18. Buddhism versus The Buddha

17. Introduction to Parts Two through Five   |  19. Content and Ultimate Reality

Christopher Titmuss, one of my teachers, once commented during a dharma talk, “Buddhism and the teachings of the Buddha have been at odds for 2,500 years!” These are cynical but appropriate words. What we can tell about the practices the Buddha taught is that they were generally simple, if sometimes very subtle, particularly unglamorous, and generally quite difficult though doable. If we have a chance to read the canonical texts, which I highly recommend despite issues of translation and their cultural distance, we see again and again that what the Buddha taught was very practical, broadly applicable, and non-dogmatic. He basically said, “Do these very specific things, and these specific results will occur.” He seemed to have little use for ritual, ceremony, or philosophy that were not intended for some practical and beneficial purpose.

Now, it is true that things did get a bit more complex and religious in the later years of his teaching as the Vinaya, or code of conduct for monks, was established. The Buddha said that the added rules and regulations were a response to the greater number of less advanced and occasionally difficult students and scenarios he encountered in his later years, and the problems inherent in running a large organization. After the Buddha’s passing, however, the process of turning the teachings of the Buddha from a practical path for awakening into multiple competing ritualistic religions reached new heights of dogma and division. It is also true, however, that many worthwhile and practical variations on the fundamental teachings and techniques have evolved that have provided great benefit to many of those who followed them rather than just talked about them.

In general, as contemplative teachings become religions, all sorts of elements are added on to them depending on the prevailing cultural norms, the current government’s attitude toward the teachings, how well or poorly the teachings are understood by those teaching them, and socioeconomic pressures. Christianity as a dogma (rather than as a mystical tradition or set of spiritual practices such as sitting alone in the desert for forty days, facing our demons, and finding the kingdom of God within) is just one scary example of this, but perhaps no scarier than the sects within Buddhism. Just as some self-identified Christian institutions seem to have little to do with what Jesus was talking about (and practically nothing to do with the practices he did or living the kind of life he led), just so, some aspects of institutionalized Buddhism often seem to have largely forgotten the core teachings of the Buddha. As Buddhism enters the West, a whole new layer of cultural dust is being added to it, much of which is related to the shadow sides of Western psychology and the New Age movement. However, there are also signs that new life and health are being breathed into aspects of Buddhism that had become somewhat moldy and calcified in their countries of origin.

The diverse trappings are not necessarily all harmful in and of themselves, and some may be very skillful, but they may also dilute the amount of practical information about how to awaken with all sorts of other information that may have little to do with awakening and may even distract from it. This may then lead to a less than comprehensive emphasis on the three fundamental trainings of morality, concentration, and wisdom, which are quite a handful and a great undertaking even in their most basic and direct forms. I was extremely lucky, in that I learned some great Buddhist meditation technology long before I really got to know the culture of mainstream Western Buddhism. I have much use for the former, and as for the latter, well, read on.

It is true that Buddhist training can take on many valid forms at different times and places and in various cultures, and this is a fine and beautiful thing. Different training methods may be appropriate and even necessary for different meditators at different times and in different places, but the lack of appropriate sensitivity to this and some degree of cross-cultural understanding has seriously impaired the migration and transmission of the dharma. The added “padding” of tradition and religion can be a comfort and a support, as most people seem to really like an organized structure and cultural foundation from which to work. Idealized archetypal heroes and the lure of the secret, ancient, and exotic can appeal to us in ways that things current and seemingly ordinary often can’t. That tendency may reasonably arise from our having been able to identify, for example, the dangers of rapid technological or economic development in a setting of poorly developed ethical and social responsibility.

Traditions and standardized conceptual frameworks can also provide the means to communicate experiences and techniques that might otherwise be very hard to explain clearly. I have a friend from another mystical tradition who knows much that I find useful and interesting, but it took us months to even begin to line up our terminology so that we could benefit from each other’s understanding. However, these conceptual frameworks and trappings may also produce the huge amount of useless, harmful, and divisive sectarianism that exists within every living tradition of Buddhism and between the various meditative or mystical traditions, as well as all sorts of effort going into thoughts and actions that produce no freedom and may instead cause other and more insidious, difficult to identify, forms of suffering.

Every time I leave my sheltered little life and enter the rough and tumble world of endlessly petty, sectarian dharma scenes, I am again stunned at how fixated people can be on the miniscule differences between their tradition and traditions that are so like theirs they can only be differentiated by the clothes people wear and the labels they affix to things. I can’t tell you how tiring and discouraging this can be. Sometimes I wonder how these otherwise kind and reasonable people can stand themselves or each other when they behave this way. We all want to be special but, I beg you, find a way to be special that honors others as equally, if not more, special. That which all the great contemplative paths have in common is what makes them special. The differences are one hundred percent guaranteed to be fundamentally irrelevant. That said, I am going to turn around and bust on cultural aspects of traditions that are not about awakening and mastering what the Buddha was teaching. This is hardcore Buddhism, after all, and so it seems only natural that I should be into what the dear old chum was into.

I have heard way too many conversations between members of differing mystical traditions that could be summarized, “My dogma and ideals are better than your dogma and ideals.” Even worse are the rare and astonishing conversations that might be summarized, “My dogma and ideals are better than your actual realizations and profound insights.” Frightening.

There is a movement in the West, reminiscent of the original objectives of the Buddha in the early days of his teaching, to divorce Buddhism’s core ethical and meditation technology and basic trainings from religion and ritual entirely. I am a great fan of this movement if it does not cause people to throw out too many of the original Buddhist conceptual frameworks and supports that are critical as tools for mastering these practices.

There is also a movement in the West to take the meditative technology of Buddhism and integrate it into everything from Catholicism to psychiatry to the freaky fringe of the New Age. I don’t particularly have a problem with this trend (as why not spread useful things around?) if people realize that you could just as easily divorce these practical technologies from those traditions and have something that is still very useful and powerful.

There is another related movement in the West that seeks to make Buddhism into something for everyone. Remember, the Buddha’s original takeaway right after his awakening was that the dharma wasn’t going to be understood by anyone else. He was wrong, but not by a large margin. Unfortunately, what is happening is that Buddhism is becoming watered down, often indiscriminately, to promote mass appeal. The result is something like what happens in places such as Thailand, where most people “practice Buddhism” in a way that is largely devotional and dogmatic, meaning that the Buddha is turned into an object of worship, Buddhism into rote motions, with dana being like medieval indulgences, and personal responsibility for freeing oneself relinquished.

In the West, this translates to people “practicing Buddhism” by becoming neurotic about being “Buddhist”, accumulating lots of fancy books and fancy props, learning just enough of a new language to be pretentious or misleading, and sitting on a cushion engaged in free-form psychological whatnot while doing nothing resembling the meditative practices the Buddha and subsequent disciples taught. They may aspire to no level of mastery of anything and may never even have been told what these practices were designed to achieve.

Thus, their “meditation” or “dharma practice” is largely a devotional or social set of activities—something that externally may look like meditation but achieves relatively little. In short, it is just one more spiritual trapping, though one that may have some personal and social benefits. Many seem to have substituted the pain of the church pew for the pain of the zafu with the results and motivations being largely the same. It is an imitation of meditation done because meditation seems like a good and evolved thing to do. However, it is a meditation that has been designed by those “teachers” who want everyone to be able to feel good that they are doing something “spiritual”.

It is good for a person to slow down to take time out for silence. There is some science coming out that seems to show that small doses of not particularly good practice may confer various physiological and psychological benefits. Yet, I claim that many who would have aspired to much more are being shortchanged by not being invited to really step up to the plate and play ball, to discover the profound and extraordinary capabilities hidden within their own minds that the Buddha realized and pointed out.

This book is designed to be just such an invitation, an invitation to step far beyond the increasingly ritualized, bastardized, and gutless mock-up of Buddhism that is rearing its fluffy head in the West and has a stranglehold on many a practice group and even some of the big meditation centers.

To be fair, it is true that spiritual trappings and cultural add-ons may, at their best, be “skillful means”, ways of making difficult teachings more accessible and ways of getting more people to practice correctly and in a way that will finally bring realization. A fancy hat or a good ritual can really inspire some people. That said, it is lucky that one of the fundamental “defilements” that drops away at first awakening is attachment to rites and rituals, i.e. “Buddhism”, ceremony, certain techniques, and religious and cultural trappings in general. Unfortunately, the cultural embeddedness and resulting inertia of the religions of Buddhism is hard to circumvent.

It need not be, if the trappings can serve as “skillful means”, but I assert that many more people could be much more careful about what are fundamentally helpful teachings and what causes division, confusion, and insufferably sectarian arrogance, which could be reduced with the proper attention to and training in the practice of morality. Those who aren’t careful about this are at least demonstrating in a roundabout way that they themselves do not understand what the fundamental teachings of the Buddha are and have attained little wisdom, much less freedom or the ability to lead others to it.

17. Introduction to Parts Two through Five   |  19. Content and Ultimate Reality