Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Post-Traditional Buddhism, Part 2

Here it is, the second part of my article for Elephant Journal on Post-Traditional Buddhism; a term/concept I borrowed from Hokai Sobol, an intelligent Shingon teacher. The article actually covers a few thoughts on what a new shape of Buddhism might include as part of its emerging form. Again, I’m no expert, just exploring thoughts and allowing thoughts to lead me to, at least for me, new territory. This second part should annoy a few souls and rile a few others, but that’s okay.

Here’s the link to part one in case you missed it.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Eightfold Path: Concentration

              (Cute cat, or a display of serious concentration in progress?)

Concentration is the last element of the Eightfold Path. Practising all of the eight factors of the path pretty much guarantees us a powerful and transformative journey of discovery, growth and change. If we go far enough down this path, it ought to lead to some sort of liberation from suffering and confusion and awakening to authentic being. This is what the label on the packet suggests, you will have to make your own way and sample the goods to find out whether the claims are true, or not. 

The Eightfold Path does not exist out there somewhere and I hope I have made that clear to some degree in these blog posts. It cannot be perfected in any absolute sense and there is no committee to measure your progress, and, most likely, no one will pat you on the back and say well done if you make notable progress on it, and, well, what is ‘it’ anyway?  Many followers of Buddhism mistake the external forms, teachings and practises as ‘the’ path. This is a mistake. The Eightfold Path is simply an effective model to inspire, guide and prompt us to action that has been reliable enough to warrant its survival and continued propagation for a couple of thousand years. The path though is ‘our’ actual-personal-experience of putting these practices and concepts into action. We need to start and gain some first-hand experience before we can relate experientially to what is alluded to in the many books out there. The path then is created through the raw elements of our own actions, choices and intent. As we gain first-hand experience we can start to relate to what teachers and teachings are hinting at and decide for ourselves what works and what doesn't, whether a given teacher or form of Buddhism has its head in a dark place, or if it/they might be worth investing time and energy into. There are many Buddhisms out there and most of them believe they have the final say on what Buddhism is. Outside of institutions and organisations, authoritative figures, leaders and followers is the simple matter of an individual, or a group exploring the consequences of dedicated practise on this human life, in this time and place. 

A path that journeys into new territory is always going to provide surprises, the unexpected and new experiences in unfamiliar surroundings. A one-to-one teaching situation should support us in making our own way, rather than impose a set of rules and instructions which we ought to adhere to religiously. In such a dynamic, negotiation and exchange are a more useful relationship dynamic than superior and subordinate roles. I personally have always preferred the idea of spiritual friend to guru or master for this reason and been highly suspicious of powerful, aloof, all-knowing men sat on high thrones. Institutionalised Buddhism often has the most authoritative sounding say on Buddhist matters, but to accept dogmatic, doctrinal view as the most authoritative would be a mistake. Relying on impersonal, external authority to determine the validity of your own first-hand experience in practise and in life is likely to lead to blind faith, group think and a lack of self-authority and imagination. Negotiating authority successfully entails levelling the field. The same seductive ease which convinces individuals to vote for ‘strong leaders’ plays out in spiritual communities. 

The path is your own personal-direct-firsthand experience of putting meditation and new concepts into practise and exploring the results and consequences as they evolve in an ongoing discipline. The rest is an add-on that may or may not help you on your way. At the end of the day it is good to be able to trust yourself to know what works for you and what doesn't, and stand on your own two feet.  It takes courage to do so, but it is well worth it. It is certainly better than ending up in bed with a wrinkly, 70-year-old,guru…or maybe not, if that's your thing.

Now, on with the last element of the Eightfold Path.

Let’s talk about sex...Buddhism Meet Shamanism (pt.5, Part.2)

'Without sexual union, there would be no one born capable of experiencing the great bliss of enlightenment.' 

(I highly recommend reading Part.1 first. Click here)  Certainly my ideas about sexuality are limited and have been impacted by the same forces as any other, but in attempting to write this closer to the Buddhism Meet Shamanism series, which hasn’t been easy, I have come to the conclusion that two essential points are at the heart of anything useful I might have to share. They are;

1.      Sex is perfectly natural
2.      Freedom of sexual expression is something we must be willing to own and explore

These two points require explanation, so here goes. Being sexual and making love are perfectly natural expressions of our basic humanity. This simple statement means more than it might seem at first glance. Because our sexual aspect sits in the middle of the wheel, it is impacted enormously by our relationship with the other four aspects. This means that our relationship with ourselves as a sexual being is deeply affected and condition by; our ability to express our emotions and be intimate, our ability to be connected to our body and therefore to pleasure, our ability to be open and receptive to a partner and let go of separating thoughts, and the ability to connect in a deeply human, expansive and naturally creative manner. When we engage sexually we bring in our other four aspects and the richness of the experience, outside of simply ‘getting off’, is determined in great part by how capable we are of doing this.
Because most of us have issues and because most of us are blocked to some degree in our four aspects, our ability to experience open, natural sexuality and achieve depths of pleasure and connection that so many of us deeply desire, is limited and restricted. Add onto this the challenges and trials of relationships and we can start to see that sexuality and sex are often highly complicated arenas. This complication can lead us down avenues in our relationship to sexuality that are difficult to exit from.
Many of the preconceptions we have with regards to sex come to us from popular culture. One of the most obvious and heavily recycled is that romantic love and sex are ideally inseparable. This is a highly annoying idea that is certainly supported and backed up by the religious brigade and is repeated again and again by the modern day myth making industry of Hollywood and by most of the standard soap operas and TV series which still dominate our screens.
I for one have found eastern attitudes towards sex to be quite refreshing. The romanticisation of sex can be found all over the globe but in eastern countries, which have been much more successful at avoiding biblical definitions of what constitutes right sexual behaviour, much more pragmatic and freer attitudes towards sex can be found, especially in Tibet, Japan and China. Certainly in the West it is unlikely that a family doctor would prescribe twice-daily sex in order to heal a liver complaint as can happen in China. As John Stevens illustrates in great detail, in Tibet polygamy and polyandry were widely practised and in Japan the visiting of brothels was fairly typical and accepted behaviour by Zen priests. This is hardly something we would expect from Catholic priests in the West, or Imams in the Middle-East. 

'It would seem by the size of your buttocks, that your nature is exceedingly lustful.' Drukpa Kunley, a revered Tibetan yogi and Mahamudra master