Breaking the mold of eastern Buddhism and taking ownership of the dharma in a new century.
Imagine a giant golden Buddha statue sat in front of you right now. The Buddha’s golden gaze stares out onto an invisible horizon, expressing an out of reach wisdom and supreme intellect. His hands are clasped in unifying grace and his legs are perfectly placed in a lotus posture. The statue gives off an aura of graceful bliss, of wisdom, compassion and perfect meditational equipoise. Surely this image represents the quintessence of Buddhist iconography, its most transcendent and instantly recognizable form.
Golden statues are accompanied by exotic robes in most traditional gathering places for Buddhists. Incense is lit and golden bowls may hold offerings for imagined beings. Other more mundane objects such as zafus still draw heavily on Eastern forms, colours and shapes and each adds to that “je ne sais quoi” that inspires warm feelings in the bellies of curious seekers, and quite possibly a smidgen of confusion. Seekers of one kind or another are still attracted by the exotic, by other, by the symbolic matrices that accompany religion and most likely always will be as we are visual, feeling creatures.
Although not up to Hinduism’s standards, Buddhism has its fair share of rich visual display that acts to seduce the observer. Why is it that we are so drawn to symbols? Why is it that so many are drawn to religion, in this case by Buddhism, through rich symbology and unarticulated appearance?
Perhaps in part, such exotic symbolism provides us with an alternative experiential environment, within which, we can explore different meaning-making systems, and feel free, to some degree, to shed the binds that adhere us to pre-existing, culturally normalized realms of being. The exotic provides us with a back door exit from our mundane existence, and further, from the pain and suffocation of modernity. The problem is that such an exit can lead us not to freedom but to escapism and the adoption of a new identity, a newly fabricated self that reflects its new environment, both ideologically and behaviorally.
We become new all right. Though we emerge as a false image of a distorted self that is framed in new jargon, hidden and stifled beneath the surface in a prism that distorts our own voice, our own knowing, and lack of knowing, through the lens of a Buddhist persona.
Getting started, or, how did I end up here?
I feel like we are in a trap as Buddhists. Too many of us have failed to realize that the grand Buddhist experiment is not revealed through adopting alien forms and practice but by invoking the Buddha’s example to go all the way to the end of the path and to find that way through our own lived experience. We have taken the outer forms of Buddhism to be the real thing, when they are not. We have confused mortal men with saints and super-beings and invested our hopes in reassurances from those who we don’t know intimately. We have failed to grasp the weight of the task and the need to take full responsibility for our path.
I am pushing heavily against traditional Buddhism, in part as a reaction against my own past participation in traditional Tibetan Buddhism and for the delusion, disappointment and immense dissatisfaction that came about as a result. I feel like I have spent the last 10 years slowly escaping from the pitfalls and traps of traditional Buddhism and have myself emerged into a much more rational and all too human landscape which is much less artificial.
In the first few years of my heavy involvement in Tibetan Buddhism, I managed to convince myself that it was the answer to my confusion, the way to freedom, and the response to my need to belong to something meaningful. I soaked up Buddhist beliefs, Buddhist perspectives, Buddhist ideals, Buddhist language and Buddhist modes of interpreting my place in the world and the events that took place in it.
I immersed myself in a new jargon, a new look, a new lifestyle and shifted my priorities towards the club of dharma. The immersion deepened and the world became filtered through a lens of Buddhist stardust: Karma, Dhukka, Dharma. Karma, Dhukka, Dharma. Karma, Dhukka, Dharma went the Buddha train onto which I had set forth to mysterious new experiential lands of feelings and thoughts that were exciting and symbolically rich.
With time I came to see that I was closed inside an ideological cabin on this train. The outer world became a blur and my internal experience was governed and dictated to me by the train’s internal upholstery of Buddhist symbols, Tibetan colours and dharma advertising and the voices and sounds that emerged through the loud tannoy overhead were in Tibetan and Buddha–speak. All my fellow passengers were riding on the same ticket, so when I felt the distorting nature of all this new imagery and sound, none of them could help me to see where the cause of this distortion lay.
When I wanted to look out of the window, their voices provided little help and simply insisted I focus more on the furniture and concentrate more on the voices filling the space. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had to get off the train and see where it was going from the outside, in order to gain perspective and separate from the soporific effect of that closed and self-referential space.
I left the train and experimented with a wide variety of platforms, using each to provide perspective on the all absorbing journey I had taken. So seductive was it that not only had I identified with it, I had become it.
Shifting perspective from inner to outer brought me to a slow recognition that I was not gaining any particular freedom through all of the Buddhist behavior I had adopted.
I was simply exchanging one internal structure that surrounded my core with another. Sure, I seemed to suffer less, but perhaps it was simply the case that the way I suffered was different—less obvious, more subtle.
In order to rid myself of this false internal fabric, I began experimenting with other paths, primarily in the world of shamanism. Shamanism provided a dramatic return to the body, to direct, primal experience. It violently disrupted the Buddhist aesthetic and spun my perceptual frames upside down. It took a while, but the extremely important recognition that the path is met through the body and acted out in the physical spaces that we occupy emerged unmediated.
I came to realize that our direct experience in the physical “life-world,” to quote the German father of phenomenology Edmund Husserl, is where we meet the possibilities and limits of this precious human existence and our deeply personal, lived path unfolds.
After returning to the flesh and the simplicity and immediacy of the body I began to seek mental purification from Buddhism’s ideological opium. The seductive nature of belief, truth and certainty manifested in the speech of gurus, revered texts and quotes from Buddhist friends had left me impoverished intellectually and I had to peel away not only the bullshit but the layers of precocious Buddhist outlook.
Receiving too much inherited wisdom is harmful. You see, it’s not only insufficient simply to read about advanced stages of meditation practice and realization, it is damaging to our delicate and unfolding awareness and curiosity for the immediate.
Simply stated, I needed to rid myself of the curse of too much artificial knowledge in order to find the limits and edges of what I, as an individual, actually knew through my own direct and lived experience. I needed to reacquaint myself with my own intellectual landscape, in part shared amongst fellow westerners, built on years and years of hard earned collective mental graft.
I decided to engage with Buddhism again as an outsider and leave behind all books, texts and teachings given by non-western Buddhists and those enamoured by Asian Buddhist forms.
I read books by academics of Buddhist studies who pointed out the fallacies of hagiographic interpretations of Buddhism’s rich history. I read of how the romanticized, peace-loving Tibetans were actually a fierce and warring people, some of whom had murdered and suppressed others to assert the supremacy of their particular religious tradition. I learned of how Japanese Zen monks supported war crimes and acts of aggression and jingoistic nationalism in the Second World War.
I listened to John Peacock and Rita Gross dissect poor translations of key Buddhist terminology and concepts—revealing how the exotic had infiltrated intended meaning along with overtly Christian world views. I read up on the sexual abuse enacted by famous Tibetans and westerners following too closely in their footsteps. I read criticism after criticism of Buddhism by dead and living western philosophers.
My god it was satisfying. Not because I wanted to bring Buddhism down and destroy it. I gained no joy in trashing Buddhism. No, the pleasure emerged from ruthlessly pulling apart, ripping apart the walls of inauthenticity, of false comfort and self-delusion that I had constructed to keep the world at bay and that were sustained by Buddhism and the false symbols that surround it.
Later I came to discover new voices of my own generation. I followed all of the podcasts so generously made available by the Buddhist Geeks and even dabbled in the Dharma Overground, where enlightenment has lost its exclusivity. I explored in depth the work of a new generation of provocateurs including Ken McLeod, Kenneth Folk and Stephen Batchelor, to name just a few. I participated actively online in Buddhist forums and blogs by Dave Chapman, the Non-Speculative Buddhism chaps, Brad Warner and many others expressing my own emerging opinions, and criticizing those I considered to be trapped in romantic and idealized interpretations of the path.
Finally, I found a truly contemporary western Buddhist teacher deeply rooted in the West with whom to work in a more balanced manner, which has upgraded my practice in deep and important ways and where my own voice is heard and responded to. I came full circle and re-engaged with Buddhism on new terms.
In spite of all this, I recognize how my own identification with this new process of shifting towards a dynamic re-interpretation and re-utilization of Buddhism twisted my own perception of the relevance of Buddhism as a whole. In reflecting on this piece, I came to realize how ridiculous my own rational notions of transparency and openness could be. I may like to strip bare Buddhism and rummage through its innards but why should I assume this to be the necessary goal for all Buddhists. I see how, in dissecting Buddhism like a butcher, ruthlessly, I had attempted to push its corpse downstream and off a waterfall of no return.
I kind of fell into the trap of believing that my new view of Buddhism (a new idealism) was superior or different somehow from my old idealism, and yet I found myself making the same weak arguments that I had made when my enthusiasm first peaked over traditional Buddhism years back—that what I believe is best, must be best for you too. So, let me openly lay down the remaining traces of arrogance and be careful in saying that I honor the Buddhist path for making this life that I live possible.
I honor the wealth of tradition and its continued relevance in the West for many folks. I honor the traditions that were brought to the West for providing such a rich and immensely beautiful and honorable mixture of multiple faces and interpretations of dharmic possibility. I am grateful to Buddhism for its successes and failings. Now I can move on.
Matthew O’Connell has been pushing against the status quo since time began. He’s a Brit teaching Shamanism and Buddhist meditation through coaching one-to-one and workshops in Italy and Slovenia. I also teach English and harass the neighbours with my attempts at stand up when not exploring enlightenment. [email protected] http://buddhatrieste.blogspot.it/.
Editor: Sarah Winner
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