Tradition, baggage and innovating


(I’m big & beautiful & cost a fortune: tradition resisting impermanence)

This coming week’s collection of posts continues to explore a post-traditional approach to Buddhism, and possibly life in general. There is experimentation and speculation and both are work in progress. I start out by looking at tradition, and then articulate further some of the characteristics of a post-traditional approach, before looking at identity formation and the ubiquity of stories.

Fingers crossed, Stuart and I will find time this week to get cracking with the next episode of the Imperfect Buddha podcast. For now, here’s the first of the posts that will complete the first cycle of this primer. The second cycle will be much more concerned with practices and methods but will not be available until the new year.

Exploring Tradition and its unavoidable baggage

Tradition is complex and features a number of characteristics in whatever form it takes. Tradition emerges as a response to human needs in a specific time and place and is only kept alive by the repetitive actions of its adherents and their sufficient dedication to its ecology. Traditions typically hold to fixed formulations of truth and ritualised practices for understanding and relating to that truth. Its forms are by their very nature formulaic invoking emotions, instigating reliable lines of thought, and providing a moral direction or code. At their most consistent, they provide models of selfhood that can be deeply attractive. Traditions provide answers and they pose problems too. Examining a number of them would be useful at this point. In the spirit of generosity, it is worth considering what need the tradition is trying to meet as it creates ideological forms; because traditions are an example of both the solidification and calcification of human ideals and endeavours. One of the great features of modernity is that it has helped us to understand how the structures and forms of tradition are historically formed and manmade. This leads to  awareness of their fallibility. Good ideological subjects resist this awareness and must, in a sense, believe the narratives that prop up their specific tradition, its legitimacy, and origins. Although much criticism of religion has been deconstructive, and rightly so, it has often led to an impoverished view of religion without appreciating why such cultural forms emerge, or providing answers to how to build and present alternatives. This is a common complaint from those who are wed to some form of traditional Buddhism. Deconstruction has very specific aims of course and its job is not to fix problems or provide alternatives: that is for other exercises in thought and practice. It can lead to intelligent folks being overtly dismissive of traditions, however, and a refusal to appreciate how flawed we all are, and how traditions are often a decent attempt to respond to very real human needs. There are real reasons why Evangelical Christians are so numerous in the States, for example, and they are only partially explained by politics, economy and race. The transparency of the absurdity of their fundamentalist beliefs seems to have very little effect on their religious commitments and this illustrates how powerful needs are being met and solid identities are being formed. Buddhism, of course, can find itself performing the exact same service.

In many cases, it would more efficient for traditions to consider change than for us to attempt to reinvent the wheel. There have always been tensions between reformers and sustainers of tradition, though, and I personally find these dynamics fascinating and they pose multiple problems. Politics come into play: issues of power, ownership, roles and so on. Many Buddhists turn up their nose at such issues and when these powerful dynamics emerge in Buddhist communities in their dysfunctional expressions, followers often find they are incapable of dealing with them because they have partly been living in denial. This is illustrative of the naivety that many Buddhists hold to, that Buddhism is somehow different, somehow apart from the human machinations that govern all traditions and organisational structures. As always, the thrust of history demands we face up to reality, become more aware of the nature of tradition and be alert to its limitations and tendencies, as well as manage the interpersonal dynamics within them better, whether with the community or its teacher/s. If we analyse tradition with its warts and all with a sympathetic eye to our human fallibility, we can identify trends and questions for thinking creatively and critically about them.

First of all, traditions seek to maintain a certain idealised image of themselves along with a dominant narrative of ancient origins and worth. Followers may hold very tightly to these or keep them lightly in hand with the degree of conformity often reflecting the degree of unthinking engagement from adherents. In thinking anew about tradition, questions necessarily emerge. What happens if I question the idealised image and dominant narratives of my tradition? How do others react? Traditions are hostile to some ideas and proponents of others: to what degree does this act to maintain my tradition’s ideological integrity? How does it cope with challenge to hierarchies, beliefs, innovation? What happens if its ideas are undermined? Does the whole network of ideas, answers and solutions fall apart without the central narrative? To what degree is intellectual freedom granted? If I critique or question a shared assumption, view of practice, is such engagement welcomed and addressed in an open manner, dismissed or given a pat answer? How do the internal social rules of the tradition condition emotional and feeling responses, internally, and between followers? By this, I mean, does everyone appear happy and to shun negativity as if it were a stain? Are a wide range of emotions permitted or labelled as significant and indicative of progress on the path? Are they seen as an obstacle? To what degree are choices conditioned by participation in the group? Have I consciously chosen to participate in the group norms or simply drifted into them? Who holds the power in this group? How is that person related to by the other members? What would happen if I were to renegotiate that relationship?

These are questions that few committed Buddhists seem to consider posing, which is a shame, because although they can be destabilising and disruptive, they can also open up immensely interesting lines of discussion and self-reflection. Even though an initial reaction in posing these questions may be potentially mutiny, abandon ship or even kill the captain (possibly an unspoken fear among traditional hierarchies), it could equally be change course. In fact, it is useful to add a question to each answer to provide further context and appreciate the fuller picture. Why is this behaviour in place? What purpose does it serve? What intentions drive these behaviours? And so on. If tradition is a living, breathing, changing creature, then our engagement with it must be likewise. Ongoing engagement can be both critical and creative, generous and deconstructive.

A post-traditional approach to Buddhism exists with this knowledge in mind. It will be imperfect. It is an approach, not a new –ism. All the same, for it to be useful or meaningful it will have to eventually provide means for creating a shared human practice. This means creating forms, ideals, an ethical endeavour, practices, and so on. The hope would be that such forms are self-consciously inhabited, played with and explored. This necessarily means that such a project will be marginal, for few are capable of being so fluid in their identity and commitments. Once again, it is worth making explicit that these themes are reflective of wider societal issues and tensions going on in our age. There are few clear-cut choices to be seen. An explorative, curious, open-minded approach seems to be best at present. Retreat into safe, reliable spaces seems to be the most unhelpful mode for conceiving of human practice that might help us through the challenges we face as a species and Buddhism’s role in this is minimal. I guess I do not really see myself communicating with Buddhists at this point, but rather, other flawed humans like myself. Buddhism in this regard just happens to be a useful starting point for some of us.

Approaching an exploration of tradition

A contemporary response to traditional Buddhism as human practice would ideally provide powerful means for addressing insights that have been central to Buddhism. It would explore the relationship and tension between those core ideals and practices to the wider, emergent fields of knowledge that make up the best of what we currently know about the world. To describe such ideals and practices in straightforward language unreliant on the Buddhist idiom is an essential starting point in a post-traditional approach and frees such insights from an excessive dependence on a Buddhist world-view. As a form of practice itself, one might construct a list of human tasks. Some of which might look as follows;

  • Discover the lack of a solid atomised self
  • Become experientially cognizant of the interwoven nature of being in ever increasing depths
  • Come to accept our finite existence and inevitable, unpredictable death
  • Explore means for developing empathic opening to others & compassionate intentions
  • Explore the emotional landscape as an environment that sustains a predictable experience of subjectivity: opening or closing experiential possibilities
  • Stimulate a profound engagement and commitment to this world, as it is, along with the courage to engage with its most pressing needs at this time
  • Explore a commitment to caring for streams of mutual becoming and flourishing that reduce ignorance and suffering in the world

This is one attempt to reframe Buddhist inspired ideals as tasks in contemporary language. Words matter and this attempt may or may not fit with your own experience of Buddhism, or ideas you hold about the purposes it could serve. What’s important, though, is that in working with language and finding your own way to define and describe the practices and ideals you are working with, a step forward is taken in making sense of what you are actually undertaking, whilst uncovering the underlying assumptions that guide uncritical engagement. It can be difficult to accurately describe what we are doing in very precise terms with much of our categorisation being unthinkingly parroted from other sources. The descriptions above are relatively workable but they would nonetheless need to be examined closely and unpacked. Words such as profound, caring, depths can be problematic and the use of metaphors such as interwoven nature of being may initially sound contrived and leave some readers perplexed. Language involves a certain degree of negotiation and it is in the unpacking of core terms and debate over what might be meant that fruitful outcomes can ensue, especially when those involved are little concerned with defending or upholding a held position. The less concerned we are with affirming expectant truths, the more space we have to see clearly and look afresh.

If Buddhism is maintained as the primary source for exploration, strategies for engaging a number of life’s unavoidable consequences need to be looked for therein. These become most useful when built on the practical experience of other human animals, rather than granted through infallible mystical sources; gurus, revealed texts, visionary marvels and the pure, unstained word of the historical Buddha. In this way, the path, in part, is constructed through one’s own life experience rather than being an idealised form out there to be squeezed into. This entails a second form of negotiation. To re-start with Buddhism post-traditionally is to begin with a critical re-engagement with its resources and the experiential norms that provide the basis for one’s engagement with them. The habitual always reveals certain truths that are reflective of our circumstances. Within the view of experience as path, this means analysing one’s own accumulated experience and its solidification into patterns and their symbolic meaning in relation to the tradition followed. This applies equally to the attainment and non-attainment of its goals and the belief in its propositions. Remember, the tradition is not inherently good or bad. Rather, it is an ecology that is rich and complex and places demands on those who enter it in exchange for its promises. The globalised world has made much of the nature of tradition transparent. The challenge that is presented as a result is how to proceed with what we know and to be increasingly alert to how we have compromised in order to receive some piece of those promises.

A further step is only partially concerned with Buddhism and involves the analysis of where we find refuge from life and is visible in the stabilising, normative habits that saturate our relationship with the external path of practice and our ritualised routines within it. As with tradition, there is no inherent good or bad in all this, rather, our habits reveal where we choose to hold onto a seeming safe space of reliability as a buttress against the immensity of life and this world’s goings on. We have to establish boundaries within which we can make sense of it all for we are limited beings incapable of omniscience. The challenge is to do so without erecting a prison, or retreat into ideological guarantees. In this regard, negotiation is a constant feature of a pathway that liberates rather than entraps, that opens rather than closes. There is a demand in all this that most folks would find too much to deal with but for the driven, intelligent person; it may be an opportunity worth exploring.

One comment

  1. I really like your ‘list of human tasks’ as ways to practice; that’s pretty much how I would sum up my approach to dharma practice. In my quest, I often become obsessed with “what does that (karma, dukkha, anatta, shunyata etc.) really mean?” in terms of the translation of the scriptures and traditional interpretations. For me it was really important to understand the traditional approach, so that I could say, “ok I know what the traditional teaching is, but I’m taking it in a new direction…” This is a much more creative approach, really freeing. And yes, I figured out early on that my life was the path. I didn’t need an artificial path produced and directed by Sangha, Inc. Working through own life is the path to realization.


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