Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Blog Expansion

So... I've been doing a lot of thinking lately.  I'd like to turn this blog into a more active commentary on society at large - but viewed through my own unique perspective on Buddhism.  What that would mean for readers is that I'd continue to comment on topics related to Buddhism, but I'd also write about other topics that I find of interest. 

I'm leaning in this direction because I've received a number of comments about how all I do is rage against Buddhism and I don't offer any constructive suggestions for improvement.  By expanding my focus, I think I'd be able to write on a more inclusive basis.  What do you think?

Also - I bought some domain names.  I was thinking of migrating away from Blogger.  Does anyone have any experience/advice about that? 


A totally random picture of Rick James for your enjoyment!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

I Voted For Obama!

No big surprise, eh?  I'm a (Buddhist) white guy from New York City with a beard... who the hell else was I gonna vote for?  Simple.. no one.  He was the only choice.

I've only voted one time in my life.  I was 27 years old at the time and I didn't believe in the system.  Politics was just some game that rich people played to make themselves feel important.  My gut told me that "voting" was just a bone that our government threw us common folk to make us feel like we had a say over who ran our country.  Then came Obama - a kinda black guy who seemed different then the rest.  A guy who had something to prove to the world.  I got sucked in.

I watched the debates, read the articles, and found myself getting lost listening to that calm voice telling me that America was finally going to be a place that I could be proud of.  I remember walking into the booth like it was yesterday.  I was nervous as I pulled the curtain closed.  This was a momentous occasion!  I saw his name on a little white card and I knew that once I pulled the lever, I was taking part in history.

It's hard being the president.  I understand that.  But I have trouble reconciling the fact that there are certain fundamental responsibilities that our leaders are neglecting.  When you examine the situation closely, there really are only a few major issues that Obama needed to work on.  If I remember correctly, he even "promised" us the kind of change that would directly address these issues when he said "YES WE CAN!" 

So what the fuck?

I can imagine the amount of stress he must be feeling right now.  His approval rating is at an all time low and I don't think there's a chance in hell that he's going to be re-elected.  I would even go as far as to say that when Mr. Obama lays his head down on the pillow at night he must wish that someone would tell him how to fix the mess he's gotten himself into.  So, ladies and gentleman, I'm going to do just that right here!  (Mr. Obama, if you're reading this... just follow my advice and everything will be okay.)

It's a short list... but I think if he can accomplish these five things, he'll be able to rest easy and we can all feel happy to be Americans. 

1. Fix education!  Wake up and realize that No Child Left Behind really means: No White Upper-Middle Class Child Left Behind.  Realize that all children can't be held to the same standards unless they all are given the same opportunities and resources.  Realize that college was never meant to be a one-size-fits-all requirement that has the potential to run people into bankruptcy.

2. End the war(s)!  We have no fucking business meddling in the business of others and sacrificing young men and women based on decisions made by rich people sitting in comfortable offices.  If I remember correctly, human sacrifice ended with the Aztecs, right?

3. Get your head out of Wall Street's ass!  The world of finance is so royally screwed up at this point, that I say we just end it all and start from scratch.  I don't know a single person that even really understands our economy well enough to diagnose the problems we are having... that includes the people in charge.  HELLO!  NO ONE IS AT THE WHEEL ANYMORE!  If we keep on going, then we're all going to be screwed... rich and poor alike.  

4. Give all people adequate health care!  Is that really too much to ask?  Can't you just make it so that if we're sick, we can go to the doctor without signing over our entire paycheck?  I know it's a complex system... but really when you think about it, isn't it just that simple?  We just want to know that we can get medicine if we need it.  If you can spend 32 million dollars on a helicopter that ends up in flames in Afghanistan, can't you spring for chemotherapy drugs if I get cancer? 

5. Dissolve the two-party system of politics!  Where does it say in the Constitution that the government should spend 90% of its time arguing over whether it's better to be a Republican or a Democrat?  I'm pretty sure that the government is supposed to care for the needs of the PEOPLE.  Does it really matter if you're a member of the Tea Party or the Asshole Party?  No... it matters if people have enough food and a roof over their heads!

Please forgive the simplicity of my list.  I know that complex forces are at work here... but I think we can all agree that it's time for our president to make good on some of his promises, right?

I fear that worse than the fact that he won't be re-elected, he'll just go down in history as a kinda black guy who made it to the White House, which is all well and good... but when I pulled that lever, I was hoping for something more. 

(I know this post had nothing to do with Buddhism... but hey, if you think about it... it kinda did.)

Friday, July 8, 2011

The 35 Buddhas of Confession

Sounds awfully Catholic, doesn't it?  Problem is, I don't think you could fit all 35 of these brightly-colored, omniscient beings into one of those little closet-sized confessionals - plus, there'd be no room for prostrations!  Nonetheless, I thought I'd ride the inspiration from my last post to explore some things I'd like to confess about myself which might shed light on why I profess such a non-traditional view of Buddhism.

One of the greatest conundrums for western Buddhists is the fact that our day-to-day lives are nothing like those of our traditional Asian counterparts.  This is problematic because the mind learns best by example.  Trying to follow an example that is completely alien to our own experience is quite difficult, if not impossible.

Most of the literature available to us and most of the teachers we have access to come from one of these perspectives: 

The "traditional" Asian, monastic perspective - A typical biography might look something like this:  A boy is born somewhere in Asia.  Usually, this boy belongs to a family living in a remote, rural area, without much in the way of worldly possessions.  Either the kid is recognized as someone's reincarnation, or is given away to a monastery at an early age because there isn't enough money to feed him.  He spends his entire adolescence growing up in a secluded monastery, surrounded by other monks, under the strict observance of novice vows.  If the kid shows some kind of intellectual promise, he's given a monastic religious education and takes up a teaching position somewhere in the world.  Maybe he spends some time meditating on retreat somewhere... but maybe not.  How can a person like this be expected to understand what it's like to be an American?  He's led a completely sheltered life, devoid of the kind of day-to-day experiences that we're all familiar with.  There's no way he can relate to us, so how can he be considered to guide us along some spiritual path?  It doesn't make sense.  Not to mention the fact that this world is completely male-dominated and rigidly conforms to traditions that have been extant for centuries. 

The "wannabe" Asian, monastic perspective - In this scenario, a middle-upper class, overly educated white guy (or sometimes girl) gets sick and tired of being a Christian or a Jew and decides to adopt Buddhism as their new religion.  What usually happens here is the person gets involved with some kind of traditional Buddhist center somewhere, adopts their teachings word-for-word, gets ordained, lives in some kind of monastic-like environment for a few years, maybe spends some time meditating, quits after having sex with one of the other monks/nuns, starts a new Buddhist center and begins teaching.  Maybe this perspective is a LITTLE more appropriate for us... but really, who the hell wants to hang out with one of these guys?  They end up being so goddamn full of themselves that their center ends up looking more like a cult than anything related to Buddhism. 

Here's a list of 6 reasons why I can't (and won't) practice traditional Buddhism. 

I feel the need to share this information with you because I'm hoping to give a voice to other people out there like me who have no interest in completely changing their entire lives to fit into some predetermined image of what it means to be a Buddhist... but still persist in trying to cling to a spiritual path.  (Also, because it's somewhat cathartic to air my dirty laundry on the internet.)

1. I just got off the phone with my little brother.  He's in prison.  I can't fully explain just why he's in prison because I don't really understand all the ins and outs of our legal system, especially as it's interpreted by the rednecks who threw him in there.  All I know is that its got something to do with heroin and the fact that he escaped from a state-run rehabilitation facility.  He spent several months living on the run, but recently he was captured.  When we spoke, he struggled to communicate how much he loves me and despite the fact he's in prison, feels so much better mentally now that he's off drugs.  He struggled with his words because it was hard for him to talk without bursting into tears and reverting back to that innocent platinum-haired child that I remember as my little brother.  Had he started crying, it was basically guaranteed that one of the toothless meth-addicts standing nearby would try to either bash his face in or make love to him. 
Wanna kiss this mouth?

So, we settled for talking about less emotional things. He asked me to send him some books.  Being the Buddhist that I am, I tried to think of a book that would help him cultivate a peace of mind that could somehow make the endless hours of confinement seem less daunting.  Here's a perfect illustration of just how BUDDHISM SUCKS:  What the hell book am I going to send my brother who's sitting on his ass in a concrete jail cell, trying his best not to lose his shit or get fucked by his homicidal cellmate?  Should I send him something by Pema Chodron?  How about a scholastic text on the prajnaparamita?  Or what about one of the million books on how to overcome anger?  Shit... the only thing he's got in there to protect himself from the onslaught of gang violence IS anger!  Fuck that.  I think I'll settle for something by Brad Warner.  At least he won't look like a pussy reading it, right? 

2. My mother and I haven't spoken to one another in over a year.  That's not entirely true.  She has been sending me emails every now and again.  In the last one, she basically told me that I'm an ungrateful sociopath, pretending to be a contributing member of society, but that eventually everyone would figure me out and I'd be in for some kind biblical-scale punishment.  Oh, and she also issued a curse on the lives of my two unborn children much like that given by the gypsy character in Stephen King's Thinner.  So I ask you, in the 21 Meditations on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Lam Rim) where it explains that we as Buddhists are supposed to visualize all sentient beings as our mothers, should I imagine this guy?

3. My father, who is a toothless alcoholic and similar in behavior to Gary Busey at his finest, recently fell down a flight of stairs and broke his goddamn neck.  Don't worry, he's not paralyzed or anything.  He did however spend several weeks on the intensive care ward and was eventually discharged... not home... but to a mental institution.  I had the good fortune of visiting him there, along with the few remaining family members that haven't completely given up yet.  I'm not sure what was worse, talking to the man he shared a room with who was completely insane and thought everything in his life was a government conspiracy or watching my uncle unabashedly steal food from the trays of other patients.  Hmm... sounds like fun, huh?  So, when my suicidal father asks me (while I'm shaving his beard for him because he can't move his neck) what's gonna happen to him or where he's gonna live when he gets out of the looney-bin, what should I, as a BUDDHIST, say to him?  Here are a couple of choices:  (1) Just be mindful of your breathing, dad, and focus all your attention on the impermanence of life.  (2) Just dedicate the merit of your actions to the benefit of all sentient beings and you'll become a Bodhisattva. (3) This is karma, you old bastard.  Just hope that in the next life, you have the good fortune to be born as a Tibetan monk!

Grandma - Rockaway Beach - early 1930's
4. My 93-year-old, pink-haired, Leprechaun grandmother died recently.  Shortly after this picture was taken, she got married and basically spent her entire adult life either pregnant with or working hard to raise her eight children.  Although she was fortunate to see all eight grow well into adulthood, she spent the last five years of her life sinking steadily into the murky waters of elderly dementia.  At the very end, she was spending approximately 6-8 hours a day looking for a McDonald's hamburger that she lost sometime in the 1980's.  She looked everywhere for that son-of-a-bitch, but she never did find it.  (Of course, no one had the good sense to go out and buy her a new one.)  A few weeks before she died, I was able to sit with her for a few hours at a family wedding.  In between diaper changes (I'm serious), she sat in her wheelchair gripping my hand like a lost little girl.  I looked into her deeply lined face, searching her haunted looking, icy-blue eyes for a sign that she knew who I was.  At one point, she actually connected with me and her expression cleared for an instant.  "I'm scared," she said.  "What, grandma?" I asked.  "What are you scared of?"  "Just scared," she whispered, looking off into the distance.  She stretched the word S-C-A-R-E-D out like a parent does when they're trying to get an infant to pronounce something correctly.  I knew what she was scared of; she made that clear enough.  It was death.  It was painted on her old face like a mask.  What was I supposed to say to her?  Should I have explained the bardo?  Should I have told her to look for the Clear Light of Awareness?  No.

Death looks different in a book.  It sounds different when a Lama talks about rejecting fear and embracing it.  Death is fucking scary.  

My daughter's 2nd Birthday Party - Guest of honor: Segyu Choepel Rinpoche
5. I had a kid when I was seventeen.  It was your typical, Lifetime after-school special: unprotected sex, running away from home, dropping out of high school, collecting food stamps, etc.  The only difference in my situation was that instead of developing a major drug habit or running for the hills like many teenage fathers do, I chose to deal with what was happening to me a little differently: I became a devoted Buddhist.  Just in case you are curious about what it took to be considered a "devoted" Buddhist in my book back then, take a look at this checklist:

1. Shave your head
2. Become 100% straight-edge (no drugs, alcohol, caffeine, fun)
3. Carry prayer beads 24/7
4. Wear only monastic-style clothing
5. Take every vow possible (refuge, bodhisattva, tantric, etc)
6. Stop eating meat
7. Hang out with as many dudes in maroon robes as humanly possible
8. Only read books published by Snow Lion or Wisdom

I remember when, after a lengthy search, I was finally able to secure a bona fide Tibetan Geshe as my "root" teacher.  The excitement of being able to sit in the presence of this man, an 80-year-old monk who literally WALKED OVER THE HIMALAYAN MOUNTAINS, kept me literally on the edge of my meditation cushion.  I remember this one night in particular.  A bunch of people were at the center for a teaching on Vajrasattva.  We spent some time in between Geshe-La's bits of instruction on the sadana, meditating on the image of the deity.  At one point, I thought I felt the Geshe entering my mind while I was meditating.  I opened my eyes to find him staring directly at me with a strange grin on his lips.  This was all the encouragement I needed to think that I was someone "special" in the world of Buddhism.  Instinctually, I knew that I was on the "right" path and that hhe would teach me great things.  (Little did I know that Geshe-La always meditated with his eyes slightly opened.  The grin was nothing more than the natural shape of his lips.)  After our session, I approached his little throne feeling like I was the most special person in the entire world.  I had so many questions for him about my practice... specifically about how a seventeen-year-old father could practice while raising a little girl and sweating my ass off working in the kitchen of a shitty restaurant.  I don't remember my exact words, but it went something like this: 

I approached his little throne submissively, my palms pressed together, and said, "Geshe-La, thank you for your teaching tonight.  I think I'm really beginning to understand Vajrasattva now." 

"Good... good..." he responded, lips still curved into that pleasant grin.  

"I was wondering if I could ask you some questions... you know, about my practice?  Do you have the time?" 
"Yes, yes.  Questions good."                                                            

"Okay, great!  Here's my situation.  I have a daughter.  She was born a couple of months ago and I'm trying to decide if I should marry her mother... and you know, have sex with her and stuff.  I'm a Buddhist now and I want to do the right thing.  You know, so that I can become a Bodhisattva and all...  What do you think I should do?" 

(Hear how naive I sound?)

"Ah... yes!" he exclaimed.  "Good questions."  Again, the smile. 

He rocked back a little on the platform of his throne and took a long, knowing breath.  Looking deeply into my eyes he asked, "Do you have car?"   

"A car, Geshe-La?"  I was confused. 
"Yes, car.  Do you drive car?" 

"Yes, Geshe-La, but I don't see how..." 

"Ah, Good!  Then you take me to grocery to buy meat for my stew, yes?" 

"Take you to the store?" I asked. 

"Yes, to buy meat for stew.  Wait while I get my coat." 

With that, he bounded up off his throne and went off looking for his maroon, pull-over fleece jacket.  There's no need to go into detail about our little trip to the store.  We did exactly as he said.  We drove there in silence, I helped him find the perfect cut of top round for his stew, and dropped him off back at the house.  He did happen to give a blessing to the checkout girl, which was kinda cool, but other than that, the night was pretty uneventful, spiritually speaking.  He never did get around to answering any of my questions.  
Geshe Jampel Thardo
 My point in taking this time to recreate one of my experiences with the Geshe is to illustrate the fact of how difficult it is for a young American to relate to an elderly Tibetan Lama.  Geshe-La was a brilliant scholar, an accomplished meditator, and a well-known teacher.  If I had a question about the Guhyasamāja Tantra or about how to outwit a Cittamatra in debate, he'd be right there with me... but when it came to the everyday struggles that an American practitioner faces, he was clueless.  And how could I blame him... when he was seventeen, he'd already taken full ordination vows and was living in total seclusion at a monastery in Tibet.  How could he hope to understand the pains of a teenage father? 

6. My great-great-grandfather was arrested and fined for punching a horse in the mouth.  Twice.
Talk about some crazy-ass, non-Buddhist behavior, huh?  Someone should've told him that violence isn't the best way to become a Bodhisattva!  Be careful when doing genealogy.  You might just discover that the fruit dangling from the branches of your family tree is rotten as shit.  

In Buddhism, there's this whole tradition of the "precious human rebirth."  Supposedly, if you are born human with access to the Buddha's teachings, it means that your karma is so fucking good that you basically owe it to yourself to be the best Buddhist you can be.  The first thing you should do is meditate your ass off on just how great it is to have this precious human rebirth.  Enlightenment is on the horizon; you just gotta get out there and grab it. 

What do you do then if your DNA is riddled with predispositions to depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, narcissism, and ANIMAL CRUELTY?  Just how precious is this human rebirth exactly?  Instead of teaching people how to sit around and think about how lucky they are to be born human, I think it might be a better idea to MODERNIZE that shit and teach people how to cope with some of the problems that our society seems to be plagued with.  Then maybe we can have some Buddhists out there who are actually DOING something constructive instead of just gazing at their navels or visualizing the trillion arms of Avalokitshevara

This is an excerpt from an actual article written about my ancestor that I found in the
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, dated October 9, 1901

Monday, June 27, 2011

New Buddhist - With a Question

Ok, I haven't posted in a while... obviously.  Don't think I haven't felt guilt over it.  I feel guilty about everything!  

There are many reasons why I've been silent, other than my general malaise toward Buddhism... 

It's been a tough year of teaching, I was finishing up my Master's degree, AND I just found out that my wife and I are having twins!  

**Not an actual picture of my twins**

A whole bunch of people have written me over the past few months, many of whom had some nice things to say.  Thanks to the few of you who wrote all about how my views on Buddhism are distorted and are going to get me sent straight to the coldest dimension of hell!!!

 The other day, this guy Joe Ryan sent me an email that struck me as worthy for a response in a new blog post.  (Don't worry, I already asked him if it was alright if I used his name on here.)  

So here ya go, Joe:  

(Joe's words are in blue and mine are black.)
Hi, I'm Joe Ryan, and I have no idea if you ever check your email, but here we go regardless.

Hi, Joe.  Nice to meet you.  I do check my email and for all of those people who've written me over the past few months, I thank you sincerely for your input.  I've been so busy at school and with other writing, that I kinda put this blog on the back-burner for a while.  But I'm here and I've read all the messages and I thank you for all of them. 

There are a number of blogs like yours and I love reading them, the sort of deconstruction of what many people seem to believe Buddhism is. But I guess I am wondering if there is a 'short version' (so to speak) of what people who are a part of this movement believe? 
I can't really say that I belong to a "movement" per say.  I can in no way speak for anyone else but myself.  Like many American Buddhists, I spent years studying and practicing by following a very traditional path.  For me, it was in the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism.  As I've mentioned elsewhere, the Asian tradition of Buddhism is quite culturally specific and can be difficult to follow.  Extracting the "ideals," "philosophies," or "practices" from this tradition can be extraordinarily difficult.  Plus, I think it's in the American spirit to change whatever we encounter to suit our own needs anyway.  
The reason why I was drawn to "deconstruct" Buddhism is because I recognized the fact that (1) Buddhism could offer me a worthwhile focus in my life, but (2) that I first needed to adapt it to my own worldview rather than vice-versa.  I tried to force myself into the traditional mold, but I just didn't fit.  I was faced with the decision to either give up altogether or make changes that would allow myself some leeway in utilizing what Buddhism could offer me.  Remember, the "path" is a personal thing.  There is no "right way" even though the actual phrase "right" occurs frequently in the literature.  Use common sense and self-direct your path.  It's the only way.  
If I were to suggest some reading material for you that could somehow synthesize this idea of an individual path into something comprehensible, the list would look somewhat strange to a traditional Buddhist.  Here's a taste: 
Leaves of Grass - Walt Whitman 
Anything by Allen Ginsberg
The Autobiography of Malcolm X 
Einstein's theory of special and general realtivity
Gray's Anatomy - the BOOK not the SHOW

All of this literature has nothing to do with Buddhism per say, but everything to do with "finding an individual path."  After reading this stuff, you can then investigate some of the more traditional Buddhist texts.  If you read the Buddhist stuff first, you'll just end up lost in a blizzard of intellectual bullshit and you won't have time to meditate.  Find people who think differently... people who lust at life and come away with some kind of unique perspective.  Examine the paintings of Van Gogh for example, or read a biography of a famous serial killer... nothing is irrelevant.  
(DISCLAIMER: I don't know how old you are Joe, or any of my readers for that matter, but if any of the things I suggest below are illegal for minors... DON'T DO THEM!  It's important above all else to be responsible and mindful about the feelings of others.  A good piece of advice:  Do anything you want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone.) 

Rather than get bogged down on the couch under a load of books, I suggest a more "experiential" approach to Buddhism.  Here's a list of stuff you can do to give you a more accurate perspective on the spiritual path: 

1. Go on a prolonged camping trip into the wilderness.  Sit in the dark and experience nature. 
2. Get really drunk (responsibly).  See how it feels.  It's the only way to understand WHY it could be bad for you. 
3. Have lots of sex (responsibly). 
4. Meditate - don't worry about how.  Just sit there.  You'll figure it out. 
5. Cook a gourmet meal for someone and eat it together.  (Or at least try.)
6. Fall deeply in love with someone - hetero or homo!  Have fun! 
7. Write poetry. 
8. View extreme poverty first hand. 
9. Get in a fight with someone. 
10. Get scared about something... all alone. 
11. Hold hands with someone who is about to die.  (This is my personal fav...)

Some people may say that I'm being crass or irresponsible by suggesting that you do this kinda stuff.  (Trust me, I would've written a longer, more explicit list if I wasn't afraid of getting in trouble.  We should go out for a beer sometime and I can elaborate.)  
I'm just trying to make a point.  Buddhism is full of these lists of stuff that you "shouldn't" do.  The only way to achieve anything... not just in Buddhism, but in general... is to EXPERIENCE life - make mistakes, regret stuff, see things that disturb you.  You need to make judgements about your world and form opinions about your place in it.  If you spend your life in a cave, isolated from the real world, you won't have anything to meditate about.  Those colorful drawings of Buddhist deities get kinda boring after a while, trust me. 
For example, you mention that you tossed out all your Buddhist shit and gave up on wasting my time looking for this vague concept called "enlightenment" " but many of the books that you read (The Three Pillars of Zen comes to mind) say that the enlightenment experience is basically the most important thing in Buddhism. Certainly, zazen is viewed as 'what you do' if you want to be considered a Buddhist. I'm trying to decide where you (and many others) fall on many of these things that seem like Buddhism 101. Admittedly, I haven't read through the entire blog, and I probably should because it might answer all my questions. 
It's like this:  If you spend your life focused on the prize, then you lose sight of the path and you'll never get there.  Enlightenment is an indescribable, non-conceptual phenomenon.  Any time spent trying to figure out what it is exactly, or what is the "best" way to get there... is time that could've been better spent living or practicing.  
YES enlightenment is important.  It's the supposed goal of Buddhist practice and meditation is the supposed way to get there.  What do you think is better?  To focus on the goal or on the method?  If you spend all your time worrying about enlightenment, then you won't meditate.  If you spend all your time meditating, you won't have time to live.  If you don't live... you die.  It's that simple.  You need to achieve a balance that's right for you.  No Buddhist sage can tell you how to do that.  Sure, they can give you a perspective from their own path, but let's face it... how much do you really have in common with the Dalai Lama, Joe?  
Read the Buddhism books.  They're good.  I've read many of them myself... but take all of what you read with a grain of salt.  If you read something, or hear something from some supposed Buddhist master, ask yourself if it makes sense to JOE.  If it does, great.  If not, forget you ever heard it.   

It seems like there are people who worship the Asian Zen masters as rockstars (you know the people...they shave their head and talk in riddles to make friends and family think they are mysterious or something), and then there are the other group of people who believe that Buddhism has to be westernized or die. Buddhism gets packaged into 'easily digestible for western audiences' boxes, or becomes hippy/beat zen, where you just get to do whatever you want and call it living in the moment. 
Like I said earlier... Don't worry about the Asian rock stars.  Don't worry about the losers that imitate them.  Don't get bogged down with westernizing Buddhism.  Ignore all "boxed" forms of ANYTHING.  The only person in this world (or in any of the Buddhist heavens) that can tell you what to believe or how to believe it is..... JOE.  You.  That's it.  Period.  End of story. 
It's like being at the grocery store.  Let's say you want to make a really delicious, healthy dinner.  There are aisles and aisles full of pre-packaged, pre-processed, pre-served, pre-heated crap that you can buy.  That stuff gets the job done.  You cram it down your throat and you feel full.  The problem is that it tastes terrible and destroys your body from the inside out.  Don't buy that crap.  Instead, grab some fresh vegetables, a nice piece of fish, and maybe a handful of herbs and make yourself a nice dinner.  It'll be better for you, it'll taste better, and best of all... YOU made it.  

When I imagined writing this email, it was very insightful and not nearly as rambling as it has turned out to be. Let me just break it down, and if you have the time/interest to answer these somewhat personal question, I'd appreciate it.

Do you believe that enlightenment through meditation (or at all) is crucial, unimportant, or impossible?
None of the above.  Enlightenment is not an event.  You don't just turn a corner one day and run smack into the brick wall of enlightenment.  "Enlightenment" in the conservative Buddhist sense is just a vague concept that aims to articulate a goal that supposedly lies at the end of the spiritual path.  There have been centuries of scholarly and meditative inquiry directed at the task of quantifying this goal and an equal amount of speculation about how best to reach it.  The volume of commentary on the subject is staggering.
In my opinion, the idea that enlightenment should be set in the cross-hairs of our practice as a goal that is to be aimed for creates a dichotomy between the PERSON WHO WE ARE TODAY, IN THE PRESENT MOMENT - and - THE PERSON WE HOPE TO BECOME SOMEDAY THROUGH INTENSIVE PRACTICE.  
This is an unfair interpretation.  It simplifies the whole process of spiritual growth and realization that a person goes through in life and distills it into a neat little package:  
If you be good and work hard 
you will get a really cool reward!  
How can we possibly stay focused on living in the present moment, mindful of the million miracles that occur in our daily lives, when there is the constant distraction of what could happen tomorrow or the next day, when we finally become a buddha?  

That's a huge burden to carry.  I refuse to do it.  
Besides setting yourself up for certain disappointment, this kind of thinking defies logic.  To assume that the mind and the physics of our very universe operate in such a manner is just as foolish as the supposition or belief that a divine creator-god watches over us like we're his children - punishing us for being bad and rewarding us for being good.  
If that's what we're doing as Buddhists, then I don't want any part in it.  I don't care what terminology you use.  I have no interest whatsoever in sitting at the right hand of the Lord OR becoming a golden, omniscient buddha with droopy earlobes who has the power to save humankind.  
Thanks, but no thanks.  I don't need that to be happy.   
Enlightenment in this sense is not possible.  At least, that's my belief.  Please understand, I don't suggest that I have any great understanding of a universal spiritual principle.  I do know what feels right to ME.  I have been able to figure out (to an extent) what I need to believe in order to wake up in the morning, put my feet on the floor, and live another day.  

This is life - it's a constant challenge.  The game is figuring out how to make it through  without irreparably hurting yourself or others and managing to maintain an acceptable level of happiness.  
Not a single one of us has a leg up or a special understanding of what it takes to deconstruct existence and solve the eternal questions in life.  Not Buddha, not Mohammed, not Jesus, and certainly not Harold Camping.  I believe that each and every one of us has everything we could possibly need, already inside of us.  It's just a matter of opening the mind to it all.  
(For those of you who require a Buddhist reference for this belief, check out the writings of Longchenpa or the concept of tathagatagarbha.  I suggest reading the original texts without commentary first.  Go with your gut.  Don't forget that all this shit was written by people just like you and me!)  
We live, we learn along the way, and we get by.  There are certain undeniable truths to this existence which puzzle us and which we try to understand.  The irony is, for all of our similarities as human beings, there is no universal path for us to follow.  Nor is there a universal goal.  You can investigate any religion or philosophical dogma and you'll find the same thing: suggestions.  The challenge is to go beyond the suggested reading list and figure it out for yourself!
For me, enlightenment is something unique to my perspective.  For you, it's something entirely different.  There are some commonalities, to be sure, but you can chalk them up to the beauty of life.  Don't forget that something like 98% of our DNA is identical to that of a chimpanzee... would you ask a chimp how to realize emptiness?
Joe, you have your enlightenment already.  It's just a matter of embracing it.  If you figure out the secret on just how to do that... let us know.  We're waiting.   
If I had to choose one word to describe enlightenment, it would be: dream.  
Where would you say your beliefs lie, on a scale of Tibetan Buddhism to Alan Watts-style Beat Zen? (Might not be the best scale, but I hope you get what I mean.)
Do you think a Buddhist is REQUIRED to believe in things like rebirth, Karma, etc?
Ask yourself this:  Who makes this requirement?  The Buddha?  Impossible.  He's dead.  He can't tell you to do ANYTHING!  Is it the institution or dogma of the Buddhist religion?  Can't be... neither of those are sentient beings with the ability to ask anyone anything.  
Think about it like this: 
Take any one of those supposedly "Buddhist" concepts like reincarnation or karma.  Do your research.  Read all about them and talk to people who claim to believe in them.  Ask questions.  Then, go for a long walk by yourself on the beach or something and think about them for yourself.  Does the idea of karma make sense to you?  Is it something that you think will help you understand yourself or the nature of existence?  Investigate it... test it out... dare I say, MEDITATE on it.  If in the end, you feel like it makes sense and it's something you'd like to lay claim to... then go ahead.  If not, walk away.  Just be careful, as this whole process might just take your entire life.  
Don't forget that many of the dogmatic concepts which serve as cornerstones to the institution of Buddhism came from social constructs that evolved over the course of thousands of years.  In the end, human beings are really only concerned with one thing: finding happiness.  For one person, like Adolf Hitler for example, that quest might involve the genocide of millions... for another person, it could be as simple as a ham sandwich.  When you stop to think about it all, this whole thing called "life" is completely fucking insane.  
If I had to "scale" my own belief system, I'd say it's probably most similar to the life of an ant.  They're more Buddhist than anyone I've ever met.  

And finally, if what many people think of modern western Buddhism is just a group of people who may or may not meditate, may or may not believe in Buddhist things like reincarnation and Karma, and think you should live for the moment and try to do right by other people, where's the difference between modern Buddhism and Secular Humanism?
Again... it doesn't matter what other people think.  What's most important is what YOU think.  If you want to call yourself a Secular Humanist, a Buddhist, or an asshole, then that's your reality.  No one else can change that.  
Yes, Buddhism has a lot in common with humanism, transcendentalism, Hinduism, and Taoism... just to name a few other "isms."  But think about this.  It also has a lot in common with Nazi-ism.  Where else can you find a group of people who all look exactly alike, have the same haircuts, wear the same clothes, chant the same words, and think the same thoughts? 
Trip to Jonestown anyone?
There is an innate danger in labeling our belief systems and trying to quantify the non-conceptual forces that govern our minds.  Before you know it, you've built yourself a tiny, windowless prison cell.  Sure, you can go inside, close the door, and lock yourself away forever... but who would want that?     

Thanks in advance for reading, whether or not you have time or interest enough to respond.

-Joe Ryan
Thank you for writing, Joe.  Thank you for challenging me to get inside myself and try to articulate the things that drive me mad on a daily basis.  Good luck, godspeed, and don't forget to say your prayers before bed... or you'll probably go to hell.