Sunday, 8 February 2015

Post-Traditional Buddhism Redux


Post = after in time or sequence; following; subsequent
Traditional = 1. of or pertaining to tradition. 2. handed down by tradition. 3. in accordance with tradition.
Buddhism = 1. a religion represented by the many groups (especially in Asia) that profess various forms of the Buddhist doctrine and that venerate Buddha. 2. a religion that originally comes from South Asia, and teaches that personal spiritual improvement will lead to escape from human suffering.

What is a Post-Traditional approach to Buddhism?
I first came across the notion of post-traditional Buddhism in a blog post by Hokai Sobol, a Croatian Shingon teacher who’s been involved with the Buddhist Geeks since its inception, whilst exploring the intersection of Vajrayana Buddhism and Western culture in his own practice and teaching. He wrote in 2011:

“…While post-traditional in the strict sense means evolving Buddhism beyond ethnocentric identities, parochial attitudes, and ideologically-based loyalties, in the broad sense it means also being alert to modern and ‘postmodern’ reactivity when it comes to spiritual principles of authority, verticality, and devotion. In short, it’s a challenging leap with implications for spiritual practice, critical studies, communal discourse, institutional reform, and political culture. Insofar as these spheres are interdependent and mutually inclusive, the actual shift to post-traditional can only really take place as a comprehensive strategic endeavour, bringing together the best of premodern, modern, and ‘postmodern’ contributions, while making sure the core principles of the Buddhist path are reasserted effectively and compellingly.” Hokai Sobol

As he indicates, approaching Buddhism post-traditionally entails leaving behind faithful continuity with tradition, or at least its forms. This implies freedom from the need to replicate a specific ideal of Buddhism as it has been received or sanctified. The extent of departure from tradition will vary according to the extent of disillusionment with tradition that a person has experienced and the personal connection they have to that tradition. Hokai continues with Shingon for his own reasons whilst others leave all forms of Buddhism behind.
A post-traditional approach entails a particular form of freedom when examining Buddhist materials, including teachings, beliefs, symbols, moral behavioural guidelines, key claims and ultimate truth, without having to adopt a Buddhist identity, internalize Buddhist beliefs, and/or be blinded by a tradition’s particular formulation of Buddhism at a personal, social, and cultural level.
A post-traditional approach signifies a desire to unpack, deconstruct and evaluate elements of Buddhism as phenomena rather than as formulations of revealed and ultimate truths. It means being critical and placing Buddhism alongside other sources of human history, human knowing, human understanding and praxis, to test claims and experiment. In this sense, the way I conceive of post-traditional Buddhism has much in common with non-Buddhism which further moves away from Buddhism as a fountain of truth:

“Non-Buddhism is acutely interested in the uses of Buddhist teachings, but in a way that remains unbeholden to–and hence, unbound by and unaccountable to–the very norms that govern those teachings. Once we have suspended the structures that constitute “Buddhism,” once we have muted what to the believer is Buddhism’s very vibrato, we are free to hear fresh resonances.” Glenn Wallis

A post-traditional approach means holding Buddhism up to greater scrutiny and suspending reverence, carried out with an expanding array of intellectual and critical skills. It means levelling the playing field, and stripping Buddhism of its special categories. It means seeing it, in its great diversity, as thoroughly human phenomena.
This approach to Buddhism is obviously different from that taken by the large numbers of Westerners looking for a religious alternative to Christianity, Judaism and atheism, or the spiritual but not religious crowd looking to restore some sense of meaning to their lives. Those engaged in a post-traditional relationship with Buddhism will most likely be long-term practitioners who have ceased to be enamoured with Buddhism’s exotic symbology, or disappointed by their lack of progress in practice. It is an approach often more resonant with the work of philosophers and Buddhologists studying Buddhism from the outside than those who self-identify as Buddhist.
If it is not obvious already, you may be asking yourself, “Why should I be interested or in need of such an approach?” A number of concepts elaborated by Glenn Wallis might be useful for understanding who specifically would be motivated by such an approach. For those who know of Glenn Wallis and his work, he is considered controversial for his attacks on the failings of contemporary Buddhists to take their Buddhist claims seriously and for their appeasement of global capitalism and injustice. Whatever one might make of his approach at the Speculative Non-Buddhism site, his work and writings are of immense value to anybody interested in deconstructing Buddhism. His original work of the same name is a treasure trove for those intellectually dissatisfied with Buddhism and already in the advance stages of a relational break with the Buddha’s offspring.
Those who become deluded with Buddhism may find themselves increasingly in a state of what Wallis defines as ‘aporetic dissonance’:

“Aporetic Dissonance: An affective condition. The believer‘s discovery within himself or herself of a dissonant ring of perplexity, puzzlement, confusion, and loss concerning the integrity of Buddhism‘s self-presentation. It involves an apprehension that buddhistic rhetorics of self-display are but instances of acataleptic impassability. This ring is the signal for aporetic inquiry.” From, Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism

The language Wallis uses can be challenging but, basically, he means a person starts to feel a form of dissonance, discomfort or dissatisfaction towards their tradition or Buddhism in general. Something starts to feel off and ideas that were once palpable seem to be incoherent, false or even make believe. Practices that produced positive feelings start to produce indifference or even discomfort. There is a process of separation between one’s own sense of integrity and the Buddhist ideas or practices being engaged with and the romance begins to fade, leading to:

“Ancoric loss. An affective condition. The irreversible termination of hope that ―Buddhism indexes the thaumaturgical refuge adduced in its rhetorics of selfdisplay.” From, Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism

Meaning that a person loses their blind faith in Buddhism and is no longer able to buy into the idea it will save them in spite of its claims to the contrary.
We can draw from this that a person needs to have had some degree of meaningful engagement with Buddhism before a post-traditional approach starts to make sense. Differently to Wallis’ own progress and increasing break from Buddhism over the years to an elaboration of the philosophically inspired non-Buddhism, a post-traditional approach desires to find a sober basis for re-engagement with Buddhism as a depositary of potential: in my own case, in its meditation practices and first person accounts of meditational development. The formulation of such re-engagement is not monolithic and does not need to lead to the revival of Buddhism, though for some it may. By its very nature, post-traditional implies a break from whatever tradition was followed beforehand and an initial unwillingness to go through another disappointing relationship with yet another Buddhist ‘partner’. One may feel a desire to be pragmatic, to meditate still, to continue to find value in some of the Buddhist teachings which still resonate.
Ancoric loss then signals either a total break from Buddhism, relatively common even at the early stages in a relationship with Buddhism for those who are after more than a new religious identity, or a need for the formulation of a human theory of liberation in line with developments in western thought and understanding. This means abandoning the guarantees of historical Buddhism as a source of refuge for a less predictable engagement with the tenets of liberation, interdependence, decay and birth, an ethical life and the pragmatics of mind-training through one’s own efforts and inquiry.
Such approaches are still in their infancy and primarily carried out by individuals and sporadic small groups. There are already a number of Western Buddhisms, although as far as I can tell, most are romantically saturated with their Eastern precedents. In my mind, a truly Western Buddhism would be almost unrecognisable from all forms of Eastern Buddhism. In line with Buddhism, it would provide radical means for discovering the lack of a solid atomised self, help us to be experientially cognizant of the interwoven nature of being, come to accept our finite existence and inevitable death, provide means for developing empathic opening to other, and stimulate a profound engagement and commitment to the world as it is along with the courage to engage with its most pressing needs, ultimately leading to a commitment to caring for streams of mutual becoming and flourishing that reduce ignorance and suffering in the world.
The sciences have so far taken the lead in opening up Buddhism and mindfulness meditation to a wider public. Mindfulness is still ‘hot at the moment’ and the subject of many ongoing studies. Whether such interest will be temporary is unknown. In any case, the humanities provide better sources of conceptual tools, language and ideas as far as giving rise to a transformation of Buddhism and its tenets into a viable contemporary form of liberation practice. The sciences are unable to understand what consciousness is, let alone provide a significant understanding of the positive emotional states such as compassion, empathy and love. This is not to dismiss the value of research being carried out and the commitment of a number of scientists to studying the brain, but rather a recognition that Buddhism is not only meditation, it is also social practice, political engagement/disengagement, ideology and a means for constructing new beliefs and relationships. Philosophy, sociology, anthropology, ethnography, historical studies, each has much to offer in deconstructing and building new forms of practice in these areas of human activity.
As far as I am concerned, a truly western form of Buddhism will need to come about through radical change, yet to emerge, in order to take a more worthwhile incarnation in the West. To do that it must engage with the rich intellectual and cultural history we have here and include not just pro-positive engagement of the like we see championed by the Dalai Lama, but more devastating and destabilising critique that is essential to producing something altered and authentically capable of producing praxis and formulations of human flourishing. Wallis’ own journey has led him ever further away from Buddhism, whilst a colleague of his, Tom Pepper, has formulated a radical revaluation of Anatman in line with Marxist thought. Their sometimes militant approach has turned many off, but it is certainly the most daring and creative exploration of Buddhism currently available.
On this site, my own writings represent an attempt to carry out a post-traditional work. My deconstruction and reformulations of the eightfold path, enlightenment, meditation and non-duality each attempt to reformulate and lay Buddhist practice and ideas alongside the Western thought that inspires and motivates me. I am an amateur and as a non-academic I recognise that my writings will have limited reach but I have a great deal of fun using this site to further elaborate my own thoughts, intuitions, experience, and exploration. To me, the ruthless destruction of one’s own retreat from the immediacy of the world is electric and worth sharing.

I wrote this post due to an increasing number of followers and visitors to the Post-Traditional Buddhism site. I thought it would be helpful to define post-traditional Buddhism as I see it and make that explicit for new visitors. Links are provided below to some of the sources mentioned above. Please remember that my main writing activity has been taking place at since 2013. 

Hokai Sobol’s Blog
Non + X Journal
Speculative Non-Buddhism
Tom Pepper
Non-Buddhism Blog

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Free Speech and Buddhism

The recent events in Paris have stimulated a lot of discussion regarding free speech in the press, blogs and across social networks and the issue of whether free speech equals having the right to insult others has been centre stage in discussion taking place in the UK. I wanted to say a few words on the topic and look at comments that have come from a number of Buddhist sources that I think are complicit in calling for the suppression of free speech. It seems to me that a lot of well-meaning folks are unable to distinguish between being nice and being socially and politically irresponsible, demonstrating at times a rather warped utopian view of the world which seems prevalent amongst well-meaning western Buddhists and liberals. Some of what I write here will be obvious to the politically informed reader, but I am writing it nonetheless, because it turns out that a lot of folks just do not get why a secular pluralistic society is so important and seem all to willing to start giving up on freedom of speech.
I teach English in Italy and have spent the last week engaging students in debate on free speech. I introduced the same questions with high school teenagers, university students and adults, and there have been consistent responses to the questions posed, which are more or less as follow:
1. Do you think free speech is important? Why?
2. Should free speech ever be limited? Why?
3. Is it right to punish people for the things they say? Who should punish them?
4. Does free speech allow us to offend people? Why? Why not? Are there exceptions?

Radical Identity and Non-Duality

(Michael O’Connell, Syncromesh, 1957)

The Need for Context

Societies necessarily need to establish shared ways of viewing and conceptualising the world and of establishing the shared subjective landscapes of individuals: a role that has historically been undertaken most commonly by religion, more recently perhaps by capitalism, materialism and the cult of the self. The same problem tends to emerge from this shared human compulsion to establish familiar routes of becoming. Modes of perception and being become frozen or normalised and identities form around them into pre-given destinies, lines along which individuals and groups are expected to travel. An alternative way of conceiving of the world is potentially overtly relativistic and denies any form of truth or the possibility of hierarchy. This is what Tom Pepper would criticise as the failing of post-modernity. As individuals in the West, we are to some degree left to choose: to bind our experience of self to a belief system and ideology that we are attracted to, such as Buddhism, or drift wherever the ideological currents of the dominant society lead. In either case, the collective nature of self is often ignored or under-appreciated.

Non-duality and problems in affirming our existence

When talking about non-duality these days, there are two primary schools of thought that tend to dominate discussion: Buddhism and Advaita. If we look at figures such as Nagarjuna, the originator of the Madhyamaka School of Indian philosophy, non-duality is presented along the lines of reductionism ad infinitum and the deconstruction of the self to its empty conclusion. Hokai Sobol once explained that the Yogacara school of Indian philosophy describes the experience of non-duality or emptiness in the affirmative: an experience that is intimately bound with compassion and the awareness of our co-arising existence or entrapment. Paul Williams states much the same in his textbook on the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism whilst observing how early scripture of the Yogacara emerge specifically in the context of first person meditation practice, rather than philosophical argumentation. It seems inevitable that once we work out what we are not, we are left to ask ourselves what remains, and consider how our view of what remains determines to a great deal how we build community and establish values, and in the Buddhist context, how meditative and ethical practices are constructed. What a person remains as once non-duality has been meaningfully confronted and the false identification with an atomistic self has been discarded requires pragmatic formulation. Not wanting to remain within a reflection on this topic from a strictly Buddhist perspective, and with a desire to open up the discussion so that it isn’t imprisoned in Buddhist discourse and therefore impoverished, I am motivated by the need to build descriptions of the individual and shared subjective experience of living non-duality as a matter of fact. I think the logic of no-self is sufficient to be a matter of fact and that it does not need to remain a Buddhist or spiritual idea. If we take it as a given that the individual self is not self-existing, or a separate entity to be found somewhere, then the question naturally emerges: what are we? It is inevitable that we need find some sense of who or what we are; we are questioning, self-reflective beings after all and in our shared existence, we need shared ideas of who and what we are that can potentially reduce ignorance, suffering and the continued pursuit of growth at the expense of natural capital.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Buddhist Bullshit

I generally avoid getting political on this blog. Not because I am apolitical, or think it too messy a subject to broach, but because I have used this blog primarily as an exercise in exploring ideas and experiences I think might be interesting for those with a fair few years of involvement with Buddhism in their back pocket. It’s been a rather personal affair I guess.
Although I have been attempting to write a blog post on non-duality this December, I have failed three times and the pleasure in the task has evaporated, which is never a good sign. In wondering what to write next, I was surfing the net on Boxing Day and came across a couple of videos by ex-members of a Western Buddhist organisation of which I was a solid member for a number of years, even once considering ordination (yikes!). The organisation is called the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition) and is to be found on many cult-watch websites.
I was involved with the NKT back in the early 90s and I moved out of their failed South-western Buddhist college project, after realising how similar they were to Scientology and how incompatible I was with their group think approach. There is much that can be said about them and their nefarious activities, but I will leave that up to others: links can be found below if you are curious. The content of the Youtube videos reminded me of the issue of ignorance so many Westerners have regarding the history of Buddhism and the general lack of knowledge regarding Buddhism as a political and cultural phenomenon.
The videos lead to a website with an article making the same comparison with Scientology and in doing so highlights much of what is suspect about the organisation. As an entity, it is a fascinating case study for it seems to demonstrate all of what is wrong with Tibetan Buddhism in the West, but in a hyper-real fashion. One tactic regularly carried out by the organisation is to white-wash criticism and they have worked their Wikipedia entry countless times. For anyone who reads anti-China, or anti-Russia articles on the Independent or Guardian, their behaviour will be familiar. NKT followers troll sites that criticise any aspect of their tradition and shout as loudly as possible whilst posting links to their own highly politicised website, spookily named ‘NKT Truth’: George Orwell must be shivering in his grave.
Another absurdity is their political opposition to Mr Lhamo Dondrub (the old DL if you don’t recognise the name). White NKT Westerners willingly protest Dalai Lama events globally and assume anyone who speaks out against them is one of his devout supporters. Yes, it’s the old ‘us and them’ game so popular with insecure folks highly invested in their belief systems. It never fails to amaze me how ignorant these people are to allow themselves to be so easily led into fighting for an odd political cause concerning an imaginary figure. I guess a lot of folks are looking for meaning in their lives and this inter-tribal battle seems to fire them up. I guess it is a wonderful release for that special Buddhist brand of passive-aggression readers will be all too familiar with.
What strikes me most though in re-reading the same old tripe spouted by these followers is the incredible level ignorance of the wider Buddhist context and in particular the history of Buddhism in Tibet made particularly intense by their glorious leader’s insistence that his followers read no other Buddhists books apart from his own. Like a good dictator, all other materials are excluded from his centres.
Like all cherished beliefs, the outside world threatens the stability of adherence to apparent truths, so followers shout more loudly, invest more fervently in their secluded pockets of make-believe and eventually, with time, find a comfortable and bland unthinking allegiance to the comfort of certainties that only closed, insular circles of fellow-members can provide.
All too aware of how poorly read so many devout Western Buddhists are, I thought it might be worth highlighting a small number of widely available books on Buddhism that put the absurdities of an organisation like the NKT in context. Old Glenn Wallis wrote of Buddhemes in his original account of Buddhism’s self-referential failings, but with the NKT we can speak of a specific dialect called NKT-speak. When it is used by NKT followers, they come across as lobotomised hungry ghosts, perfectly parroting the party line in unthinking devotion.

Here then are a number of books I found ‘enlightening’ in my ‘purification’ from Buddhist ignorance. If you know of more, feel free to add them in the comments section. By the way, any NKTers trolling here will be thoroughly ignored.


A fascinating and highly readable account of the history of Tibet, it shines a light on developments in Tibet and provides the historical and political background of current affairs. It helpfully pulls apart many of the preconceptions that Westerners have about Tibet and really is a pleasure ot read. Highly recommended.

A great read and essential for an understanding of Tibet without the romanticism. This book sets out to destroy the myths still lingering in dharma centres left, right and centre.

A thorough review of the history of Buddhism and pre-Buddhist religion in Tibet, it explores the relationship between indigenous, shamanic Tibetan traditions and their influence on the imported Indian Buddhism that came to dominate the high plains of Tibet. It’s not for the timid though and rather encyclopaedic.

A sober, accessible overview of key Mahayana doctrinal sources, philosophical views and history that will provide greater context for Buddhists who are enamoured with a single tradition and hagiographic accounts of teachers and teachings.

Modernity and scandal

A modern classic which shines a light on Buddhism in the West and its recent history and intermeshing of cultural values. It may make a number of contemporary Buddhists feel rather embarrassed. The NKT is a perfectly Western result of Buddhist Modernism and one of the most adept forms of Western Buddhism at adopting capitalist values with all their moral grey areas.

An interesting account of the power of faith in maintaining ignorance and abuse and the problems with hero worship. The book well highlights the internal mechanisms that lead to unquestioning devotion and the need of Buddhist identities for firm belief systems.

Finally, the best material I picked up from the Speculative Non-Buddhism boys was Glen Wallis’ original text on deconstructing the Western Buddhist confusion. I will link here to his original article which is well worth a look. Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism.