Tuesday, 29 November 2016

NEW MOON - Trackless Land

Some are reborn as humans;
evil-doers are reborn in hell.
Doers of good are reborn in bliss.
and the pure enter the trackless land.

Dhammapada v. 126

Whatever our views on the potential for future rebirth, we can witness daily our constantly being born into and dying out of states of mind. An agreeable experience, when clung to, can make us feel we will be happy forever; when we cling to a disagreeable experience, we may feel as if we are in hell and it will always be that way. Our lack of perspective means we don't see the connection between clinging to experiences and getting lost in them. Even goodness if clung to, will lead to suffering. Only when we see clearly that all experiences are what they are – gladness feels pleasant, sadness feels unpleasant – and that no experience lasts forever, will we truly embrace the path of purification. Those who have purified their hearts and minds from all compulsive clinging know reality in a way that the rest of us can't imagine; hence their reality can be called the trackless land.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Response from the Middle Way Society

Jack said in the previous post that it was "plucky of me to venture into the thorny arena of Buddhist hermeneutics: the way in which Buddhism has been, and is being, re-interpreted to suit contemporary western (American and European) social life, and precisely who claims authority to perform those acts of hermeneutics". How right he was, following quickly on from his comment came one from the chair of the Middle Way Society, Robert M. Ellis.

As I had to post Jack's contribution (it exceeded the character limit on comments) I think it only right to afford the same prominence to Mr Ellis' input to this debate.

If you seek to learn anything from the Buddha's teachings, presumably quite early on there will be anatta - the recognition that our ideas about 'essences' are our own construction. One's construction of 'Buddhism' is just as subject to this as anything else. If you want to follow the Buddha's experimental example in his early life as he discovered the Middle Way you will be similarly inclined to learn from but move beyond absolutised teachings that are no longer practically helpful, as the Buddha moved on from Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta, the the 5 ascetics. Thus I find it very ironic when Buddhists try to essentialise Buddhism and write in dismissive terms about those who want to follow the spirit of the Middle Way wherever it leads.

The Middle Way Society is indeed independent of Buddhism, as I would have thought anyone who wants to make use of the Buddha's insights would want to be. That doesn't mean that one can't make use of what one can learn from the Buddhist or any other tradition, but that one is not subjected to the authority of a tradition. For a Buddhist to give absolute authority to that tradition and also to want to follow the Buddha's example seems contradictory. But you have made huge and inaccurate assumptions about our motives which presumably stem from a failure to investigate what we actually do. It has nothing to do with political correctness or secularism, nor is it 'watering down' the Buddha's insights, but rather seeking a universal practical method that the Buddha's insights share with those of other individuals and traditions to varying degrees. We can hardly be losing essential elements of Buddha's teaching' when Buddha's teaching involves there being no such essential elements to anything. Only critical investigation in the light of experience can help us to understand and apply what we learn from sources like the Buddha, and the uncritical adoption of tradition is antipathetic to that process of human investigation.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Comment on "Watered down Buddhism"

Further to the previous post "Watered Down Buddhism" I received an email from a long time correspondent, A.W. (Jack) Kennedy who runs the Bowerchalke Buddhist Meditation Group over in Wiltshire on the Dorset, Hampshire border.

He had tried to post a comment on the article but it exceeded the permitted word count. It is an excellent take on the subject so I am posting the entire piece here..........

Thanks for this post. You point to an interesting article by Funie Hsu (accessible with a bit of searching on the ‘Lions Roar’ website). It is plucky of you to venture into the thorny arena of Buddhist hermeneutics: the way in which Buddhism has been, and is being, re-interpreted to suit contemporary western (American and European) social life, and precisely who claims authority to perform those acts of hermeneutics. 

Your post is brief, so please allow me to make a few comments by way of expansion: 

1. American and British Buddhism are not identical. Historical conditions have affected them in different ways they cannot be conflated. Certainly, there are two forms of Buddhism (indigenous immigrant and white convert) on both sides of the Atlantic, but in Britain there has generally been respect and interaction between the two. Hsu, and others, are concerned that the majority of white convert Buddhists should show respect and solidarity towards Japanese, Black, and LBGT minority Buddhists, in the face of neglect and oppression from the wider community, in the past and under Trump’s new world order. We should listen up, and make sure that neglect and oppression of marginalised communities doesn’t happen over here. 

2. Yet, any person, whatever their origin, has the right to inform themselves about the vast gamut of Buddhist teaching and practice, and the right to decide for themselves what’s meaningful and what’s meaningless in the light of their own cultural circumstances, which these days are usually scientifically-informed and liberal about human rights. Authority can, of course, be claimed by Buddhist teachers, but in the final analysis authority is only provisionally granted by those that decide to accept a teacher. My point is that white convert Buddhists can’t be expected to rely on indigenous immigrant teachers, or on traditional texts, without any right to apply their own forms of interpretation. 

3. You mention the ‘cultural appropriation’ and the ‘translation’ of Buddhism into western contexts. Whenever these terms are used, I think it only fair to reference my old PhD. supervisor, Philip Mellor, because he was the first person to use these terms and address these issues, and because subsequent commentators tend to forget his original contribution: Mellor, P.A. 1989, The Cultural Translation of Buddhism: problems of method in the study of Buddhism in England (University of Manchester, unpublished PhD thesis); Mellor, P.A. 1991, ‘Protestant Buddhism? The Cultural Translation of Buddhism in England’, in Religious Studies, 29, pp.111-127. Coming from an ‘outsider’ Catholic perspective, Mellor had a rather biased view of western Buddhism, but he made three interesting points: that Buddhism is being translated into Protestant forms of religious behaviour; that Buddhist practitioners are not particularly aware of this alteration, and that it is difficult for ‘the analyst’ (the academic observer) to disentangle western Buddhist discourse and practice from western psychotherapeutic discourse and practice. You note that the Robert Ellis’s ‘Middle Way Society’ is independent of Buddhism; could that also be said of the Mindfulness movement? Robert Ellis, as is his right, has made up his own mind on the basis of his own interpretation of Buddhism, and in the light of his sceptical philosophy. He has generated an impressive website but has few followers, therefore, not much effect on the progress of Buddhism in Britain. Might not the Mindfulness movement prove more damaging? Is today’s Mindfulness movement not an outcome of the entanglement of Buddhism with psychotherapeutic discourse, and is there not a risk that the Mindfulness movement might go on to largely replace Buddhism in Britain? 

4. I want to defend the memory of the Secular Buddhist UK website. It was established by Anantacitta Tunnell, a thoroughly decent Birmingham social-worker who used to be a member of the FWBO/Triratna Community. He worked hard to create an open forum for the discussion of secular Buddhist ideas and practice, with Stephen Batchelor’s blessing but without the benefit of his involvement. Nobody was willing to take over the site when it became too much for Anantacitta. Since I was a contributor, I must share some of the blame for that misfortune. Regrettably, it went into abeyance, Wordpress closed it down, and the archives vanished into digital oblivion. But I remain dependent on Buddhism, as does the American Secular Buddhist website, as (I think) does Stephen Batchelor. Nobody can wholly escape the influence of their (white, western, contemporary, protestant, scientific) upbringing, but, of course, we can be Buddhists nonetheless, if Buddhist practice is truly applicable to all sentient beings.

Thank you Jack. As you note the original post was somewhat brief when touching on this subject but it was prompted by the demise of the UK secular Buddhist website and the rest sort of just followed as background context.

I feel that secular Buddhism is a genuinely Western response to the Dharma and although I have the greatest respect for the various Eastern schools into which the Buddha's teachings have evolved that evolution has taken place within the context of cultures other than my own. It can feel somewhat of an affectation when performing, for example, Japanese or Tibetan rites and rituals when one is not Japanese or Tibetan. Secular Buddhism addresses this by removing the cultural accoutrements but then also jettisons anything "mythological". The question then arises as to what is myth or just a good story loaded with parable, allegory and fable that teaches the Dharma in the succinctly skillful way the Buddha had of pitching his message.

That said, I cannot but agree with your comment about "there (being) a risk that the Mindfulness movement might go on to largely replace Buddhism in Britain." 

I know that there is a counter argument that Mindfulness practise is in fact inculcating the Buddha's teachings "by the back door" but various mindfulness teachers that I know who are Buddhists say that apart from a brief comment that these practises are derived from ancient Buddhist ones Buddhism itself is never mentioned.

But, ultimately, despite all of the challenges that Buddhism faces in the West it will, in time, develop into a truly Western practise. A while back I ran a series of stories on the plight of Buddhist nuns in various traditions who are denied full ordination. Many have now achieved this, "illegally" according to their parent traditions. But they have done this by side stepping the established protocols of the purely Asian schools of Buddhism. They have separated and moved away and formed their own monastic settlements here in the West where they can enjoy the liberal, progressive freedoms denied them within the traditional, Asian context of Buddhism.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Watered Down Buddhism

The subject of the “cultural appropriation” of Eastern forms of Buddhism by Western Buddhists crops up every now and then and in fact there is an excellent article by Funie Hsu in this quarter’s edition of Buddhadharma on this very subject.

It’s a fact not lost on practitioners here in the UK either. When Sangharakshita (the Dharma name of Dennis Lingwood) founded the, Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, or FWBO (now known as the Triratna Buddhist Community) it was “an attempt to translate the ideas and practices of Buddhism into Western languages. The non-denominational nature of the Triratna Buddhist Community, its equal ordination for both men
and women, and its evolution of new forms of shared practice, such as what it calls team-based right livelihood projects, have been cited as examples of such "translation", and also as the creation of a "Buddhist society in miniature within the Western, industrialized world” (Brassard, Francis (2000), The Concept of Bodhicitta in Śāntideva's Bodhícaryāvatāra).

The FWBO and Triratna draw their teachings from all the major schools of Buddhism to produce a “Western version” of the Dharma.

Another approach has been to “strip” the Buddha’s teachings of any “mythological” content and even to remove any elements that are to be found in other schools of philosophy contemporaneous with the Buddha. This approach, promoted by Western Buddhists such as Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, has become known as Secular Buddhism.

This has the appeal of providing the Western practitioner with a “culture free” Dharma which can be practised without feeling that one is pretending to be Asian. However, for many of us there is the feeling that we run the danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water and losing essential elements of the Buddha’s teaching just because they do not fit in with some politically correct secular filter.

This however leads to the question of where does it all stop; to what extent can the Dharma be watered down and still be the Dharma?

While carrying out a regular check on the functionality of the links on this site I found that the one for Secular Buddhism UK is now defunct. On their associated Facebook page I found the following –
“Secular Buddhism UK (and associated website) are no longer active. However, several former SBUK members have since formed The Middle Way Society www.middlewaysociety.org, which visitors to this page may also be interested in. The MWS shares some of the aims of SBUK, but is nonetheless, independent of Buddhism.”

So there you go, you can water down the Buddha’s teachings to the point where they are no longer Buddhism.

Monday, 14 November 2016

FULL MOON - Self-harming

If you intentionally harm
an innocent person,
someone who is pure and blameless,
the harm will come back to you
like fine dust thrown into the wind.

Dhammapada v. 125

To grow up surrounded by people who show us a good example of what is wholesome and what is not is a great blessing. And one of the most important lessons that they could teach us is that what we get back from life is determined by what we put into it. Even if we are not blessed by carers who were completely wise and skilful, it is never too late to teach ourselves; we can always develop more mindfulness, restraint and wise reflection. Those who fail to learn this basic lesson fall prey to myriad forms of delusion. For example, they don't see how when they mistreat others, they mistreat themselves too. It is pitiable to observe when those in a position of influence misuse their power, creating more suffering instead of generating causes for increased well-being.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Leonard Cohen 1934 - 2016

Leonard Cohen, poet, singer and Buddhist monk wrote this letter to Marianne Ihlen, his muse, his lover and the subject of his song So Long Marianne and the inspiration behind Bird on the Wire, on hearing of her impending death.

"Well Marianne, it's come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

And you know that I've always loved you for your beauty and for your wisdom, but I don't need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey.

Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road."

Leonard Cohen died early today..................................