Thursday, 13 December 2007

Rebirth, Reassessed

The rise of Buddhism in the west is undoubtedly linked with it's relative compatability with the dominant rational, empirical and pragmatic worldview. The single biggest obstacle to practice for westerners is probably the belief in rebirth and karma, since this this is not part of our worldview, nor does there seem to be any rational or empirical justification for accepting this. The majority of Buddhist orders would insist on acceptance of this doctrine in order to be a serious practitioner, certainly for one to become a monk. It was a barrier for me when I first encountered Buddhism as an undergraduate. And it remains an issue for many. It was probably reading Stephen Batchelor's book Buddhism Without Beliefs, in which the author argues for the validity of agnosticism on such matters, that allowed me to see a route forward and I'm grateful to him for that. I've not read any more recent writings, however, I got the impression that he was still wrestling with these issues.

Why do most traditional Buddhists believe in traditional rebirth and karma?
For most Buddhists, these concepts are part of the worldview in which they are raised. Believing these things are as natural as the understanding that the earth rotates around the sun is for a modern westerner. There are several arguments sometimes made in Buddhism for accepting these notions, but none I have personally come across hold much water.

  1. Buddha taught them to be true.
    Even assuming (not unreasonably) that the sutras have reliably passed down what the Buddha taught, this argument doesn't stand up. First, this would only be justification if the Buddha was literally omniscient and there is no good reason to suppose this. Interestingly, the believer himself would have to be omniscient as well in order to know for certain that the Buddha was omniscient. Secondly, the Buddha made several statements indicating that his teachings were merely a vehicle for passing across to nirvana, thus there is room for the possibility that they were metaphors using common concepts of the time to indicate something more difficult to articulate (such as the realisation that we don't exist as separate continuous entities in the first place).

  2. Buddha was right about suffering so we should have faith in the rest
    This is the argument I've seen given by Bhikkhu Bodhi on this subject. Initially we may have no belief in traditional rebirth and karma, but as we begin to see the fruits of our practice, we increasingly trust the Buddha not just on the matter of the elimination of suffering, but on matters which we cannot experience ourselves such as rebirth and karma. This is an example of the logical fallacy known as the Appeal to Authority. Someone's expertise on one subject does not make him or her an authority on other matters. What is important is whether a particular claim can be validated or not.

  3. We can experience this ourselves in meditation or upon enlightenment
    Well until this can actually be verified with experience, this comes back to blind faith again. Even if we did have experiences during meditation or special states, they might be the product of imagination - it isn't difficult to produce vivid experiences or false memories during states of deep mental relaxation.
Did Buddha believe in rebirth and Karma?
It might be tempting for those who practice the dharma and yet who do not believe in these ideas - especially under pressure from traditionalistic Buddhists who accuse them of being 'not real Buddhists' - to attempt to bolster their position, by arguing either that the Buddha did not really teach rebirth and karma or that his teachings were just metaphors. From my (far from complete) readings of the Pali Canon it seems very clear that he did teach literal rebirth and karma and went into details of their mechanics at times. It would be incredible for these central ideas to have been levered into position at a later time. Nor have I found any direct evidence that those specific teachings were intended merely as metaphorical devices. But certainly there are several examples of him indicating that much or all of his teachings were just teaching devices, vehicles.

Why did Buddha believe or at least teach karma and rebirth?
The Buddha was born into a culture in which the concepts of karma and rebirth were commonplace in religious thought. The Buddha did not spontaneously produce these ideas from nowhere. Karma originated with Jainism and rebirth is a modified form of reincarnation which comes from Vedic thought. Denial of these concepts was associated with nihilism or materialism.

Why don't I believe in rebirth and karma?
First of all, it's not accurate to say that I don't believe in rebirth and karma. More precisely, those beliefs I provisionally have about rebirth and karma are not exactly the same as those which Siddhartha Gautama seems to have taught.

Karma is volitional activity and the consequences, good or bad, of that activity. Everyday human experience reveals the reality of this and increasing awareness and compassion allows us to create better consequences. Every moment we send out chaotic ripples of change across the universe, the vast majority of which have consequences we have no control over. This doesn't mean, however, that I have any reason or evidence to believe that all actions which are conventionally regarded as 'bad' always lead to increased suffering for the perpetrator. Nor is there any good justification for supposing that consequences inevitably revisit 'the same person' reborn.

All the evidence available from both science and introspection suggest that there is no continuous self which survives intact or unchanged even from one moment to the next. Instead we have continuously changing psychological processes, including the processes which produce that very sense of continuity. Yet this sense of self reappears again and again. This is sometimes called 'moment to moment rebirth'. On the other hand, I can find no justification for believing that at death, the causal chain of my being is somehow (and for some unexplained reason) focussed through 12 links of dependent arising onto the formation of a single future being.

For me, the traditional teachings of rebirth and karma are like fingers pointing to the interconnectedness of everything, to emptiness, presented from within the context of the Vedic worldview. Emptiness itself is is universal, particular theories about life after death are culturally dependent and impermanent.

The translation I have (Bhikku Bodhi) of the Pali Canon implies that Buddha did not spontaneously recall his previous lives, but that, during a profound state of meditation on the night of his awakening, he deliberately turned his attention to recall them. This implies that he already had a belief in them gained from his cultural environment. From my understanding of psychology and my personal experiences of self-hypnosis and visualisation I know that such apparent memories under such circumstances do not constitute at all reliable evidence for past lives.

In the Kalama Sutta, Buddha himself says that one need not believe in rebirth and karma in order to be a successful practitioner.

Karma Police
One of the appealing things about Zen is that belief in doctrines isn't given much importance, but when I took the Boddhisattva vows I had an interview with Master Taiun to ensure I wasn't taking the vows on a false understanding. The answers he gave me were reassuring.

Nevertheless some Buddhists are less open and less tolerant. The administration on the eSangha Buddhist discussion board hold the opinion that since Zen is a school of Buddhism they have to accept the fundamentals and that those fundamentals include traditional karma and rebirth. I wrote about my own experiences of this on my personal blog. Jundo James Cohen, a Zen priest, was recently banned from the same board apparently for saying that...

...traditional ideas of rebirth and reincarnation are not to be taken literally in
this modern age; and (2) Shakyamuni Buddha was a man, not a god or super-human
being, and though enlightened … was a human being like the rest of us.

But, in fact, the non-literalist views I am expressing on Reincarnation
represent, I believe, the generally dominant view among Zen teachers in the West
right now. The reason is not that we have lost the direct line to Buddha’s brain
that you’all so evidently possess. The reason is, quite simply, that we no
longer live in an age of superstition and hocus-pocus. I do not believe in a
magical view of Reincarnation for much the same reason that I do not believe in
flying dragons, the tooth fairy, genies, Qilin (a kind a giraffe with fish
scales and wings) and such. We do not believe that earthquakes are caused by
giant catfish under the earth, or that stomach aches are due to ghost
possession, and other things that the same primitive folks (who wrote the
Sutras) believed in. Now, we know a little better (although, granted, we have
our own modern myths and superstitions).
Such people want to claim that Buddha is omniscient and infallible and that anyone who disagrees is a heretic. Rather than admit that Zen does not require adherence to such dogma, they intimidate or ban the individual who states such a perspective.

No-Self and Tony Soprano
I don't generally talk to my work colleagues about Buddhism, but a few of them know that I practice and one of the guys in the team is a Mormon, and he brings up the subject of religion sometimes. So one day he was explaining his beliefs about the after life and he asked me if I believed in reincarnation and I went into an explanation that most Buddhists believe in rebirth which is a chain of cause and effect rather than the continuation of a self or soul. And blah, blah, blah. But later I found a better way of expressing this.

My partner and I are working our way through the Sopranos on DVD - I can't recommend it enough by the way - and we were watching an episode in which Tony Soprano was convalescing in hospital after being shot. One of the other guys chatting in the room was a scientist who came out with a great description of the non-existence of separate entities, which I felt described the Buddhist perspective in a contemporary and rational way, far better than most of the stale descriptions of rebirth and karmic dogma given by Buddhists. Next time I get asked the 'reincarnation' question, I'll answer along the same lines (and yes, I do think that non-practitioners can realise emptiness, to at least some extent - this is because reality is inherently empty, it's emptiness is not something which has to be passed down in the form as dogma.)

Pauli (one of Tony's most senior men): Look at you T. You do your uncle a kindness, you get shot for your efforts. You think you got family, but in the end they fuck you too.
Tony Soprano : [to the others in the room] He's grieving. His aunt just died.
Pauli: Each and every one of us, we're alone in the ring, fighting for our lives. Just like that poor prick. [referring to a boxer on the TV]
John Schwinn, a scientist: That's one way to look at it
Tony: You got a better one? ...
John Schwinn: Well, it's actually an illusion that those boxers are separate entities....Their separate entities is simply the way we choose to perceive them.
Tony: I didn't choose nothin.
John Schwinn: It's physics. Schrodinger's equation. The boxers, you, me - we're all part of the same quantum field...Think of the two boxers as ocean waves or currents of air - two tornadoes. They appear to be two separate things, but they're not. Tornadoes are just the wind stirred up in different directions. The fact is, nothing is separate - everything is connected ...
Tony: Get the fuck outta here
John Schwinn: The universe is just one big soup of molecules bumping up against one another. The shapes we see exist only in our own consciousness...
Pauli: You're so fucking smart, fix that TV.
John Schwinn: [Laughs] OK

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The Difficulty Helping People

by Tom Armstrong

I would like to get into something very basic to Buddhism, that has certainly been explored, but to my admittedly-very-limited knowledge, hasn’t been pulled together very well.

Why is it so damn hard to help people?

One would think that it would be THE fundamental thing to do, of great help to the world at large. One would think that if you can give someone or some group or some nation that one simple, timely leg-up, he or they or it would go on to reach his/their/its full potential, and the benefits from that would ripple out into the world and there would be this cascade of goodness and good news.

But it is hard to help people. They fall into their ruts and pour concrete around their feet ... or so it seems.

The recent book A Farewell to Alms looks into the issue on the macro-scale, helping Third World countries, addressing question like Why, with all the money we pour into Africa and Iraq and Bangladesh, and elsewhere, do things remain essentially unchanged?

The author believes that aid delivered to dirt-poor countries gets diverted to feeding the problems instead of curing them. While aid, well directed, can have immediate benefits -- feeding the hungry, classically -- it also props up the corruption that is in place and any improved standard of living that might come gets overwhelmed by the high levels of birth and, thus, population increase endemic to impoverished peoples. And that drags the country down much more than anything can lift it up.

Truly, the idea of improvement to one’s standard of living is a new condition, first found in London of the 1820s. We animals, be us fleas or humans, rat or polar bears, will take whatever good fortune comes our way and turn it into a population boom that returns us to our natural state: poverty. That is, until affluence can take hold, for a spell, and our selfish interest in personal comforts and diversions can make us want to have a very limited number of offspring.

Global Warming and the disaster from that that seems unavoidable may just be another instance of a species wending its way back to its natural condition, living at the edge, or beyond the edge, of apocalypse.

But even if population control -- something that is out of flower [Whatever happened to ZPG, Zero Population Growth, a group that was out there beating the bushes in the 70s and 80s?] -- is the way to deliver us from world problems, long term, how can we help individuals, now!?

I look at my family and friends and myself and acquaintances past and think ‘what a menagerie of the lost and troubled.’ Each of us, in ways unique, is a cesspool of a sort with a mighty horrible end looming.

One friend of mine, from high school, was one of the most fun, upbeat people you could know. He was editor of the school paper and went on to get a degree in journalism. But like his parents, he liked alcohol. And in jobs he sought where he worked independently -- as an acquisitions editor, notably, repeatedly -- he slacked off and drove his budding career into the ground. In his personal life, he is alienated from his wife (now exxed) and daughter. A mutual friend of ours has helped ‘set him up’ again in life, guaranteeing his rent, and he’s gotten a rather menial job, but he‘s not fun anymore. He means to be fun, but it is like he is pitifully still in 12th grade with interests others of us have long since moved beyond. And he drinks, and we're tired of that.

Another example: My sister is on one level a great success -- vice president at one of the nation’s biggest banks at 25. But she is such a beast that a quarter century later -- while still with the bank and now a higher-level vice president -- she has been relieved of having others report to her. My sister and I had been only at the bare margins of each other’s lives, until the effects of aging began to drag down our mother. It is hard to know if the “evil” my sister does is by intention or due to some kind of emotional blindness, but everything she does is destructive and hurtful. Without going into details, she truly is a monster and is a prime reason for my interest in sociopaths. Is she one? I wonder. Is her long-time demonstrated affection for dogs just an act? It is hard to find compassion in her behavior or anything she does that can be explained by something other than selfishness. Significant others in her life have been kindly women she fully dominates and grinds down.

I could easily come up with a dozen other examples of people in my life who are flawed and entrapped and won’t be helped or can’t be helped by some bizarre, unique-seeming circumstance. Readers, I’d bet there is a menagerie of people like that in your life: People who had little tell-tale tics as little kids that grew into grotesque personality burdens that seem to have devoured them.

They can’t be helped, it seems. It’s like that, everywhere. At the workplace, there are people who have habits or addictions or areas of blindness that keep them from doing a good job. On the streets, there are people who have fallen. You want to pick them us and save them, but you can’t. Yet, until we can help each other we are surely doomed to endless cycles of destruction.

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Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Zizek's Western Buddhism

[cross-posted at And Now For Something Completely Different]

One of the Slovenian philosopher, Slavok 
Zizek's most direct, most complete critiques of (Western) Buddhism is an essay published by In These Times. It starts off analyzing what Zizek calls “a type of pop-Buddhism” that influenced George Lucas’ directing for his most recent Star Wars films, Episode 1, 2, and 3. Zizek quickly turns to a question of the ideologically mythic qualities of the films. It is here that he teases out the “’Christological’ features of the young Anakin” pitted against “Star Wars' ideological framework [of] the New Age pagan universe.” This “pagan universe” is for Zizek, as becomes clearer later in the article, consonant with a popularly conceived Buddhist cosmos of Oneness. For this reason, Zizek argues, Anakin’s Christological character, one of “Christian intolerant, violent Love,” becomes, if he is not always-already the ultimately Evil character, Darth Vader. This transformation is possible, inevitable even, and ultimately problematic because “Christianity proclaims as the highest action precisely what paganism condemns as the source of all evil—the gesture of separation, of drawing the line, of clinging to an element that disturbs the balance of All.” The conflict arises because, Zizek elaborates, Christianity contains an ethos of difference, while Buddhism contains an ethos of indifference.

Zizek blames this clash between a perversely heroic Christological anti-hero in a Western Buddhist influenced pagan Universe for “not only its ideological confusion, but, simultaneously, its inferior narrative quality.” He would have preferred to have seen a parallel between “the shift of the Republic to Empire and of Anakin to Darth Vader,” and that Anakin “…become a monster out his very excessive attachment with seeing Evil everywhere and fighting it,” rather than Lucas’ explanation that
He turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can't let go of his mother; he can't let go of his girlfriend. He can't let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you're greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you're going to lose things.

The difference here is that in Lucas’ view that Anakin becomes attached to “things,” “things” are things of difference, where as in Zizek view, Anakin’s transformation into Vader arises from an “excessive attachment with seeing Evil everywhere [in all things] and fighting it.” In other words, this is an excessive attachment to an indifference towards things.

This ideological confusion is part of an exchange between, a switching-out of Judeo-Christian religion with so-called Western Buddhism in global Capitalist ideology. Buddhism’s influence is suppose to be one of passivism and moral ambiguity. Almost out of nowhere, Zizek launches into a tested accusation of (Western) Buddhism “[presenting] itself as the remedy against the stress of capitalism's dynamics—by allowing us to uncouple and retain some inner peace—it actually functions as the perfect ideological supplement.”
The only ‘critical’ lesson to be drawn from Buddhism’s perspective on virtual capitalism is that one should be aware that we are dealing with a mere theater of shadows, with no substantial existence. Thus we need not fully engage ourselves in the capitalist game, but play it with an inner distance. Virtual capitalism could thus act as a first step toward ‘liberation.’ It confronts us with the fact that the cause of our suffering is not objective reality—there is no such thing—but rather our Desire, our craving for material things. All one has to do then, after ridding oneself of the false notion of a substantial reality, is simply renounce desire itself and adopt an attitude of inner peace and distance. No wonder Buddhism can function as the perfect ideological supplement to virtual capitalism: It allows us to participate in it with an inner distance, keeping our fingers crossed, and our hands clean, as it were.

This "inner distance" is precisely the same as the "passive nihilism" that Nietzsche assigns Buddhism. Both Nietzsche and Zizek argue that Buddhism functionally provides an effective psychological, even physiological relief to the stresses of life, without resorting to the promise of a better life after life, but within this life. When Nietzsche calls Buddhism “a hundred more times realistic than Christianity,” or “a hundred times colder, more veracious, more objective,” Zizek echoes him in claiming that Western Buddhism is “a fetish” in the sense that “fetishists are not dreamers lost in their own private worlds, they are thoroughly ‘realists,’ able to accept the way things effectively are—since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to cancel the full impact of reality.”

What does Zizek mean by the term “Western Buddhism”? In On Belief, he calls it “today’s counterpoint to Western Marxism, as opposed to ‘Asiatic’ Marxism-Leninism.” This is a mostly useless explanation unfortunately, because Zizek never, for as strongly opinionated he is about Buddhism, discusses primary sources, the things the Buddha taught—except for the milieu of secondary, tertiary, quaternary, and otherwise ungrounded interpretations of the Buddha’s teachings (buddha-dhamma) that actually constitute the primary source of (Zizek’s) Western Buddhism. There may be, however, a useful parallel to Zizek’s Western Buddhism in what Nietzsche called “a Buddhism for Europeans.”

This kind of Buddhism was primarily represented in Schopenhauer and his following. It also arose from the scholarship on Buddhism and India available at the time, then called “buddhology” and “indology.” Because Nietzsche was a philologist, at a time when indological and buddhological scholarship was essentially philological in nature, he was friends with and influenced by some of the prominent scholars at the time, like Paul Deussen and Ernst Wunsch. Except for Coomaraswamy’s abridged English translation of the Sutta-Nipata, a small collection of aphorisms and sayings composed almost entirely in verse, like the more well-known Dhammapada, Nietzsche only knew Buddhism through secondary sources at best.

It is hard to say with certainty that Zizek has not engaged with primary sources of Buddhist philosophy and practice. As far as his written works are concerned though, he rarely engages the teachings of the Buddha, or any primary sources, but always the phenomena and so-called teachings of (Western) Buddhism. However at times he is ready to throw away any possibility of a distinction between his scholarly neologism and any traditional, even if sectarian, practice of the buddha-dhamma.
One should add that it is no longer possible to oppose this Western Buddhism to its 'authentic' Oriental version; the case of Japan delivers here the conclusive evidence. Not only do we have today, among the Japanese top managers, the wide-spread "corporate Zen" phenomenon; in the whole of the last 150 years, Japan's rapid industrialization and militarization, with its ethics of discipline and sacrifice, was sustained by the large majority of Zen thinkers - who, today, knows that D.T.Suzuki himself, the high guru of Zen in the America of the 60s, supported in his youth, in Japan of the 30s, the spirit of utter discipline and militaristic expansion.(Self Deceptions: On Being Tolerant and Smug)

Zizek’s conflation of Western Buddhism with otherwise Buddhism is very problematic—very much for the same reasons that conflating the writings of Nietzsche with Nazism is problematic. By conflating Western and otherwise Buddhism he sets up a strawman argument to be uninterestingly destroyed, indicating perhaps more subtle, perverted, unconscious interests on his part, though totally ignoring the real potential of actually reading Western Buddhism not just in light of Lacan, but the teachings of the Buddha and their lineage. This kind of reading would be very valuable, because Western Buddhism as Zizek sets it up has no coherent intellectual or spiritual ties to the Buddha’s teachings. In this way, it really is very different from what the Buddha taught, and effectively not the buddha-dhamma at all as some Buddhists have pointed out. Patrick Kearney’s “Still Crazy after all These Years: Why Meditation isn’t Psychotherapy” makes exactly this point, and approaches from the Buddhist perspective the same critique of what Zizek is calling Western Buddhism, although not in quite those terms. Kearney goes a step further than Zizek though, and distances all traditions of the Buddha’s teachings from this distinctly Western phenomenon, but to the discouraging point of practically refusing any dialogue with Western psychoanalysis or philosophy.

Western Buddhism, rather than the perfect ideological supplement to global Capitalism, which implies something about it before it co-dependently arises with the attitude of global Capitalism, has the functions as a fetishistic spectre of both Capitalism and the buddha-dhamma. This is not much different than Zizek argues, except that this formulation should not carry any pretension of an analytic stance towards Buddhism as much the West’s effect on it. It also reconfigures how we appraise Western Buddhism, making way for a Buddhist critique of what from that perspective could be argued an abuse, if not sheer abandonment of the Buddha’s teachings.

The transformation that Buddhism has undergone in the West for the last 200 has been an inversion very much like that of Nietzsche’s Master Morality and Slave Morality. What once were ancient, disciplined practices of meditation and monasticism matched with relatively idiosyncratic philosophies has been inverted into a relatively uniform intellectual system that seems to neither affirm nor negate any particular practice. Ironically, the phrase “kill the flesh to release the soul” comes to mind, but here the soul of the buddha-dhamma is the concrete, lived practice, and the flesh that comes and goes are the philosophies and intellectualizations.

It is in this way that Zizek sees Western Buddhism coupled so well with Capitalist ideology, and why he sees it as so dangerous. Zizek sees Christianity as much more bearable, because at least it commits itself in its “intolerant love,” where as Western Buddhism exacerbates a kind of libidinal paralysis already underway in the contemporary European or American, who in the 20th Century endured the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics, the cultural relativism of anthropology, the deconstruction of all meaning, the almost total simulation of appearances, and the rise of global capitalism. This paralysis happens because the typical self-identified Buddhist in the West uncritically absorbs ideas of detachment, chakras, karma, impermanence, re-incarnation and past-lives, meditation, and non-duality from the litany of pop-psycho-therapeutic-new-age-mystic-neopagan-transpersonal-naturalist-buddhist garbage now available. Without grounding themselves in a concrete practice, their experience of the Buddha’s teachings is purely an intellectual affair—never dealing with the soul of the matter. In Western Buddhism, where the ideas and not the life concerning the Buddha’s teachings reign supreme, we encounter again (as if we ever left) the ascetic ideal. In the same way that Nietzsche saw science and atheism in his time as nothing more than the up-and-coming ideological-cultural milieu expressing the ascetic ideal, Zizek’s Western Buddhism may offer a glimpse of the new milieu to come.

What can be done now, what will be done in this essay, is an exercise in the critical engagement with the buddha-dhamma needed in the West—not to prescribe a new Western Buddhism, but to point out what is problematic about calling Western Buddhism, especially as Zizek conceives of it, a form of Buddhism at all. This latter point will be very important, because it will open up space for something Zizek has entirely omitted from his critique of Western Buddhism: a Buddhist perspective. To get there, a return to Nietzsche’s distinction between active and passive nihilism will be useful, which as with Nietzsche underpin the distinction Zizek makes between Christianity and (Western) Buddhism, because Zizek is, without a doubt, fighting in his critique of Western Buddhism the encroaching passive nihilism, and the triumph of the reactive forces, that Nietzsche detected 100 years prior.

Nihilism: Active and Passive

“And to repeat in the conclusion what I said in the beginning: man would rather will nothingness than not will.” This statement, rather cryptically, captures two senses of nihilism to be developed. Nihilism is, in its simplest sense, as Nietzsche uses it at any rate, the negation of life and meaning. Deleuze (in Nietzsche and Philosophy) suggests to avoid confusion that “In the word nihilism nihil does not signify non-being but primarily a value of nil. Life takes on a value of nil insofar as it is denied and depreciated.” The will to nothingness is relatively positive in that “it is and remains a will!” This will affirms the will, even if it negates life, which is at its bottom a “’good will—a will to the actual, active denial of life.” This is nihilism in its active form. Christianity and perhaps earlier Buddhism were both, Nietzsche felt, originally actively nihilistic religions; they had goals, albeit in the form of the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche suggests its counter-part, passive nihilism, as a radical skepticism:
For skepticism is the most spirited expression of a certain physiological condition that in ordinary language is called nervous exhaustion and sickliness; it always develops when races or classes that have long been separated are crossed suddenly and decisively [...] But what becomes sickest and degenerates most in such hybrids is the will: they no longer know independence of decisions and the intrepid sense of pleasure in willing—they doubt the ‘freedom of will’ even in their dreams. (Beyond Good and Evil)

Skepticism in the sense that Nietzsche uses it above is the negation of even the will to nothingness—a skepticism of the value of will. The will is paralyzed by the absolute disbelief of and detachment from meaning. Gilles Deleuze and Alenka Zupančič (in The Shortest Shadow) both suggest a relationship between the two forms of nihilism, making use of a third term reactive nihilism. They differ in that, on the one hand, Zupančič erroneously conflates reactive and passive nihilism, particularly when she explains how reactive/passive nihilism as the will negating the will to nothingness actually gives a new life, as it were, to the will. On the other hand, Deleuze, calling “active nihilism” “negative nihilism,” teases the two apart:
“’Reactive nihilism,’ in a way, prolongs ‘negative nihilism’: triumphant reactive forces take the place of power of denying which led them to their triumph. But ‘passive nihilism’ is the final outcome of reactive nihilism: fading away passively rather than being led from outside.

Deleuze argues that eventually the reactive forces (the reactive people) grow weary of the ebb and flow of reacting to the domination of the will to nothingness, or perhaps they grow suspicious that ultimately the will to power they ultimately affirm in that process will turn against them, and they “break their alliance with the negative will.” They increase their negation of the will, and, so to speak, steal the show. When the reactive forces win out, “they triumph because, by separating active force from what it can do, they betray it to the will to nothingness, to a becoming-reactive deeper than themselves.” The reactive forces, by triumphing over the will to nothingness, effectively dominate the will, which will yield a will to something (not-willing) with no countering affects; and as “negative nihilism is replaced by reactive nihilism, reactive nihilism ends in passive nihilism.”

It is in this sense that Nietzsche proclaims in a deceptively positive tone that
Buddhism is a religion for late human beings, for races grown kindly, gentle, over-intellectual who feel pain too easily (—Europe is not nearly ripe for it—): it leads them back to peace and cheerfulness, to and ordered diet in intellectual things … Buddhism is a religion for the end and fatigue of a civilization… (The Anti-Christ)

As passive nihilism, Buddhism is a religion that has since gone through its reactive break with the active will to Nothingness, if it ever could have been characterized as one . As a spiritual milieu, Buddhism is the emergence of a will to not will, which persists until it extinguishes even itself. Hence the cheerfulness: since separating itself from affirming the will to Nothingness, the will that was at the bottom of negating that will to Nothingness becoming the total exertion of the will, Buddhism gives rise to a perverse cheerfulness, the same as would accompany the total exertion of life-affirming will. In other words, in totally dominating the will to anything and turning it into a will to nothing (not nothingness), Buddhism offers the Buddhist all the surplus-enjoyment in its excessive hold of the will.

Western Buddhism as Passive Nihilism

It is as passive nihilism that Zizek’s Western Buddhism, and his fervent critique of it, starts to make sense. Western Buddhism is “a Buddhism for Europeans” that represents, or at least encourages, the domination of the will towards a not-willing. Zizek's condemns Western Buddhism for how it “perfectly fits the fetishist mode of ideology ... as opposed to its traditional symptomal mode, in which the ideological lie which structures our perceptions is threatened by symptoms qua 'returns of the repressed,' cracks in the ideological lie.” On the one hand, the symptomal mode of ideology is the mode of nihilism characterized by the active and reactive forces in tandem. The symptoms are the reactive forces that come back to break-down the ideological lie or the will to Nothingness. On the other hand, the fetishist mode is the inverse of the will to nothingness turned into, and not merely at tension with a not-willing.

Western Buddhism works as a fetish because it negates, in its domination of the affective forces, the troubling conflict in the Superego prohibition and command to enjoy. Zupančič explains this conflict and its negation as hedonism and not asceticism, which invokes the cheerful quality of Nietzsche's Buddhism.
To consume sugarless sweets and decaffeinated coffee is—far from being ascetic—a hedonistic act par excellance. It is not so very different from the proverbial Roman hedonism, where people would make themselves throw up in order to consume more food. It is also an equivalent of 'how to will without (really) willing.' But, of course—and this is the whole point—this modern hedonism needs the stimulation, the excitement, of the ascetic ideal, as well as the threat that looms on its horizon (rather Nothingness itself than. . .). It is a hedonism built upon the ascetic ideal, which is not a bad definition of passive nihilism. (The Shortest Shadow)

Western Buddhism embodies the moral code of this hedonism, because “our lives may well be hedonistic, but this in no way implies that they are immoral, or even ' beyond morality,' that is, 'beyond good and evil.'” The moral, Superego injunction is that the only appropriate way to behave is according to no principles, no morals. This “beyond morality” invokes a perverse interpretation of Nietzsche's own phrase, which he attributed to the Buddha. Rather than really being beyond good and evil, Western Buddhism paradoxically insists that what is good is that which is beyond good and evil. Like the will to nothingness remaining a will, such goodness beyond good and evil is deeply moral despite its confusing appearance. Such a morality without or beyond morals is the perfect expression of the above mentioned hedonism.

This moral stance parallels the impossible claim that we live in a so-called “post-ideological” era, when such a claim is itself ideological; or more perversely, the claim that since there is nothing that is not ideological, the only non-ideological stance is to accept that there is nothing outside of ideology. Zizek's critique of the post- or non-ideological claim could thus constitute a more subtle, perhaps unconscious attack of what he in other places identifies as Western Buddhism. To invoke Nietzsche, the Western Buddhist, true to his reactive humanity, would rather have no moral values, than not be moral.

Zizek is fervently resisting this moral stance of no moral stance, this claim to a non-ideological judgment that all judgment is ideological, the “inner distance” or fetish that allows one to “cancel the full impact of reality.” One way he is doing this is by repeatedly making the case that “we should remain faithful to the Christian legacy of separation, of elevating some principles above others.”

This is ironically Nietzschean of Zizek, in spite the fact he doesn't like Nietzsche. The debate over Zizek’s political project thus seems to have a grounding point. He seems committed, giving prominence to active, even if nihilistic forces. It is as if Communism was the last active force of the 20th Century, and with its fall the reactive force of Capitalism triumphed.
Thirty or forty years ago, there were still debates about what the future will be--Communism, socialism, fascism, liberal capitalism, totalitarian bureaucratic capitalism. The idea was that life would somehow go on on earth, but that there are different possibilities. Now we talk all the time about the end of the world, but it is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world than a small change in the political system. (from "The Marx Brother," published in The New Yorker by Rebecca Mead)

Now, as Capitalism asserts itself with no other “one goal,” as the reactive, will-negating forces dominate even our imagination for something different, we cheerfully resign ourselves to an ascetic hedonism for nothing.
What, however, has Buddhism to do with this resignation? Nihilism as Nietzsche describes and to which Zizek alludes, even if passive and “cheerful,” fundamentally contradicts the Buddha’s Middle Path, the path he describes in the saṃyutta-nikāya that leads to the end of suffering through the avoidance of indulgence in sensual pleasure and “[giving] oneself up to Self-mortification.” If this basic principle is violated, is it accurate to imply that Western Buddhism is simply the Buddha’s teachings practiced by Westerners -- what is at stake here? How do the extrapolated tenets and tendencies of Zizek’s Western Buddhism compare to the teachings of the Buddha and his lineages?

Western Buddhism under the Buddhist Lens

Characteristic of Zizek’s Western Buddhism, and perhaps its most dangerously intoxicating quality, is a certain ambivalence and aimlessness that follow from the “inner distance and indifference” it teaches us. Such aimlessness supposedly arising from the Buddha’s teachings is quite ironic when one considers the name of the historical Buddha prior to his Awakening (Enlightenment): Siddhartha, or, “one who has achieved his aim.” Zizek would like us to believe that the Buddha’s teachings compel one to throw up their arms at the demands and difficulties of life, because “the basic premise of Buddhist ontology is that there is no ‘objective reality’.” This is remarkably similar to Nietzsche’s criticism of a tendency to inaction that follows from what he calls European Buddhism:
Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones but by extreme positions of the opposite kind. Thus the belief in the absolute immorality of nature, in aim- and meaninglessness, is the psychologically necessary affect once the belief in God and an essentially moral order become untenable. Nihilism appears at that point, not that the displeasure at existence has become greater than before but because one has come to mistrust any ‘meaning’ in suffering, indeed in existence. One interpretation has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain … This is the European form of Buddhism—doing No after all existence has lost its ‘meaning.’ (The Will to Power)

What is consistent in these two views? Nietzsche and Zizek are both accusing Western/European Buddhism of being the “extreme position of the opposite kind.” Nietzsche saw the historical period of the Buddha as being culturally similar to his own, which had grown abstract and divorced from the dogmatic, often violent beliefs and practices of the older Vedic religion of the Brahmin priests. The Buddha taught what appeared to Nietzsche to be an opposite view of the once prevailing certainties of Vedic religion. Zizek also sees a great switching out between East and West:
The ultimate postmodern irony is today's strange exchange between the West and the East. At the very moment when, at the level of ‘economic infrastructure,’ Western technology and capitalism are triumphing worldwide, at the level of ‘ideological superstructure,’ the Judeo-Christian legacy is threatened in the West itself by the onslaught of New Age ‘Asiatic’ thought. (Revenge of Global Finance)

All of these accusations of nihilism and extreme ambivalence, that there is no objective reality, are blind to the Buddha’s own teachings against such tendencies. His Middle Path (Majjhimā Paṭipadā) was a rigorous avoidance of extremes, at its most abstract: affirmation and denial of views or ideas.
‘Bhikkhus, these two extremes ought not to be practiced by one who has gone forth from the household life. What are the two? There is devotion to the indulgence of sense pleasures, which is low, common, the way of ordinary people, unworthy and unprofitable; and there is devotion to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy and unprofitable

‘Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Path: it gives vision, it gives knowledge, and it leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.

So, as Robert Morrison and to a lesser extent Freny Mistry have made the strong case in the last 20 years, the basic charge common to Nietzsche and Zizek that the Buddha’s teachings are nihilistic is subject to harsh criticism, if only on the basis of the Buddha’s teachings themselves. This is expressed by Vajjiya Mahita, a contemporary lay-student of the Buddha, when he answers questions posed to him by mendicant “wanderers” about the Buddha’s teachings.
As [Vajjiya] was sitting there, the wanderers said to him, ‘is it true, householder, that the contemplative Gotama criticizes all asceticism, that he categorically denounces; disparages all ascetics who live the rough life?’

‘No, venerable sirs, the Blessed One does not criticize all asceticism, nor does he categorically denounce or disparage all ascetics who live the rough life. The Blessed One criticizes what should be criticized, and praises what should be praised. Criticizing what should be criticized, praising what should be praised, the Blessed One is one who speaks making distinctions, not one who speaks categorically on this matter.’

Vajjiya’s reply to the wanderers resonates with an exchange the Buddha had with one of his most persistent critics, the wandering ascetic, Vacchagotta.

Vacchagotta asks a stock series of questions common to the philosophical milieu of the Buddha’s time and region, probing more or less for an affirmation or denial of one of the many metaphysical theories concerning the destination of the soul upon death, the existence of the material world, the finitude or infinitude of the world, the eternality of the world, and so forth. The Buddha plainly says no to all of Vacchagotta’s questions, pointing out that he takes no one, categorical position on how things are, either in the affirmative or negative sense. This sounds much like what Zizek is criticizing, but we must not forget Vajjiya’s point that “…the Blessed One is one who speaks making distinctions, not one who speaks categorically…’” In other words, the Buddha is not advocating throwing ones arms up when it comes to making a choice, but rather that we should always be here in the moment when a choice is to be made, making every single choice in our lives, rather than be lost in some fantasy of how things are or are not that chooses for us.

D.T. Suzuki, whom Zizek has probably never read, a trained Zen Buddhist, as well as professor of Buddhist philosophy and delightfully fluent writer and speaker of English, echoes Vajjiya when he writes about Zen as life as “absolute affirmation.”
We must remember, however, that we live in affirmation and not in negation, for life is affirmation itself; and this affirmation must not be the one accompanied or conditioned by a negation, such an affirmation is relative and not at all absolute. With such an affirmation life loses its creative originality and turns into a mechanical process grinding forth nothing but soulless flesh and bones. To be free, life must be an absolute affirmation … Zen does not mean a mere escape from intellectual imprisonment, which sometimes ends in sheer wantonness. There is something in Zen that frees us from conditions and at the same time gives us a certain firm foothold … Zen abhors repetition or imitation of any kind, for it kills. For the same reason, Zen never explains but only affirms. Life is fact and no explanation is necessary or pertinent. To explain is to apologize and why should we apologize for living? To live—is that not enough? Let us then live, let us affirm. Herein lies Zen in all its purity and in all its nudity as well. (An Introduction to Zen Buddhism)

The point that must not become lost is that the buddha-dhamma is all about choices, which may be summarized as Suzuki does, as the choice to affirm (life). This is one of the first things the Buddha teaches, for in avoiding extremes the Buddha means that we should avoid that which negates life, including the apparent affirmation of it in the indulgence of sensuality and/or fantasies of be(come)ing this or that—both tendencies being at their core the expression of certain views about how things are. This is surprisingly what Nietzsche was concerned with as well, except his favored term was the Will (to Power). When Lacan tells us “do not concede your desire,” he is making the same point: we have this capacity to affirm our desire or negate it, and affirming the desire of the Other’s desire is not really our affirmation. A story told by the Buddha in the Middle-Length Discourses may be usefully for expressing this ethical statement.

The Alagaddupama Sutta contains many stories about the appropriate view a monk should hold towards the Buddha’s teachings. One of them, one of the most popular in all Buddhist literature, is the raft analogy. The Buddha compares his teachings to a raft used for crossing a great expanse of water, the further shore representing Awakening. He instructs that as one should not drag the raft along with them once they reach the further shore, thinking that for as great as the raft was for crossing the water it must be worth keeping around and maintaining, one should also not cling to the Buddha’s teachings (or any view), for they are only means for becoming Awaken; after which, even they must be released.

The Lacanian reading of this is obvious. The desire that Lacan instructs us not to concede is the same desire we should properly have for reaching the further shore; becoming attached to the raft, or the Buddha’s teachings, is akin to giving up on our desire and seeking through something else, like the desire to have a phallus or be one for someone else. The difference in the Buddha’s case is that he is also suggesting that staying true to our desire will yield the satisfaction of that (and all) desire, whereas Lacan is less interested in what it would mean to satisfy our desire, if it is once we have properly identified it. That is, it is precisely in this aim to properly orient our desires that the practical side of the Buddha’s teachings appears to be the same as Lacan’s. The analyst’s refusal to give up his desire or knowledge as the "subject supposed to know" is comparable to the case in the many stories of Zen literature where a master poses to the student(s) an impossible question, and demands a response.
Shuzan (Shou-shan, 926-992) once held up his shippe to an assembly of his disciples and declared: ‘Call this a shippe and you assert; call it not a shippe and you negate. Now, do not assert nor negate, and what would you call it? Speak, speak!’ One of the disciples came out of the ranks, took the shippe away from the master, and breaking it in two, explcained: ‘What is this?’ (An Introduction to Zen Buddhism)

Rather than calling it a shippe or otherwise or being silent, which are the only desires we can imagine that the Other has in this situation, the disciple expresses his ability to act despite this otherwise paralyzing Che vois? This is the exact opposite of the wishy-washy, post-modern, Western Buddhist about whom Zizek is complaining. It is not that Zizek is lying to us, that this kind of person he sees doesn’t exist. Rather, it is that Zizek is wholly mistaken in accepting the self-identification of this person, of their guiding principles at any rate, as Buddhist. This pseudo-Buddhist is faced with the same Che vois? as the Zen monk by his teacher, but in the name of the very same principles that guide the monk to act the pseudo-Buddhist withdraws.

And Now For Something Completely Different

What Zizek has identified in Western Buddhism is not the Buddha’s teachings, but the perverse lens through which Western culture is able to view the those teachings. That lens is a spectre of the Buddha’s teachings, which, to echo a passage from the Diamond Sutra , is perhaps why Western traditions of the Buddha's teaching fail to articulate their ostensible subject, the buddha-dhamma.
The Buddha then addressed Subhūti. ‘Do not say that the Tathāgata thinks, “I have spoken Dharma.” Do not say the Buddha has spoken Dharma. I do not think like that, and you should not think that way either. Someone who says that the Tathāgata has spoken Dharma thereby slanders the Buddha. Such a person does not understand the Buddhadharma. ‘
‘The Buddha spoke dharma for forty-nine years,’ you
say. ‘Many sūtras remain. How can one say he did not speak Dharma?’
Once Mañjuśrī Bodhisattva asked, ‘Will the Buddha
please once again turn the Dharma wheel?"
The Buddha replied, ‘Mañjuśrī, in forty-nine years I
have not spoken one word.’

This impossibility of ever meeting is to be understood precisely as the same impossibility of the sexual relationship. It is no surprise that Buddhism appears as a fantasmic spectre in the West, where masculine jouissance is predominant. Buddhism at once promises and threatens with the Other, dark, feminine jouissance. Buddhism is conceivable in what Zizek might call the Western ideological matrix as this testement to its very failure to be concieved. Zizek’s critique of Western Buddhism, therefore, has much less to do with the teachings of the Buddha than he has made it seem, and significantly more to do with the mystical, feminine jouissance it suggests, which seems to be beyond and for that reason threatening to Zizek.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Clark Strand's lastest volley of attack against Western Buddhism

by Tom Armstrong
Image source: Buddhist Channel
Baby Boomer Buddhism Going Bust” is the headline at Topix, announcing the gist of Clark Strand’s latest attack against Western Buddhism in an opinion piece that appeared in the Taste section of The Wall Street Journal last Friday, and was posted online in the WSJ‘s Opinion Journal.

Titled “Buddhist Boomers: A Meditation” in its hardcopy incarnation, the article first conveys Strand’s belief, previously expressed in Tricycle, that Buddhism is on the ropes, in decline because it doesn’t have the family-friendly features of the Christian and Jewish faiths.

But Strand goes further in this new op piece. He says Western converts to Buddhism are deluded to think that Buddhist practice is free of dogma and superstition. And that in its “convert”ed state is “also free of folk tales, family and ... fun.”

Western Buddhism no fun? Is this guy cranky or what!?

And if many of us set aside what seems dogmatic or is superstitious in the ancient scrolls or premodern practices, hooray for that.

Further, in a remark staggeringly bizarre to me, Strand makes his case that Buddhism isn’t in sync with current science and -- get this -- isn’t, basically, peace loving:
In the contemporary discourse on religion, it is striking how often Buddhism is privileged over Judaism, Christianity or Islam as a scientifically based or inherently peaceful version of religion. Note that the Dalai Lama (rather than the pope) was asked to provide the inaugural address at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, even though, like Catholicism, Tibetan Buddhism includes beliefs (think reincarnation) that are anathema to medical science. Likewise, though Japanese Buddhists melted their temple bells to make bombs during World War II, the idea of Buddhism as a peace-loving religion persists as an enduring fantasy in Western people's minds. And yet, such fantasies are instructive nonetheless.
Today, when the Saffron Revolution in Burma weighs heavy on Buddhists’ minds worldwide, it is curious indeed that Strand chooses to say that Buddhism is not particularly peaceful. Certainly, there are calls for blessed peacemakers in the texts of the world’s other prominent religions, but Buddha’s teachings are remarkably peace loving and stripped of the justifications for war and violence found in the others.

It would be prideful for me to make the case for Buddhism’s myriad wondrous qualities, here. And it’s way beyond my scope to pull together an overview of Buddhism‘s relative excellence because I don’t know enough about religion, generally. But, is Strand nuts? The Old Testament has God requiring Abraham to slay his son. Jesus dies on the cross with the logic being that somehow that compensates for our sins. And let us not forget the Inquisition and the Crusades. And in Islam, Mohammad inveighs against the infidels and justifies making conversion to the faith by knifepoint.

Certainly, the record for Buddhism isn’t lily pure. War at slow boil continues in Sri Lanka between Buddhist sects. And in the highly nationalistic Japan of World War II, the Shinto-Zen blend of religion had a part in the war machine. But instances of Buddhist warmaking is very rare compared to other religions. That is just simply the case. How Strand arrives at the harsh ideas that he parades is mysterious.

As for Strand’s assessment that reincarnation is anathematic to medical science, I think he is wrong for two killer reasons: (1) Medical science doesn’t concern itself (or shouldn't concern itself ...) with reincarnation; it’s all about the physical properties of the body; and (2) He misses the point. The Dalai Lama, and most Western Buddhists, in contrast to adherents of other religions, accept corrections that may come from science to any “dogma” in our religion . That is why the Dalai Lama was an appropriate choice to address the Society for Neuroscience and the Pope wouldn’t have been.

In a statement near the end of his WSJ harangue Strand writes this:

Though some of my more devout Buddhist associates may balk at the idea, these days I have increasingly come to see Buddhism in America as an elaborate thought experiment being conducted by society at large--from the serious practitioner who meditates twice daily to the person who remarks in passing, "Well, if I had to be something, I guess I'd be a Buddhist." The object of that experiment is not to import some "authentic" version of Buddhism from Asia, as some believe, but to imagine a new model for religion altogether--one that is nondogmatic, practice-based and peaceful.
I cannot see what propels Strand to write this. Buddhism in America is not a thought experiment, as ungrounded as the swirling wind. There is a universe of texts from teachers of our time that speak with very similar dispatch to the values and traditions carried over from the root of Buddhist teachings. As much as any religion anywhere and at any time, I would aver, American Buddhism is attentive to and guided by [but not nailed to] particular and specific concepts, teachings, traditions and goalless goals. The new technology aids us in this, keeping our ducks in a row.

Certainly there are many rather-casual Buddhists in America as there are casual adherents to any religion. But I think "Well, if I had to be something, I guess I'd be a Buddhist" is neither in any way typical nor fair nor comes from anywhere other than Strand’s fertilized imagination.

Strand has established well the reputation he seeks as American Buddhism’s harshest, meanest, fact-flightiest critic. [In a 2003 article in Tricycle, Strand called American Buddhism racist. See Strand quote midway in this blog post.] What makes Strand most hurtful and harmful is his ongoing connection to Tricycle magazine where he has long been a contributing editor and a praised favorite of the magazine’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen. Strand’s WSJ article cites his connection to Tricycle, giving the imprimatur to outsiders of him being a scholarly Buddhist heavyweight.

The last portion of a Oct. 28 article about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Canada, published in the Toronto Star [and shortly thereafter posted to The Buddhist Channel], gets commandeered by Strand’s damning views on Western Buddhism as he is treated as a knowing and reliable authority.

I think that Strand has lost objectivity regarding Buddhism and has other religious fish to fry -- his next book is called How to Believe in God (Whether You Believe in Religion or Not) [Scroll to the bottom of Morgan Road Books' current News & Events notice]. For whatever reason [Bitterness? Loss of fervor?], Clark Strand has lost the Buddhist mojo he had in the past as a Zen monk, founder of a monastery, and Buddhist writer. It is time he was relieved of the connection to Buddhism Tricycle gives him that is used as his claim of being authoritative.

Update 11/15: Both the New York Times, in "Autumn of the American Buddhist," and Tricycle, with "Graying Buddhism?", have posted opinion pieces regarding Strand's Wall Street Journal essay. Both the Times and Tricycle focus solely on the idea of Buddhism dying out in America and not other issues Strand raised.

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Monday, 12 November 2007

Obstacles to Practice & Progressive Buddhism?

My apologies for the lengthy disappearance. I had to retreat a bit in order to keep various commitments and obligations, and to keep a modicum of peace and stability in the midst of recent professional turmoil.

I recently sat down to list (ostensibly for the mindfulness group I’ve been developing on campus) what kind of obstacles we can experience in our practice. As I was putting these down it quickly became apparent that these are nothing but my own challenges to practice. All of them. Persistently. Hence, the list became an inventory of obstacles to my own practice, and a good way to look deeply at the same.

I thought they also made sense as obstacles to a progressive Buddhism, or as I prefer, to a “zen humanism.” I offer them here as an initial foray for us to contemplate and expand, and repost.

Basic Obstacles/Challenges to Practice

  1. Either/Or Thinking: This kind of polarization is particularly unhelpful as I often come across folks who repeat things like, “a good practice HAS to be like this,” or who make claims about “Buddhism” or what being “Buddhist” is or is not. In any case, a practice marked by either/or thinking would seem to be pretty limiting for exploring the self and for transforming suffering. A progressive engaged Buddhism might also conceive of this as a need to be explicitly self-conscious about its own assumptions.

  2. Fear of Truth: This refers to the fear of facing the insight that emerges from deep looking. Often this fear becomes so intense that the insight from practice is distorted in order to make it fit with one’s own cherished assumptions. Discomfort with what we face about ourselves is unavoidable. A progressive Buddhism must welcome bracing insight about its own assumptions, beliefs, and claims.

  3. Seeing Only What We Expect or Have Learned to See: The tyranny of assumptions and expectations that are unacknowledged, or that we have been conditioned to expect, is enormous. A progressive Buddhism must look deeply to challenge attachments to “the old country,” or this or that master, or particular practice.

  4. Intolerance for Change, Not Knowing, and Uncertainty: Nothing kills a practice like holding on with a death grip to long-held assumptions, not being willing to say “I don’t know,” or needing to be certain about everything. A progressive Buddhism needs to exemplify skillful harmony between affirmation and epistemic agnosticism.

  5. Overclassification, Categorization: Attempting to fit everything into boxes and easy categorization systems as a way to make sense of them. This is the way human beings work, but we ought to consider that easy categorization does not wisdom render and immediately imposes a narrowing of circumference. When we engage in simple categorization we stand to engage in two fallacies: the fallacy of composition (taking the part for the whole), and the fallacy of division (taking the whole for the part).

  6. Seeking Control, Being Dominant: Some folks and groups need to be dominant, to control, and to assert themselves or their beliefs. Seen from another perspective this translates into inability to be receptive and non-controlling. A progressive Buddhism need not be “top dog” neither in cultural wars nor among other “Buddhist” groups, even as it shares its understanding and/or insight.

  7. Need to Conform: The counterpart of seeking control, the need to conform translates often into playing it safe, and not challenging ourselves or the information we encounter. A progressive Buddhism ought to blaze new paths and not be afraid to confront challenges.

  8. Over-Respect for Authority: For individuals this refers to being too much of a follower, and unwillingness to question “authority.” The balance that must be struck is between reification of the self on one hand, and being too compliant and submissive on the other. We must remain open to wisdom and insight from various sources, while seeking to ground wisdom in light of our own practice. A progressive Buddhism can find wisdom in venerated masters, but must also carefully look broadly at other sources of wisdom and challenge “authority.”

  9. Need to Challenge Authority: The counterpart to over-respect for authority, the need to confront and fight authority or the knowledge of others can be quite a detriment because it usually means a reduced circle of wisdom sources, and a “too healthy” belief in ourselves. A progressive Buddhism must challenge authority but not just for fighting authority’s sake.

  10. Eschewing Tradition: This refers to the easy dismissal of tradition and the seeking of thrills or the “new.” In short, we must be careful not to fall for the “latest and greatest” craze as it might signal fetishization and faddishness rather than open-ness to new ways of being. A progressive Buddhism needs a connection to tradition(s) as a way to form and solidify fellowship, while remaining unfettered by over-respect for the authority of the “traditional.”


Sunday, 11 November 2007

Why Progressive Buddhism?

[Edited for silly mistake]
What is the purpose of 'progressive Buddhism' and why do we think is it needed? Doesn't being 'progressive' about Buddhism imply that the teachings of Buddha are flawed in some way and in need of improvement?

Buddhism has a long history of adaptation to new cultures and of evolutionary development from Theravada to Mahayana, Zen and Vajrayana. Similarly, customs and rituals adapt to the native culture as does the role of dharma practitioners in society - for example, the emergence of Zen monks who could marry and practice a trade.

The arrival of Buddhism in the modern West is particularly significant for several reasons. Previous host societies have been feudal, agrarian and mainly non-literate. Buddhism has arrived in a post-modern world, scientifically-literate and sophisticated scholarship recources. On the other hand it has values and social structure which makes it difficult for monks to survive with no source of income other than begging for alms. The costs of living are high and what few Buddhists exist in the population do not wish merely to support, they wish to be practitioners. It seems obvious that Buddhism must adapt, but how?

It is also a time of great opportunity. For the first time in history, all the different strands of Buddhism, which have so far evolved in isolation from one another, have for the first time become fully aware of one another. Should all of these regional variations continue unchanged, should we seek a synthesis or some combination of the two. All the expressions vary, but surely they are all trying essentially teaching the same thing. The appearance of all of these schools simultaneously in the modern west seems like a great opportunity to find a constructive synthesis between the various sects, between Buddhism and western thought and between Buddhism and science.

We also have access to sophisticated scholarship, archaeology, linguistics and cross-disciplinary scholarship, which can provide new insights into the origin, evolution and meaning of Buddhist text of all ages. The Buddha's original teachings are revealed as rational and pragmatic approach to the human situation which stresses lived experience rather than metaphysical specualtion.

Most traditional Buddhist societies believe in rebirth and karma in the most literal sense. And Buddha himself lived in a society in which these were given 'truths' of the human view of the world. We have no reason to suppose that he was omniscient. His original teachings were the means to escape from suffering, by following the Eightfold Path, and modifications of the concepts of reincarnation and karma which did not include a separate self or soul, a concept for which Buddha could find no corresponding experience or phenomenon in his investigation of the human condition. In the modern west, we do not generally have traditional beliefs in karma or rebirth, yet they are unneccessary for value to be found in practice. Buddha himself says this in the Kalama Sutta. Indeed, much common ground can be found with psychotherapy and a number of modern therapeutic methods have borrowed heavily from Buddhism.

Just as Dogen travelled to Korea and China to find and bring back the essence of Buddhism to Japan, we can investigate it in every contemporary expression and in the early teachings alike.

Furthermore, we now have access to scientific tools with which we can investigate the core tenets of Buddhism - the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path to the end of suffering.

One danger with the current situation, is that investigating the dharma as individuals is an activity of ego, a form of 'picking and choosing' what we like and dislike and hence a dualistic, samsaric condition. And we are not equally blessed with wisdom. We need the advice of teachers.

However I believe that this situation in not significantly different from that of Buddha's day and people will judge the value of a teaching according to its results and reputation. If we are wise we make our choices based on what we can verify personally and that which is 'praised by the wise'.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Book Review: Basic Teachings of the Buddha by Glenn Wallis

I found this book by chance in the Buddhist section of Borders bookshop. From the title, I assumed it was one of the many introductions to Buddhism that tend to inhabit the shelves of such shops - and indeed I imagine that the purchasers at Borders assumed the same thing. But, in that respect the title is misleading, for although the author indeed focuses on a few suttas from Pali Canon which he considers to define the fundamentals, this is not ordinary introduction aimed at the casual reader.

Wallis is an associate professor of religion at Georgia and has a PhD in Sanskrit and Indian Studies from Harvard. The book he has written cuts through cliched translations of Buddhist terminology and popular assumtions of what practicing the dharma means, revealing the Buddha's teachings as a highly rational and pragmatic methodology based on direct, empirical, personal experience.

I didn't find myself convinced by every one of Professor Wallis' interpretations. For example, there is a passage from the Tevijja Sutta, in which two Brahman's ask the Buddha which is the direct path to communion with God, and Buddha refutes the notion that the 'religious authorities' know such a path, instructs them in the way of the dharma and tells them that this is the path to communion with God. Wallis interprets this as a refutation of the very idea of God and infatuation with it. But I see nothing supporting that in the text. Instead it seems to me, an example of the provisionality of the teaching of the dharma, of teaching not in absolute terms of fact, but in terms what can be understood by the listener and what will aid the listener in awakening - he taught in terms of 'God' because that was the language and the conceptual system being used by the Brahmans.

Nevertheless, this is a highly insightful and refreshing read - a must for every progressive Buddhist.

4.5 Stars

Monday, 29 October 2007

Progressive Buddhism: in the news

A very brief 'kudos' to Paul Jahshan, one of our Progressive Buddhists, and heads up to the rest of you. Click the image (or here) for the full story.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Greetings from the (Progressive) Buddhist Society of Lebanon

Hi all,

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Paul Jahshan, Lebanese, currently teaching American/English Studies at Notre Dame University in Lebanon. A Christian by birth and upbringing, I have been interested in Buddhism for the last twenty years and, probably like many of you, went through the different Buddhist "flavours," beginning with Theravada, then Mahayana, then more specifically Zen, and now back to a personal form of Theravada (Reading Brian Victoria's Zen at War has made me a little wary of Japanese Zen, helped shed many illusions, and has made me adjust my stance noticeably).

Last year, I thought that founding a Buddhist society in Lebanon would be a good idea. Traditionally, Lebanon recognizes only three religions (for legal and administrative purposes): Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, so becoming a Buddhist is a little bit difficult, and this does not even cover the fact that becoming a Buddhist is probably unheard of here. I am sure that there are a lot of "closet" Buddhists in Lebanon, but nobody has gone as far as openly professing it. Not that we would be persecuted or anything; it is just something that has not been done. We do have many Buddhists, but they are overwhelmingly among the domestic helpers coming from Sri Lanka and other Far Eastern countries.

So, with an additional member, my cousin, the society was born.

We do not think, however, that Buddhism, the way it is practiced both in the East and in the West, is a viable alternative to contemporary, rational minds. My stay in the UK during my Ph.D. (Nottingham U.) and a few trips to the United States convinced me that Buddhism, in its present form, is in danger of becoming (or has already become) just another fad, and yet another form of mass consumerism. The idea of forced donations, both in the UK and in the USA, so obviously and so arrogantly demanded by Buddhist centers, is just abhorrent to us. Not only does it violate the principles of Buddhist teachings, but it also makes the whole noble act of striving for enlightenment a purely monetary exchange.

This was not, however, the only misgiving we had about modern Buddhism. As Dr Ambedkar aptly remarked, Buddhism is weighed down by many contradictions and faults, such as social passivity, the belief in Karma and rebirth, and other unpalatable issues. In the absence of scientific evidence, it is very difficult for us to blindly accept, on the basis of tradition, hearsay, and mere faith, such imponderables like the above, in addition to superstitions like the different realms of being (devas, asuras, etc.), obvious gender discrimination, and so on.

The advice to the Kalamas still holds true, and Justin's early posting in response to Bikkhu Bodhi's own interpretation of the sutta in question is excellent. B. Bodhi would have us believe that the Buddha's exhortation was just a trick, albeit a valid and rational one, in order to entice or convince the Kalamas to join the Sangha. Once this is done, he says, faith takes over and rational testing can take a nap.

Nonsense. Even if Siddharta Gautama actually believed this, I would say nonsense again. Faith is something, trust is something else. Trust is built on experimental bases, the way faith is not. Do I have faith in the Buddha? Absolutely not! Do I trust him? Absolutely. The difference is huge.

Indeed, rational inquiry should never stop; it is active and vigilant, just like vipassana attention is vigilant and checks incomers and outgoers in a continuous gaze that observes and dissects in order to understand. Observation is made by us, the observer, and never by somebody else. Our reason is the only "weapon," if I may use the word, to combat superstition, ignorance, blind obedience, and the centers of power so actively busy controling us. If Buddhism is not a method of liberation, in the full sense of the word, a liberation from brainwashing (initiated by others and then self-imposed in panopticon-like fashion) then it is nothing, and we will be the first to repudiate it. If B. Bodhi is afraid of freethinking and of freethinkers, there must be a good reason for it.

We strongly hold that Buddhism, sometimes despite Siddharta Gautama himself, is one of the best vehicles for intellectual emancipation, and that the practice of attention is one of the best tools created in order to wade through the morass of acquired, automatic set(s) of beliefs only necessary for our childhood upbringing. Freud's celebrated essay, "The Future of an Illusion," delineates the process by which humans, ideally, should begin to think for themselves after maturity. Siddharta Gautama was, to us and to many others, one of the first freethinkers, and it is as such that we value him and his--eminently practical--teachings.

It is high time that we wake up and regard Buddhism not as an exotic, Far-Eastern, mysterious way of life replete with treasures and secrets and strange realms, but as a psychological method capable of carrying us--if we exert ourselves, that is--into understanding the way we perceive things and thus into understanding the phenomenal world around us.

We accept the fact that Buddha was imperfect, and that his teachings were partly coloured by his culture, his age, and the idiosyncrasies inherent to them, and we also know that we are also weighed down by our own idiosyncrasies. Nobody is perfect, nobody was perfect, and nobody will be.

What we can strive for, in full honesty and humility, is to better understand ourselves and the functioning of our thought processes in order to better understand our brethren and the world we are living in. Tolerance, forgiveness, and love can only be achieved after a long and arduous process begun inside of us. We believe that Buddhism, adapted to us now (the famous "here and now"), and cleansed as much as possible of its understandable accretions, can offer much in the way of personal and worldwide salvation.

We do believe, just like you do, that Progressive Buddhism is the future of the Middle Way.

Thank you for listening to our views, and thank you Justin for inviting us to join the blog!


(For more on our views, please read our "Statement of Principles" on the society's webpage at

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Buddhism and the Use of Force

10/31/07 UPDATE: An earlier version of this post included a quote from Paul Carus's 1894 book "The Gospel of Buddha" that has now been deleted.

A recent post by Army Chaplain candidate Somya Malasri to the blog Buddhist Military Sangha raises an interesting question: Can a Buddhist Join the Army? And, it raises further, related questions of what role we should expect for “force,” from the military or police, to play in society.

Many Western Buddhists are wholly non-violent, staunchly opposed to the violence the military might unleash, yet haven’t a scintilla of opposition to a competent, adequately careful police force in a free society. Policemen, like soldiers, often must use force, or violence, to achieve their ends, be it in the apprehension of suspected criminals or to deter harm coming to innocents.

Second Lieutenant Malasri cites Ven. K. Sri Damavanda [from “What Buddhist Believe,” downloadable from Buddhanet in PDF format, quoting the chapter beginning on page 385] which has the same ultimate source as the chapter “Simha’s Question Concerning Annihilation” which comes from Paul Carus’s compilation of Buddhist wisdom in a book published in 1894, called The Gospel of Buddha. [Where in the Pali canon the Simha story is, I haven’t been able to locate -- but I have little doubt it’s there, somewhere.]

Here, Buddha‘s words regarding police work in response to Simha‘s question asking whether Buddha permits punishment of the criminal:
‘He who deserves punishment must be punished. And he who is worthy of favor must be favored. Do not do injury to any living being but be just, filled with love and kindness.’ These injunctions are not contradictory because the person who is punished for his crimes will suffer his injury not through the ill will of the judge but through the evil act itself. His own acts have brought upon him the injury that the executors of the law inflict. When a magistrate punishes, he must not harbor hatred in his heart. When a murderer is put to death, he should realize that his punishment is the result of his own act.
Thus, Buddha approves the administration of law and order within a society, even speaking of the death sentence, though I don't think we should presume that he approves of that based on the text here.

But the final Buddha quote from the military chaplain’s post, surprisingly, is this: “There is no justice in war or violence. When we declare war, we justify it , when others declare war, we say, it is unjust. Then who can justify war? Man should not follow the law of the jungle to overcome human problems.”

The most-often cited quote from the suttas declaring Buddhas opposition to war comes from the Sumyatta Nikaya (The Connected Discourse of the Buddha) 42.3, “Yodhajiva Sutta: To Yodhajiva (The Warrior)”:
When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, his mind is already seized, debased, & misdirected by the thought: 'May these beings be struck down or slaughtered or annihilated or destroyed. May they not exist.' If others then strike him down & slay him while he is thus striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the hell called the realm of those slain in battle. But if he holds such a view as this: 'When a warrior strives & exerts himself in battle, if others then strike him down & slay him while he is striving & exerting himself in battle, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of devas slain in battle,' that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb.
Thus, a warrior goes to hell -- or is reborn into the unfortunate life of a weasel or a chicken or something.

Confusion arises in the modern day where military might isn’t an event of nations bumping heads in pursuit of territory, each having a rationalization for their cause. There are times, now, when nations are ruled by despotic men or gangsters who seek nuclear capability, restrict freedom, have no empathy for the impoverished lives of their citizens, and have the will to impose their harsh regime on a wider patch of the world or to extract payment or concessions or an agreement where there would be no contribution from outsiders to bring down their regime.

Because there are global threats, the world is effectively a small place, a One World Sangha in many respects, and the military of good nations, most often, engage in efforts that are policework (or meant as policework that can go awry) and not the warrior work of Buddha’s day and age.

Who can doubt that the world effort to intervene in East Timor turned out well? Or regret that the world didn’t do more to try to prevent the Rawandan Genocide of 1994 when the Hutu leaders effected a campaign to wipe out the Tutsis and killed an estimated 800,000 to 1,000,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers? President Bill Clinton’s greatest regret as president, as stated in a Frontline interview, was that he did not send in 5,000 US peacekeepers which, he said, might have saved a half million lives.

There is no doubt that military policework is not as straightforward or easy as what is done by municipal police within a city. The military of our time must first establish a stable presence where, understandably, there is likely to be resistance to foreigners.

Who can doubt that there was a path, albeit a difficult one, that Bush might have followed, “exhausting all means to preserve the peace” that would have brought a very satisfactory outcome in Iraq, with Saddam & sons exiled or ousted in a way that was complete, yet much more peaceful, and did not leave America in a quagmire with possibilities of civil war or war breaking out on Iraq‘s border?

And now there is a situation in Burma with hundreds of monks killed and a cruel regime in place. What do we do? Is it just to leave things as they are?

Burma has been under military rule since 1962. That’s 45 years, already!

Quoting wikipedia:
In May 1990, the government held free elections for the first time in almost 30 years. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won 392 out of a total 489 seats, but the election results were annulled by the SLORC [the government], which refused to step down. Led by Than Shwe since 1992, the military regime has made cease-fire agreements with most ethnic guerrilla groups. In 1992, SLORC unveiled plans to create a new constitution through the National Convention, which began 9 January 1993. To date, this military-organized National Convention has not produced a new constitution despite well over ten years of operation. In 1997, the State Law and Order Restoration Council was renamed the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC).
When will the people of Burma have the government they deserve? one that seeks to work for its citizens? And how is the establishment of a proper Burmese government going to be achieved? From petitions? From marches in streets outside Burma until interest dissipates and we all move on to worrying about Britany's latest randy bit of foolishness or a new, real crisis somewhere arises to grab our interest before its fifteen minutes of media attention passes, disappearing with nothing having been done?

Progressive Buddhists aren't beholdened to every word we suppose Buddha may have spoken, but doesn't it make sense to rescue people who are trapped in an Orwellian nightmare? Aren't we obligated to heroically take on illegitimate governments, somehow, some way? Forcefully?

UPDATE The hard reality in Burma: "The Burmese Way to Fascism," essay by Bertil Lintner, posted in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

Here, a paragraph near the end ...

"The bitter reality is that nothing is going to change as long as the military remains united and willing to gun down its own people. A younger generation of army officers, who see the need to negotiate with the pro-democracy movement, is probably the only hope. But for now, no one is aware of any “young Turks” lurking in the wings, and there are no signs of serious cracks within the ranks. But if change does come to Burma, it will in any event be because of action taken by such younger army officers, not demonstrations led by monks."

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Monday, 8 October 2007

Women, Buddhism and the Internet

by Tom Armstrong

Though the Internet offers us an arena of egalitarian play, and Buddhism is a fount of compassion -- a quality closely associated with women -- Western Buddhism is dominated by the galumphing presence of men, as much in the virtual world as in flesh-bone-bricks-and-morter sanghas. Why is this? And what is a proper vision of Buddhism Online for the future? and how do we get there? And if we can drag Online Buddhism to a more genteel, creamy, cosmopolitan [i.e., woman friendly] space, might the physical world of middle-aged white-guy Buddhism, like Mary’s lamb, follow close behind … toward it becoming more diverse and welcoming?

Out in our walk-about lives, we live through a mostly lovely, but certainly slow, journey toward equality between men and women. Ever more women enter occupations previously monopolized by men [and vice versa]. Ever more, gender is less of a bar, toward a point of being unrecognized, except where pairing off is concerned. And, women are shattering the glass barriers: taking control of big corporations and, probably, in January 2009, securing the reins of a big North American country.

Most Buddhists are perhaps like me, hopeful that one day our goals for what progress is shifts -- away from seeing being On Top of the Mountain, ordering around others and, usually, living in the lap of luxury as being the, ah, apex of having had a meaningful life. But, at least for now, access is being made more available to a greater array of people and that is all to the good. People aren’t as hemmed in, disallowed by societal pressure to do what they are best at or desire most to do with their lives.

Yet, on the Internet the differences in the behaviors and values of men vis-à-vis women is stark. Instead of the physical world’s vector of proof coming more and more into focus that men’s and women’s brains are very similar, the Internet -- a field for masked play -- is very much Mars and Venus [or, Google and Yahoo?], the genders being planets apart in how they behave and what they choose to do. And most curious of all, instead of everyone being emboldened by semi-anonymity to engage in all manner of daring-do -- crossing boundaries, venturing into unknown territories -- most people are shy and blinkered by their meatspace fear of being potentially naked in public.

I found this pithy sentiment of gender differences, online, in a Powerpoint presentation written by ReadySetPresent. It’s imperfect, sure, but fair and apt given a limitation of a couple dozen words per gender:
"Men are externally focused and often view situations as issues to be resolved. They talk to inform others."

"Women are internally focused and often talk as a way to connect and relate to others."
A recent New York Times article tells us “We know that women outnumber men online,” but both the oceanic buddoblogosphere [i.e., Buddhist blogging outside walled social communities] and Buddhist webspaces, generally, are in overwhelming proportion managed, written and visited by males.

This is somewhat explained by the general differences between what men and women do online. According to a December 2005 Pew report, “How Women and Men Use the Internet,” with the subheading, “Women are catching up to men in most measures of online life. Men like the internet for the experiences it offers, while women like it for the human connections it promotes.”

Women are keen on email. “Women send and receive email more than men. Some 94% of online women and 88% of online men use email,” says the report. “Women say email improves relationship with friends, family, and colleagues more than men do, and that it improves the work climate as well.”

One section of the report is titled “Using the internet to get information: Men pursue and consume information online more aggressively than women.” The report tells us, “Although men and women say equally that they find the information online that they are looking for, men are a lot more confident in themselves as searchers, and they are less overwhelmed by the glut of information that’s out there.” But I think this reading of the data may be a little suspect. If woman are as successful at finding what they’re looking for, then male gung-ho confidence may be a chimera or women may be overly self-critical.

We are also told that “men pursue a [wider spectrum of] activities with greater enthusiasm [than women]” and that “women are more likely to use the internet … to get support for health or personal problems, and get religious information.”

To sum up, a concluding paragraph from the report:

Men and women share an appreciation of what the internet does for their lives, particularly in making their lives more efficient and expanding their world of information. Men seem to value these strengths most in the context of the activities of their lives, from jobs to pastimes, while women seem to value them most in the context of the relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and communities.
So, the report tells us that woman use the internet to get religious information, are highly communicative [love email] and interested in relationships of all sorts. Doesn’t that sound like it should be a hotbed of bloggers? But in the worldwide English-speaking Buddhist community, it just isn’t. It's male aggression and gung-ho get-it-done determination that makes The Blogger.

Not only do men outnumber women in the buddhoblogosphere by a ratio of, perhaps, 4 to 1, there is nothing to suggest the ratio is improving. Many of the most proficient female Buddhist bloggers have left us, while not nearly the same proportion of men have. Gone from us are these great women buddhobloggers: F. Kwan [Foot before foot: a photoblog]; Kimberly Gold [this zen life]; Zenchick [Zenchick: Musings from the Lotus Position]; Andi Young/Soen Joon Sunim [Ditch the Raft & One robe one bowl] and Audrey [Taming the Heart]. Also, chalip of Zen Under the Skin; Chodpa of Luminous Emptiness; and Dharmasattva of Dharmasattva's Meditations now post very infrequently. Plus, the great An Xiao recently put her haiblog, That Was Zen, This is Tao on hiatus. Some vital niches in the buddhoblogosphere are now empty and may be lost!

So, What’s an online Buddhist to do? In one sense, it seems that the problem is clearly THE WOMEN’S FAULT!!! [And I say that not just because only men post to this group blog and, perhaps, only men are reading this.] While we pretend that any group of people is wholly interlinked, truly, one’s online presence has a ambience you create for yourself. If you want to be loved and popular, you have enormous control in effecting that by networking with others you like, promoting yourself, and being charming and interested in others. If you’re a curmudgeon [like myself], or are unwilling to do the networking to create a known online presence, hopefully you will be satisfied writing your posts for a more-meager audience.

Similarly, some snarling complaints that meatspace sanghas are overrun my old white men are specious. Isn’t it really the case that at the workplace or in a community of any kind there are sub-groupings of associations that are near always the most important to us? At least until we are a lot wiser and more accepting, it is always a small number of people that are let into our lives and become especially important to us. So, if you're prejudice against OWMs, not to worry: There are sure to be others you can bond with in a rump sangha of some sort.

Perhaps every Buddhist community online is a loose and transient confederation. The most stunning thing about it is that there is little governance and it's easy, with no permission needed, to alter one's presence there to something that might be more satisfactory. Ditch the old blog and get a new one. Create a wholly new screen presence.

It is probably the case that if more women are to become a part of Buddhism Online, we will need to solicit them, and only then, if they come on board with glee and enthusiasm, will the virtual world become more genteel, creamier and have a more cosmopolitan air about it:


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