Royce Gracie celebrating victory at UFC 01 in 1993
I was recently having a conversation with a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism here in Italy and I used an analogy in our conversation which I would like to expand on here to explain further the reasoning behind a post-traditional approach to Buddhism and the sort of ideas we are exploring in the Imperfect Buddha podcast.
The teacher made two standard concessions when we spoke about traditional Buddhism and the sort of approach I and others take. They were Authority and Tradition. Implicit in his discourse were three factors;
- Authority is a given and unquestionable. The guru/master holds authority
- Expectation others ought to recognise this authority as it is given, followers must act on blind faith
- History tradition is ancient and this antiquity justifies its position and guarantees the first two
Needless to say, I find such factors problematic and emblematic of the failure of western Buddhists to critically evaluate their own traditions. I will explore why developments in martial arts may offer a means to reflect on necessary change in western Buddhism.
Kung Fu is an umbrella term for Chinese martial arts and includes a multitude of variants that developed over the last centuries. There are regional varieties and world famous styles such as Wushu, as well as innovation in the form of Jeet Kun Do, created by the martial arts legend that is Bruce Lee. Each style has its own legends and myths and until very recently each tended to define itself as the best in an enduring theoretical competition that included the other martial arts. Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris exemplified this in their 1972 film The Way of the Dragon, which culminates in a dramatic showdown between these two styles.
Before having to stop for health reasons, I practised a multitude of martial arts styles for twenty odd years so the amount of time I have dedicated to Buddhism and the martial skills is almost identical. The discourse of superiority has been near identical in both worlds. During the 90s, the members of Buddhist groups in the UK that I visited would point out that their form of Buddhism was the best, or the purest, or the most authentic in a very similar fashion to martial artists. This was expressed explicitly by over-eager followers but teachers would almost always be guilty of the same indulgence. Both Buddhism and Martial Arts come from the ‘exotic’ East with all its connotations of otherness so I guess it should come as no surprise that there would be some shared history in their reception in the West.
Mixed Martial Arts or MMA is the latest development in the martial arts and it started in the 90s, although attempts to combine different fighting styles have taken place throughout history they have never even come close to the cross training that is an integral part of this new approach to combat. MMA is a relatively new ‘sport’ or fighting concept that continues to evolve ever since the first Ultimate Fighting Championship aired in 1993. The original mandate of the UFC was to test the long-standing abstract debate between different martial arts styles in order to finally discover which was best. All styles would and could compete but they would fight for real, and with no holds barred. The first editions of the competition were pretty brutal for a variety of reasons, one being how bad so many of the fighters were in the face of a real fight, away from the imaginary spaces they had inhabited in their gyms. The arrival of the UFC signalled the end of such fantasy, and of a new dominance of pragmatism in the martial arts landscape. It is fair to say that if a traditional karate or kung fu fighter from any time in history and from any of the schools were to fight competent mixed martial artists today, he or she would lose.
The UFC went through various phases and as fighters came up against reality, many adapted. The first winner was a man called Royce Gracie who introduced the world to ground fighting, specifically Brazilian Jujitsu. Later wrestlers began to dominate and they were followed by kick boxers. As time went on, all of the fighters coming into the UFC, or other MMA contests, began to train in multiple styles, refining and experimenting to find the most effective methods, tactics and training to ensure they would win real fights in real competition. Rules were made to bring the sport closer to the mainstream and three styles became the basis for almost all fighters; Freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling, Brazilian Jujitsu and a standing style that was Kickboxing, Thai Boxing or western Boxing.
MMA is a post-traditional approach to combat and it has changed the landscape of martial arts dramatically and irreversibly. Traditional martial arts still exist of course and they are likely going nowhere, although it is debatable whether some of the more abstract styles, which relied on a heavier dose of fantasy, will continue. Traditional martial arts are the basis for MMA and MMA could not exist without them but MMA is undisputedly the evolution of traditional martial arts. Even when karate based fighters have reintroduced lost techniques into the MMA cage or ring, they could not have done so without having the other styles as the basis for doing so.
Similar abstract myths to those once indulged in throughout martial arts gyms continue to burden discussion of the pragmatics of practice, awakening, change and social engagement in Buddhism. In a generic sweep across traditions, we might say that abstract, institutional discourse is not truly tested, the claims of teachers and long-term practitioners do not have to confront reality, romantic fantasy regarding teachers flourish and fantastical claims about the end results of a given path are held up as never-to-be-achieved goals. If we were to playfully compare the martial arts styles to Buddhisms, it could look something like this; Tibetans as karate practitioners (Buddhism at its purest & highest), Theravadan practitioners as Kung Fu fighters (The original and authentic), Zen could be Aikido (The simplest, most direct & minimalist), and so on. What’s relevant in the analogy is that each, when isolated, makes great claims and draws on a combination of abstract, theoretical sources and calls to authority, with very little real challenge. One claims history, the other evolution. One claims the highest teachings, the other the most direct, even as they feign mutual respect.
My view of Buddhism is that it is slowly approaching a similar process of change to the martial arts. The field in which the results of practice, belief and praxis play out is partially a public one. Discussions at sites such as Buddhist Geeks and the Secular Buddhist Association can be weighed against discussion, articles and comments at sites such as The Dharma Overground, Speculative Non-Buddhism and David Chapman’s Meaningness. Twitter plays its role too, less so Facebook, and academia is increasingly present in the ongoing discussion of what Buddhism is, what it can do, what it can’t do, and how it should evolve. A public arena in the form of an Ultimate Buddhist Championship does not exist of course and there is no UBC. Whereas all committed martial artists will likely know of the UFC, scores of long-term Buddhist practitioners in the West can be oblivious to all activity, debate and critique going on outside of their dharma centre walls.
Bruce Lee showing off his ground fighting skills in Enter the Dragon (1973)
Mindfulness is the big game changer it seems, not only for its role in popularising Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism but because it challenges many of the assumptions that dominate traditional Buddhist groups and destabilises some of the accumulated bullshit. The sense of superiority, righteousness and a noble cause are diminished by the spread of meditation without the spiritual and religious attachments. There is little room for mysticism. Just as MMA requires no belts, martial philosophy, exotic costumes and bows, meditation can be practiced by CEOs, soldiers and politicians without a gompa, stick bashing Zen master, or robes, and such new wave practitioners can apparently become more effective at their immoral actions in the process without need of Buddhist morality. It is working for them without a complex, pre-modern worldview and ethical expectations, or an ancient history and mythological founder. This upsets many a Buddhist and perhaps it should but it also destabilises in an interesting way the hegemony of tradition and its possession of meditation techniques. It has also opened the door to greater degrees of scientific research and analysis which is proving enlightening to say the least.
The meeting of modernity with Buddhism is in part a traumatic one, though I would imagine less so in the West as it’s only been around for a short period here and has already absorbed many of the coping mechanisms put in place by the Boomer generation onwards. Buddhism thus exists in a state of tension in the West, a sort of hall of mirrors, in which its faults and failings are available to those willing to look. Yet, the reaction of many Buddhist is to stay inside the retreat of tradition and rely on abstract guarantees such as history, textual authority and group consensus that mirror similar strategies employed by Christian and Islamic groups. Additionally, a division is made between the personal and the collective; “I have my beliefs, my practices, my religion, my way and I have my own experience and it works for me. The forces of encroaching knowledge, insight and understanding provided by developments in the academic fields can stay out there; unless they support my beliefs, in which case I will accept use them to justify my position.” This is a well practised form of retreat from the world and represents a form of renunciation. On a good day I understand the motivation for such a move and feel compassion and empathy towards those people doing so. On a regular day I tend to consider it a form of escapist, voluntary ignorance. People actively choose to be ignorant, to say no to what is real, to object to facts, to sideline destabilising insight, in order to strengthen the ideational fantasy that has been co-constructed with other refugees from the real.
An alternative is to be brave, to embrace change and evolution, to accept the need for human practice and belief to move through ongoing cycles of renewal, rebirth if you will, to be revitalised by exploration, human curiosity and participation. There are a number of folks actively involved in working on Buddhism to varying degrees. They are doing so in their own ways, some in the public eye such as Shinzen Young and Ken McLeod, others in the shadows, such as Hokai Sobol. Eastern teachers have not been immune to this process. Chogyam Trungpa stands out of course but the lesser known Tarthang Tulku was an under-appreciated genius as far as reformulating Buddhism is concerned and his Time, Space and Knowledge series from the 1970s was ahead of its time. There are incredible minds engaging with Buddhism from the outside looking in, from the destructive insight of Slavoj Žižek to the insightful elaborations of David McMahan on Buddhism and modernity, or the more recent attempt to address the notion of emptiness through the application of critical theory and European philosophy in the book Nothing by Timothy Morton, Marus Boon and Eric Cazdyn. These are just a few.
It would be useful for us to consider Buddhism as having its UFC moment. It would be wise for more long-term practitioners to experiment, explore and consider what works, both in terms of individual practice but also in the form of social connection, the creation of community, co-practice and the extension of Buddhist practice to wider social engagement. This means acting on Buddhism and using tools to explore Buddhism that are non-Buddhist and not locked in the three calls to tradition as the sole source of wisdom and the rest. Just as karate dojos can be found in most major cities, so will traditional Buddhist schools continue to hold meaning, relevance and a place of practice and community for many. Just as traditional styles of martial arts can now supply innovation in the tri-partite skill set of modern MMA fighters, so will traditional Buddhisms continue to be sources of never-ending exploration, the adoption of techniques and practices and the renewal of forgotten concepts. Some will fail, some will be integrated, some will be innovated.
The ideas and beliefs that form the basis for mindfulness and a non-traditional praxis of human awakening will be philosophical as well as scientific. Even if you are non-philosophically trained, like me, that should not prevent you from thinking through the big ideas and insights that have poured out of the western intellectual tradition, especially during the last hundred years. This is an exciting time to be involved in Buddhism and the disrupting forces from the great feast of knowledge. So, put on some gloves, find yourself a kick bag and get popping with them punches. You could end up with something beautiful and do your bit to help Buddhism evolve and change and therefore continue to hold relevance in a fast evolving and changing world.
Boxing V Sumo wrestling