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. 


  1. A quicker response than I ever expected, and more in-depth than I could have hoped for. Fantastic stuff, reinforces many things that I have felt myself and just needed to have someone tell me I'm not crazy, I guess.

    Thanks so much, and expect to hear more nonsense from me in the future.

  2. Good piece.

    My own hit is that Buddhists are more different than they are alike, but I never chill with the Tricycle magazine yuppie Buddhists. The Dharma punx I sit with couldn't be more different from the Jodo Buddhists at the temple where I got married, or the (mostly) white Zen Buddhists where I learned to sit.

    The point, I think, is that it SHOULD be DIY. What were the Buddha's last words? "Work hard to gain your OWN salvation."

    Anyone who says "the Way is like this" doesn't know the way.

  3. Oh, and felicitations on the twins, man. Wonderful news.

  4. Have a certain kind of insight I find refreshing.

  5. I was directed here by a link from Jayarava

    I wish to offer you a pun I have invented, that you might find useful:

    "The Gelug Archipelago"


  6. when you said, "If you spend your life in a cave, isolated from the real world, you won't have anything to meditate about." I thought you hit the nail on the bald head. It's tough to take advice from those who spend their time locked away from everything that I consider to be "life!' How can one achieve enlightenment when one is not experiencing fear, struggle, fights, sex, laughter, parties, failure, concerts, movies, music, love, parenting etc...
    In any event, your "piece" was very interesting. You're a smart man and a great writer!!

  7. I loved your advice to have people reading and experience things outside of their comfort zone. Here are two more thoughts:

    (1) Buddhist Modernism
    May I recommend David Chapman's blog. Though I sometimes think David Chapman's categories may be overreaching, I think his insights are incredibly helpful. He is a of student of a sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and he addresses these issues you mention of "the American spirit to change" Buddhism. You may also like his criticism of what he calls "Consensus Buddhism" where niceness and certain ethics are felt part of the Buddhist package. Take a look at his site if you get a chance. His blog seems to be speaking well to issues your writings are so clearly pointing out.

    (2) Guilt
    Wow, I am so lucky to not be inclined toward guilt -- but then, that probably makes me a bad person than me. :-)
    I wonder if Democrats (and thus teachers) suffer from more guilt than Republicans!

  8. Some Guy's OpinionSeptember 16, 2011 at 3:02 AM

    "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."

    Sweetest quote on the site.

    I think ultimately the modern Buddhist dialogue is less about reformatting and localizing traditional Buddho-speak, as you put it, and more about raising levels of awareness on any topic related to improving the human condition. In this regard, the site succeeds admirably in connecting these dots.

    You should write a book, fo realz. Call it: Buddhism For Real Ass Dudes (Who Aren't Yuppie Mid-Life Crisis Ex-Hippie Pussies.)

    Publishers will eat the title up.


  9. Enlightening piece of experience on dreamy yet truth of enlightenment one in you..awesomic.....kenneth

  10. theravada (teachings) are sufficient. forget about differing cultures and labels. to me buddhism is not even a religion, its just a better way of living. i do not practice any rituals nor join procession.

    you mentioned that you had to make decision to give up altogether or make changes. buddhism does not tell you to give up. it tells you not to have too much attachment to material gains, get greedy and eventually constantly crave for more till you're incapable of experiencing happiness.

    you're right about the "experiential" approach. it is in theravada teachings that you should believe only if you personally experience it.

    too many stuff that you "shouldn't" do. have you just read the rules for monks? all i know there are only 5 rules, panca sila.

    colorful drawings of Buddhist deities. that's just tibetan vajrayana and chinese mahayana culture, trim them out. they're all modification of the original teachings just to suit their own cultures and soon it got so twisted and many things got added in. just like hearsay, the more it gets transmitted the more it deviates from the original source. it doesn't mean they're bad, just different. it needs to be tailored to the culture to be accepted. theravada does not advocate focus on worshipping deities and gods. p/s buddha is not god.

    you spent too much time dwelling on what enlightenment is all about. to me its just happiness. you're trapped in a traffic jam, you know a jam is transient, you do not fret over it, that's enlightenment.

    as for those who shave their head and talk in riddles to make friends and family think they are mysterious or something. it is against the monk's rules.

    the concept of karma doesnt have to be real. its cause and effect. you hit somebody and the person will either hit you back or keep vengeance. teachings wants to end this cycle of pain by requesting us to do good deeds. that's all. whether karma is inexistence doesn't really matter to me.

    i'm not saying i'm right, just a passing commentor. no offence.