counter-cultured coffee-shopped college educated progressive. This last image merges into another theme, that of a smug sounding seeming know-it-all who writes books that say all the hardships you face are just illusions, then goes back to waxing poetic about a snowstorm outside the window of their upper middle class home, sipping on hot cocoa before leaving for a retreat overseas; a stoic intellectual giant who is able to summon the depths of the power of the mind and harness it into levels of concentration and will unimaginable to mere mortals; a mysterious guru who speaks in dumbfounding riddles that hold the key to spiritual perfection. Then there is the image of the little Asiatic man in a robe, beaming kindness or sternness in full force to their students and visitors alike, appearing both wise and mysterious.

Such images have more to do with how Buddhism entered and was ultimately popularized in the West (especially the United States) than it does with any of the Buddha's teachings. But that's how we often assess things - by their associated imagery and cliched depictions. So Buddhism becomes a nebulous set of personal goals - a way to find inner peace by humming "OM!" Or a way to escape the material world by union with some Greater Spiritual Consciousness. A way to de-stress, to "reconnect with nature", to "find yourself". And it also becomes a set of requirements - of large amounts of time to spend studying or meditating. Of large amounts of money to afford books and retreats. Of intellect - presumable to power such meditations at retreats and the study with books.

In many stereotypes there are grains of truth, often so blurred and altered as to become ridiculous and misleading. Can you find "inner peace" through Buddhist practice? Maybe. You can realize a peace that is present at all times, even when you are in conflict. If inner peace means something like not experiencing negative emotions, then the answer is no. When you realize this source of wisdom and compassion, is it an escape from the material world? That, I suppose, could be considered debatable. I would say no. It is a transformation in appreciating the nature of the world, material and otherwise. Does this involve a Greater Spiritual Consciousness? Again, debatable, particularly depending on how you define and use each of those terms. But because of the potential baggage that description entails, and moreover because such a label is irrelevant anyway, I prefer to go with "no" again. Can such a realization help you de-stress? I would say release of negative stress would be a benefit but then add that this isn't the same as relaxation. As far as reconnecting with nature and find yourself, it would be more accurate to say rediscovering or re-adjusting your view of "nature" and your "self" - but it isn't merely ecofriendly self-aggrandizement. And no, you don't need huge amounts of time or money or a genius intellect to practice.

However, there are some things to watch out for other than tired old stereotypes. Such as the brand spanking new stereotypes, which reality tends to imitate all too often. One of these involves those who have read lots of books on Buddhism and may or may not be a member of a sangha (Buddhist community). Yet they haven't earned any of the lessons and the real meaning of the teachings they have read about. They may have a regular practice, such as chanting or sitting in mindfulness, which they may feel is reflected in a calmer demeanor or more energy for their day. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But still, they haven't truly recognized, let alone learned from, many of the tests in their lives. Their truisms and platitudes are borrowed, untempered by serious trials and causes for doubt. While their intellectual assent and emotional agreement with the teachings they talk about is real enough, there is a shallowness to their presentation and application of said teachings, a lack of earnestness. One example is when teachings are seen as the lesson, rather than pointing to the lesson. So, instead of skillfully using compassion and wisdom, they proselytize. Someone who is hurting or weary does not need a dharma talk on the nature of shunyata. A kind word, a touch of the hand - these are the teachings in practice, not just in theory, not just in formality. If the person suffering believes in God, work with that, let that be. It isn't the time to debate whether or not the Buddha taught about the existence of such a Being.

That said, there is nothing wrong with theory or formality of practice in the right place at the right time, which brings us to another nouvea Buddhist stereotype. These folks think that religion sucks, that spirituality sucks, and that the Buddha's basic insights can and should be liberated from any and all cultural baggage as a strict humanistic philosophy. The fact that so many valuable lessons that go beyond words and reinforce the basic teachings are captured in the literary and liturgical traditions are lost on them. That isn't to advocate slavish obedience to all tradition in Buddhism or deny various cultural influence, but there is a productive middle way here. Such animosity suggests attachments to experiences involving the concepts of religion and spirituality. The lack of a nuanced view of sacred traditions (these parts may be beautiful and inspirational, those parts may be harmful or distracting) is often a tell-tale sign of someone who has had a negative association with a particular branch or branches of groups affiliated with one more sacred paths, and has therefore cast a blanket judgment on all of them. This needn't be an outright condemnation. It can also manifest as an unease or desire to avoid sacred rituals or ceremonies, even icons such as a crucifix or a statue of the Buddha. Often the best way to be liberated from this hangup and be freed from the entanglement of leftover unresolved issues surrounding religion and spirituality is to try practicing it a little. Not necessarily as a full-on "believer", but just to experience a different context, a fresh context for a new and healthier perspective.

Of course, the worst of the new stereotypes is the so-called Buddhist who sits around pointing out the mote of his fellows eyes', unable to see the beam in his own. Very often they can be found publishing their so-called 'insights' on blogs. Personally I think this last type is a myth.


  1. Great post. I must admit that I found myself in bits and pieces of the stereotypes. I think it's an on-going practice to keep oneself balanced.

    That being said I also notice being more in tune with the world around me. Seeing the practice outside the chants and meditations. I love to watch the birds at our feeder and see their Buddhanature.

    Your emphasis on the middle-way is spot on. The teaching of the middle-way is one of the greatest teachings the world has ever known.

    It is so simple yet so profound.

    Thank-you for the humility lesson. :)

  2. I love to watch the birds at our feeder and see their Buddhanature.

    Mmm, well, I find that a lot when people talk/write about such things. Birds feeding. Rainbows in the sky. Wild flowers in bloom. Healthy young children at play. If you subscribe to the notion of Buddha-nature, or Christ-nature, other some form of recognition of the truth of dependent co-arising and emptiness, I can't imagine failing to find it when looking at things we readily find amusing or pretty or otherwise pleasant.

    But that's just not complete for me. The idea of Buddha-nature (which to me is a general singular, not a possessive, so I don't tend to speak of some particular thing's "Buddha-nature") cannot be confined to pleasant experiences of the five gates or the six general forms of perception if we count mental processes. It's almost my motto I've written it so much, but, when thinking about some unity of immanence and transcendence of reality-as-it-is: it's easy to be the rainbow, but it's tough being the landfill.

    The old bird twitching on the ground as it finally dies. The wilted flower in the dusty vase. The scarred child lying in a recovery room waiting to undergo another skin graft. The same truth, different wrapper.

    Buddha-nature, if it exists, is present whether we feel it or not, recognize it or not. When we are angry, or over-joyed, or so beyond hope that despair clouds every thought - the same fundamental potential, the same fabric of our mutual perpetual creation, dissolution, and recreation, still is.

    Thank-you for the humility lesson.

    Well, as I've said before, I am usually addressing myself to some degree, but feel free to take away anything that might be beneficial.

    Be well.


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