January 22, 2010

Toward an Integral Buddhism

In the Winter 2005 issue of Buddhadharma, Reginald Ray had an article (“The Three Lineages“) on the primary lineages of Buddhism. Mr. Ray discussed the primordial lineage, which conveys the direct experience of the awakened state; the transmission lineage, which comprises the variety of methods for conveying or teaching the primordial lineage to students; and the organizational lineage, which in this sense is the person who is officially responsible for upholding and maintaining the organizational structure of a given tradition.

If one wants to speak to a person, it is helpful to be able to speak in a language that fits his/her worldviews. The Buddha understood this. He developed a variety of teaching techniques (the transmission lineages) in order to convey his wisdom (the primordial lineage) to his students, who have since created the Buddhist sangha (the organizational lineage). Buddha recognized that each person, or stage of personal development, would need to have the teaching presented in a way that was accessible from her/his life conditions or worldview. The Buddha taught an Integral Buddhism. We do not need to kill the Buddha (as Sam Harris once famously suggested), we need to honor the full spectrum of ways we can follow his teachings.

In integral theory, which is based on a variety of developmental models, people, cultures, and societies develop through successive stages that occur in a predictable order, and none of which may be skipped. In psychology, we are most familiar with Piaget’s cognitive developmental stages, Kohlberg and Gilligan’s moral development, Jane Loevinger’s stages of ego development, Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development, and Clare Graves biopsychosocial values stages, to name just a few of many. For a Western view of religion, we might also consider James Fowler’s stages of faith. Most of these have been verified (and updated or revised) through many research studies.

In the Eastern traditions, there also have been developed a series of hierarchies just as important and verifiable as those developed in the West. From Sri Aurobindo’ Integral Yoga to the Buddhist Vijnanas, from Vedanta to the stages of Mahamudra, hierarchies of spiritual development have been proposed and tested throughout the centuries. The difference is that those from the East have been based on interior experience rather than exterior observation and measurement as have the Western models, but that does not render them any less verifiable by the scientific method.

For each tradition there is an injunction. If one follows the injunction, which may be to engage in a specific meditation technique, for example, there is a specific outcome that will result from the practice. One follows the injunction, notes the results, and then compares it to the predicted outcome. If it does not match what was predicted, then the injunction is not valid; but if it does match, we must honor that interior knowledge as truth.

If we can take this wider viewpoint – incorporating the exterior knowledge of Western science and psychology and the interior Eastern wisdom of the various spiritual traditions – in our understanding of spiritual practice as well as in the rest of out lives, we will be approaching an integral knowledge system. From this foundation we can approach an Integral Buddhism.

As individuals and as cultures, we develop through a series of ever more complex and more compassionate understandings of the world, as identified by the researchers mentioned above (both East and West). These stages can most simply be defined as egocentric, ethnocentric, and worldcentric (this is a very simplified version, for more complex divisions, see Ken Wilber’s work in Integral Psychology and Integral Spiritualityhe has made the best effort at integrating East and West over the last 40 years). Buddhism serves each of these stages in different ways.

At the egocentric level, people seek to understand the world through the lens of their limited ego-mind. Because ego sees itself as the center of the known world, emphasis is placed on kinship patterns, power needs, and personal expression. These Buddhists engage in rituals, believe that there are god-like Buddhas who can intercede in human lives, and take literally the Buddhist version of heavens and hells. There is a lot of magical thinking involved in this form of worship and practice.

To rational Western thought, egocentric beliefs seem silly – and when seen in more militant religions, such as Christianity and Islam, they may even seem dangerous — but they serve a vital function for those who live in the egocentric stages of development. They help people at this stage make sense of the world and feel safe in a universe that, to them, seems indifferent and frightening. Sam Harris and the other “new atheists” are often talking about this level of religious practice when condemning fundamentalism in Christianity and other faiths.

At the ethnocentric level, Buddhism looks more like religions we are familiar with in the United States. Karma is the law of cause and effect that can seem very much like Christian versions of sin and punishment. Reincarnation is taken literally and objectively is not much different from belief in an afterlife. It is in the upper stages of ethnocentric belief that a rational scientism can take hold and try to eliminate all the “non-rational” elements of Buddhist belief. Scientism would reduce Buddhism to meditation practices that can be observed with the tools of science, which is what Harris has been advocating since the publication of Shambhala Sun article. Although he has argued to the contrary, atheism and scientism comprise a worldview that posits certain tenants about how the world operates, many of which are no more verifiable than the belief in God.

The important thing to understand about egocentric and ethnocentric worldviews is that each stage along the path thinks it has a monopoly on the truth. From its viewpoint, every other worldview is simply wrong. This becomes most problematic in the ethnocentric stages, where there develops an Us-versus-Them mentality. Even scientism is not immune from this polarized thinking. As much as it likes to think of itself as hyper-rational, it still buys into the duality of its viewpoint against all others. This is a component of religion that Harris has identified as being the source of much killing and brutality (The End of Faith). I agree.

As much as it would be nice to eliminate ethnocentric beliefs from human experience, it simply cannot be done. It is in our nature to divide ourselves into groups as we engage in the formation of identity. We see our children do it in middle school, when cliques first emerge, and we do it as cultures when we enter the ethnocentric stages of development. We cannot skip these stages, but we can try to educate cultures in the same way we educate our kids. We can teach tolerance and acceptance, but we must also create the life conditions that allow people to feel safe enough to be tolerant. This cannot happen if there are tribal factions seeking power and control at the expense of other tribes or groups.

However, as people approach the worldcentric stages of development, they begin to be tolerant of other viewpoints and other ways of understanding the world not because their God or religion advocates loving others, but because their interior moral compass tells them that this is how we should conduct ourselves (Kohlberg’s universal ethical stage of morality). At the lowest stages, this looks a lot like postmodern relativism, which allows that all views are equally true and therefore should be honored. But at the higher stages, we begin to see an integral worldview that can honor the truth of each earlier stage and see how each stage is crucial in the hierarchy of human and cultural development.

An integral worldview understands that as we develop, we transcend each previous stage as the new one emerges. But we don’t lose those earlier stages — they continue to live within us, and they continue to have needs for understanding the world. As we transcend each stage, it is included in our options for viewing and interacting with the world. If we are put into situations that mirror the life conditions we experienced when that worldview was dominant, it can be triggered into action in order to deal with the current situation, even if we transcended that stage decades ago.

An Integral Buddhism understands these truths. It can accept that the egocentric, pre-rational elements of Buddhism address needs within each of us to make sense of a world that can seem overwhelmingly indifferent to our needs for stability and safety, even if our rational minds can’t grasp that fact. An Integral Buddhism understands that ethnocentric, rational elements of Buddhism are crucial to a well-rounded practice, allowing believers to worship within a framework that creates meaning and addresses needs for structure and absolute truths. An Integral Buddhism seeks to include elements from all of our previous stages into its practice, everything from ritual offerings to 100,000 bows, from devotional prayer to Tara worship, from mindfulness practice to non-dual consciousness.

An Integral Buddhism does not reject any safe and compassionate practice that addresses needs in the human psyche for transcending the ego. An Integral Buddhism takes a worldcentric stance and allows for all compassionate forms or worship, all levels of belief, and all varieties of teachings. The Buddha recognized very early that different people required different teachings. As Reginald Ray points out in that old Buddhadharma article:

“The early texts tell us that far from settling on one method or “program” for transmitting the awakened state to others, the Buddha spent his entire teaching career developing different “gates to awakening” that reflected his disciples’ differing capacities and needs. By the time of his death, so we are told, the Buddha had developed 84,000 different methods of transmission of the awakened state.”

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