Going post-traditional: tentative first steps

technological-mandala-20_76x76x7_cm_frame_web_20141122_1361314338(post-traditional techno mandala)

Going post-traditional

A post traditional approach is best served by intellectual and experiential curiosity coupled with a willingness to examine the assumptions rooted within a given tradition of Buddhism and their maintenance through linguistic and behavioural norms. Because it works best when it suspends Buddhism’s internal value system regarding its own worth and claims, it is not in competition with tradition or seeking to usurp it. Rather, it is an attempt to see and experience ideas and practices afresh, without negotiating through the tradition. This approach represents a change in the internal rules characteristic of identification and a suspension of the norms that govern relationship within the tradition. Some may consider this arrogant or overly-individualistic, but they would be wrong. Certainly, an initial requirement is that an excess of reverence for Buddhism and its lineages be understood as an obstacle to critical engagement. This does not need to give rise to some sense of superiority, however. Upsetting the status quo can lead to such accusations because post- approaches necessarily look beyond tradition, which can appear threatening to those holding those lineages together. As an approach and not a new –ism, traditional Buddhists could, theoretically, perceive it not as a threat but rather as a methodology of sorts for renewing and reviewing their own relationship with Buddhism. They might even find the whole process enlightening.

As practice, a post-traditional approach incorporates a number of guiding principles, some of which connect back to Hokai’s points on the ages of civilisation and address issues of praxis. Hokai spoke of institutional change but he also addressed a number of practical points in a course he undertook for Buddhist Geeks called The Three Pathways of Awakening back in 2011. There are elements of pragmatism and a concern with ethics in that discussion of post-traditional approaches to Buddhism. In it he lays out three shifts that he considers indicative of a move from traditional to post-traditional, which are summarised as follows;

  • The first shift involves a person gaining a much fuller understanding of the teachings, practices and techniques they are working with. This would involve that person being able to explain the practices they are involved with in their own words rather than borrowing descriptions from the tradition. We saw an attempt at this above.
  • The second shift involves responsibility. Hokai makes explicit the need for individuals to be accountable and responsible for their own willingness to commit to a practice and relationship with a teacher and to be aware that it is one’s individual choice to do so. You make the choice to do it or not.
  • The third shift concerns integrity and the relationship between a person’s spiritual and non-spiritual lives that he defines in terms of a “decreasing gap” but added to this is an understanding that spiritual or meditative experience, realisation and awakening has very little meaning if it is not “fully interpreted…fully acknowledged and fully integrated into (one’s) life experience.” This in itself demands we additionally question what such concepts are pointing to in the first place, especially in terms of shared human possibilities outside of tradition.

The final point that needs mentioning from Hokai’s talk sees a post-traditional approach as integrating a great deal of awareness about the limitations of tradition, whether ideological or identity-based, and the role and challenges of modernity and post-modernity. In addressing Buddhist practitioners, this opens up the critique and evaluation of Buddhism a great deal and asks that practitioners be aware of wider concerns that go beyond Buddhism to our role as members of societies that are struggling with profound issues of identity and purpose. Such principles may appear as common sense to the more critical follower of Buddhism, yet part of the problem of the elaboration of the Buddhist identity in the West is that it too often refuses such shifts and if some semblance of the shift does take place it is too fully in line with an additional call that Hokai makes: “the core principles of the Buddhist path (are to be) reasserted effectively and compellingly.” This is where my approach to articulating post-traditional Buddhism finds necessary companionship with non-Buddhism. This companionship, however, is an ethical and pragmatic one and thus encapsulates the three shifts that Hokai lays out above. For, in many ways, the insights of non-Buddhism provide additional means for achieving such shifts. Where it stops is at the final call that Hokai makes. This is where post-traditional Buddhism as a project perhaps finds its calling. For if Buddhism is to provide an effective additional means for working on Western identity formation, the Western ‘ego’ or the Western self, it must continue to evolve and be willing to challenge its own history, present and future potential. This is a delicate process and requires some daring because many have a stake in asserting their views on what is possible and how it should or shouldn’t be done. There are a whole range of voices that can shut down budding curiosity. Knowledgeable voices can be so strong as to dampen enthusiasm. Authoritative voices can drown out your own initial attempts. Tradition can be overwhelming and suck you back into its fold. Critiques can be so determined in enforcing their own conclusions as to stifle the right of others to figure things out as they go. Dealing with these voices is a practice too but how is it done? Take each voice as a benevolent teacher that is fallible and immersed in a story. Find the right distance from which to hear what is being spoken and what is being said. Question it. Be open to it. Don’t let it destroy your own curiosity and questions. This is a productive starting point.

Dalai Lama , privat , Laufband , Archive No. 6220-02  Prayers and training | Residence | Dharamsala | Himachal Pradesh | India | 15 August 2004  DRAFT CAPTION - NEEDS APPROVAL FOR REPRODUCTION ! His Holiness working out after  an oral transmition of Arya Asanga by Rezong Rinpoche. Bookpage 230. ? 2005 Manuel Bauer / Agentur Focus


  1. I’m interested to see where you go with this. Do you plan to get all the way to the point of some actual practices?

    I know I may not count as one of the “non-buddhists.” At least, my position is contrary to most of them, and it has been said that I was the cause of the demise of the project, etc.

    However, my own position would be the opposite of the one you describe, in reference to the three “shifts” you mention Hokai Sobol advocating.

    First, I would suggest that the “explaining in [one’s] own words” is the worst kind of illusion—we don’t ever have “our own words,” and one goal of a collective practice is to collectively produce language in which to usefully construe the world.

    Second, the focus on the “individual” who can freely chose is just another reproduction of the core capitalist ideology of the subject.

    And third, the point you say non-buddhism doesn’t address, has always been for me the only thing of real interest: what practices in the world should we engage in? If your “practice” allows you to get rich making weapons of mass destruction, is that a practice worth continuing? If your “practice” is to work at dismantling the conceptual errors and delusions that cause people to persist in global capitalism, is that a practice worth continuing? For me, attempting to stop thinking, and to feel intensely the present moment, or whatever, is not a practice worth continuing in no matter how well it is “integrated” with other practices in the world.

    Not to be contrary—I know you were speaking about non-buddhism generally (to the extent that it has a ‘generally’), and my own position has always been tangential to that one, at best.

    As always, my position would be that if a “critique” seems oppressive, seems to force agreement, to “stifle” other responses…that’s probably a sign one ought to listen to it. Reality is like that—it won’t let us decide for ourselves how things are. The illusion that we can do that in some radically unique and individual act of freedom just is the capitalist ideology of the subject.

    I’m enjoying reading this series, looking forward to seeing where you go next.


    • Hi Tom,

      Thanks for commenting. I am slightly wary of getting into a debate with you on these topics Tom as I don’t think I’m fully up to a satisfactory discussion with you. That said, I’ll respond to a couple of points you raise the best I can.

      I find the idea that no degree of individuality exists at all to be problematic and one of the things I am still trying to work out is how to make sense of the relationship between ideology and the individual, between entrapment and identification and becoming aware of the nature of subjectification and the possibility of acting on it. It’s not that I would claim you are wrong as I am no position to do so but rather that where I am at in my thinking does not lead me to believe that I am devoid of all individuality or that others are. I wonder if it’s because you are making statements about the ultimate nature of things. In that regard, I would also find the notion of individuality to be suspect, but surely individuality is not a concept invented by capitalists to convince us to spend more. Philosophical thought has long struggled with questions of selfhood, individuality and so on and so must we.

      We are always confined, but within confinement there is usually room to move and choices are available, however limited or constrained. So if I think of choice and how it relates to patterns of emotional and psychological suffering, there are some that are clearly better than others. Seeing one’s self as always and only ever a product of collectivity and of ideological forces seems to be a poor choice and lead to victimhood and depression. Seeing that a degree of individuality does exist but that it is always in relationship with the collective world of selves seems to be wiser. Although the dominant narrative of our time is clearly capitalistic, and increasingly neo-liberal, the world is not America and there are different ideological forces at play. In Italy, there are pockets of resistance to the American dream all over and this can be found in the nearby countries of ex-Yugoslavia too.

      That said, I honestly don’t think Buddhism offers much in the way of shared practices that can help us do what you suggest. I see it as primarily offering practice for individuals to come to understand emotional and psychological suffering and the formation of self and I have generally approached it with that view in mind. I have written here already that I don’t think it offers a sufficient understanding of ideology and subjectification which is what I came up against after coming to terms with my own personal history. For me, the conundrum continues to be this: can any of these practices help individuals and small groups gain enough internal stability, emotional and psychological balance and insight into the formation of the self to contribute something to the greater good? At this point, I tend to think that joining a political organisation or charity would be a far more productive choice and yet coming from a family and community who did just that and seeing how they burnt out, ended up lost in depression or lost all hope, the need to engage in individual and communal activities that build robustness and stamina seems to be a necessity. For me at least, Buddhism has been most helpful in this regard. I guess I hold a belief, which may be naive, that dismantling one’s own self-obsession and coming to understand the subjectification process will, potentially, empower individuals and groups to better handle the work that you point to. On the other hand, it may do no such thing.

      Finally, I have read much of the criticism of meditation and mindfulness written by yourself and the others at the SNB site and I agree with much of it, but not everything. I don’t think that all meditation is navel gazing though my view is generally therapeutic. I am not calling for hyper-individualism, however. I contend that in peeling away the layers of habitual self, we don’t find a true self or some universal grace bestowed, we find the ‘collective self’ but that some degree of individuality is still there. If you listened to the last podcast episode I did with Glenn, you’ll have caught a sense of how I am still trying to work out how to make sense of this without reverting to Buddhist ideology.



  2. I would suggest a dharma practice of 1) critical deconstruction of all phenomena from both a scientific and experiential point of view; 2) re-construction of all phenomena, understanding how everything is connected and interdependent, both from a scientific and experiential point of view; 3) deconstruction and de-subjectification of the self/other along lines of race, gender, class and other social categories, and also based on personal history ; 3) critical deconstruction of all social institutions, religions and ideologies, including Buddhism; 4) re-construction through social engagement along ethical lines to offer a constructive path toward a better society, based again on the concept of interdependence. These are all conceptual or ‘thinking’ practices, but they have significant impacts on how we experience the world and interact with people. In addition, compassion and kindness practices towards self and others, as offered by many teachers—if all these practices don’t result in more loving-kindness and better relationships, then what’s the point? Otherwise you could end up being a really smart, self-aware autistic nerd who is totally alone.


  3. As for the “individuality” question, I prefer to frame it as “diversity.” My first retort to anyone who expounds on emptiness or non-dualism is this: account for diversity. They usually have no answer for that except “relative reality” which is a very weak concept that doesn’t account for complexity and material diversity in the real world. Ecology is the better teacher here. Ecologists look at eco-systems and species, but they also account for ‘individuals’ within a species or eco-system. Whether that individual has a ‘self’ is irrelevant unless it is a conscious being and ‘selfness’ has some measurable effect on their behaviour. I approach it this way: every individual is unique, but every individual contains within its systems, cells, molecules and atomic structure nearly every force and phenomena that we have found in the universe as a whole. We can honour uniqueness and diversity because each unique individual contains the whole. Each individual is indeed a microcosm of the universe.


    • Diversity and individuality are very different words and concepts. I see no reason to exchange them and your reasoning is unconvincing.
      I think we over-rate individuality Shaun and much of the identity politics on the Left and Right today is a manifestation of the obsession with the self/identity that is the inevitable outcome of a neo-liberal world view that denies all forms of collectivity. I love individuality as a concept. I love being an individual, as much I can be one. I am mildly different from most of the men in the city I live in tiny ways, but if we were to look at it identity objectively and place little old me in the history of our species and the billions of humans that have ever lived, we would note that the differences are beyond miniscule and pretty much disappear. We are far less diverse than we would like to believe and in the grand scheme we are but specks of dust.
      Not to be deliberately cynical, but I’m not really sure what is meant by your last phrase without resorting to spiritual solipsism. I find such grand statements to be self-affirming, which is nice, but sort of meaningless at the end of the day.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Let me be more explicit: life scientists account for individuals within a species or ecosystem. They look at behaviours of the individual and its effect on species and systems. How many offspring have they produced? What is their rank and role within the hierarchy of a colony or pack? How adept are they at hunting and coping with adverse conditions? and so on. That’s a very different concept of ‘individual’ than “the Individual” in Western culture. The Western “Individual” has a long history, but its most recent incarnation is “the neoliberal subject”, an alienated, contorted caricature of humanity that is a product of capitalist ideology. We can take a view of the individual that is more like an ecologist, and we can account for differences amongst individuals, and that “difference” is a form of diversity.

    Liked by 1 person

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