(Lobsang Jivaka, aka, Cyril Hoskin, aka, New Age Gangster, aka, fake Tibetan lama)
I am adding a couple of thoughts here before starting a short cycle of blog posts in the next few weeks. This is because the audience at this site has increased markedly over the last year which makes it necessary for me to be clearer in my intentions and more explicit with my basic assumptions, which is an ongoing challenge for us all. The textual form still lends itself to certain instinctual interpretations on the part of the reader; one being that what is written is a final declaration on the part of the writer. Another is that the views within are fixed in stone or not open to change. Neither of these assumptions would be true in my case. It is for this reason that I always invite readers to chime in.
I will be applying a post-traditional reading to meditation in the next two blog posts. I am mainly interested in meditation practices that come from Tibet and they act as the basis for the questions I ask of meditation and the direction I will take in my exploration and elaboration of contemporary reformulations and interpretations. Because of the way I intend to do so, it is worth me spending a few words on ownership, and cultural appropriation. I won’t say a great deal but would like to anticipate some potential concerns from the more scholarly leaning readers. The issues of exploitation and cultural theft and their relationship with the steam rolling driving Capitalism and its need to profit from literally every aspect of human activity makes issues of ownership and identity a delicate issue and this applies to Western engagements with Buddhism.
Shamanism and Buddhism share history bro
Historically speaking, there are very strong parallels between western interest in Shamanism and Buddhism. The history of modern interest in Buddhism laid out in books such as David McMahan’s The Makings of Buddhist Modernism or Donald S. Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La are mirrored in an historical analysis of Western interest in Shamanism, and Native American spirituality and religion, in Andrei A. Znamenski’s wonderful The Beauty of the Primitive. I highly recommend all three books if you have any personal connection to these traditions, especially the latter two which are highly readable. The role of romanticism, anti-modern sentiments and a desire for a long-lost past united initial fascination with both of these exotic traditions and are at the base of the often dysfunctional relationship that has characterised white Westerners’ engagement with them ever since. I am all too aware that many folks still fall for the romantic narratives exposed in all three texts and traces of these narratives still linger on in the imagination of many Western followers of Buddhism. The relationship with what were once exotic and foreign religions is obviously going to be rather complex and as with many politically charged topics, it is very easy for those enchanted by them to drift towards one side of the ownership debate and judge accordingly. In part, divisions and judgements over what is perceived of as theft or cultural appropriation, and the free exploration of knowledge and adoption of profound spiritual truth (which are believed should be freely available to all) have been stimulated by the mixing of religion and spirituality with money making. This has been compounded by unscrupulous folks posing as something they are not with titles such as Tulku, Rinpoche, Lama, and Guru being adopted by those who have no claim to them. Check out the story of Lobsang Rampa, otherwise known as Cyril Hoskin, for insight into a very British case of false identity, delusion and money making. He wrote what is apparently still the bestselling book on Tibetan Buddhism in the West: the absurdly fantastical The Third Eye.
Although I am generally suspicious of the political use of claims of cultural appropriation by many of the more outraged despisers of Western civilisation, there are instances where theft and dishonesty have definitely taken place. When the adoption of false spiritual credentials leads to the manipulation of others based on a lie, the appropriation takes on a particularly dark tone. That said, cultural appropriation is a normal facet of the mixing of cultures and a globalised world and is generally far from negative. In many cases, one could argue that the intermixing of cultures and the possibility of experimenting with different identities is actually helpful in undermining strong attachment to the dominant sense of self offered by a given society. For those in conservative social climates, it can be a godsend to be able to dress in an entirely different way, and identify with a different social and ideational reality. In such cases, cultural adoption can become a means for liberation.
Cultural appropriation does take place so to what degree is it a necessary and normal foundational aspect of the spread of ideas and practices? To what degree and in what contexts do we call such activity wrong? There has been some debate on these issues with regards to Buddhism in the West but far more on Shamanism, and, in particular (on the negative end of the spectrum) the relationship between descendents of Europeans in the US and the Natives who were there long before. Cultural appropriation as a criticism has real relevance when examining white, Western engagement with shamanic practices and, in particular, the great variety of religious traditions of the Native Americans. One of the most egregious acts since the 1960s spiritual revolution has been for mainly white Americans to claim native ancestry and then to use that claim to legitimise their exploitation of traditional Native American ceremonies, which are then sold on to other non-Natives under false pretences. Making money from ceremonies has been condemned for decades by Native Americans and their protestations have been very vocal about this but to this day plastic Indians, as they are called by Native Americans, continue to make money through selling inauthentic ceremonies and trinkets.
The healthiest response for those fascinated by such spiritual practices is to respectfully approach those native teachers willing to share their traditions with others or, better, to build something new inspired by those same forms, and indeed such responses have been growing over the last few decades driven by a more self-conscious and socially aware attention to the rights of other cultures to protect their traditions from exploitation. An attempt to avoid cultural theft has led to a revival of Pagan and European Shamanic traditions and exploration of the revival of ceremony, belief and communal activity continues all over Europe and North America. What is beautiful about this is that a number of communities in Russia, which had their shamanic traditions purged during the Communist era, have asked Western shamanic practitioners to help them recreate new shamanic practices and rituals. For those who are obsessed with identity politics, such gestures might be worth exploring in order to gain a more nuanced view of the benefits of a global society in which sharing can be about more than just exploitation.
Buddhism is a different beast even though there have been Europeans who have claimed to be Asian, such as old Cyril, or to be the incarnation of a Buddhist deity: we mentioned a couple of the Maitreya phonies on our podcast episode on cults if you’re curious. Buddhism, unlike shamanism and the Native American religions, is a world religion that has changed, evolved and taken on new forms becoming, in a sense, the property of very different cultures. It transcends national and local divides, and makes universal claims, unlike shamanic traditions which are almost always geographically rooted and hereditary. It is certainly accurate to speak of American Buddhism these days, Western Buddhism, and Secular Buddhism, which have evolved into distinct forms of modern Buddhism. These exist quite happily alongside Asian Buddhisms without questions of ownership being so problematic. Tibetan Buddhism may be slightly more problematic however.
Buddhism in Tibet has many of its roots in the local shamanic practices and traditions. The forms of many of its practices are quite unique, distinguishing them from those found in other Asian countries. There is also the issue of the genocide carried out by the Chinese and the resultant sympathy on the part of Westerners for the preservation of Tibetan culture by those who fled Chinese occupation. Tibetans in the West often occupy the role of refugees which makes the adoption of their practices problematic outside of a given tradition, as it is in many cases all they have left from their homeland. What’s more, ownership or authority within Tibetan traditions is usually determined through carefully managed lineages and, like the shamanic world, can be hereditary.
All this means that we are required to step carefully when adopting Tibetan Buddhist practices and to distinguish more carefully between what are innovative interpretations and revitalisation of Buddhism, and what are unique Tibetan cultural forms. The foundations of Tibetan Buddhism derive from Indian Buddhism and the Mahayana developments that took place there as well as the development of Tantric Buddhism, inspired by Hindu deity practices, so that there are two clear elements; one that is uniquely Tibetan, and one that is a development and continuation of Indian Buddhism. Distinguishing what is a cultural peculiarity and an historical development of existing Buddhist practice and thought may not always be easy but fortunately a number of teachers have been seeking to make a distinction between the two, although progress can still be quite slow.
My main Buddhist inspiration tends to come from Western teachers and their interpretations of Tibetan Buddhist teachings although I have long considered Chogyam Trungpa to be the greatest of Tibetan teachers to come to the West. His understanding and interpretation of Buddhism has been one of the great doors through which Buddhism began to take on a new form in the West. He was the first narrator of Buddhism to blow my mind in my teens and his presentation of Tantra is particularly memorable and relevant still. Nagkpa Chogyam from the Aro-ter tradition, based in Wales, is also a fine teacher in my view and his careful attention to language is a vital example of how practices can be understood more deeply when uncoupled from a rigid and excessively formal presentation. Ken McLeod’s contribution to understanding Tantra is underappreciated and far greater than many Western followers of Tibetan traditions realise and like Ngakpa Chogyam, he also understands very well how fundamental language is to unpacking practices from their cultural forms, and this is illustrated in his books and website materials.
I find myself in resonance with these teachers and inspired by their efforts primarily due to their humanising of practices and teachings, their careful attention to language, and their willingness to break with orthodoxy to find the humanity within the notions of path and fruition. I am saying all this because I find most inspiration and value in the meditation traditions that come from Tibet and because we in the West cannot hope to rebuild the wheel and nor should we. We can build on what has gone before and do so with care: not everyone will agree on what that means but by being open about intentions we might help the process along. I say this also because my posts here illustrate how committed I am to a careful examination of language and respect for the human that has often been forgotten about among the talk of perfection, purity, complete and total enlightenment, and the other superlatives that mark much of the Tibetan traditions’ rhetorical styles. I say this also because much of my writing has been critical of the uncritical engagement with traditional Buddhism carried out by most Westerners. I am reaffirming my profound appreciation of Buddhism, its history and developments. I am reaffirming my intention to continue to push for a more radical engagement with it that can evolve from the dysfunctional facets critiqued not just here but by others whose names have appeared here often.
In the posts that follow I will examine meditation from a critical perspective, firstly by dismantling the notion that there is an essential practice called meditation (we might even follow in Mr Wallis’s footsteps and throw X-meditation out there), secondly, by exploring different means for categorising meditation practices, and thirdly, by exploring a process-relational view of meditation as a distinct break from the subject-object (dualistic) view that still dominates how we think and talk about the phenomenology of meditative experience, and the potential goals and outcomes that different practices might lend themselves to.
Finally, let me add a few very short points for new readers, academics, Buddhist teachers, scholars or self-defined experts, or even unidentified know-it-alls. I had assumed these observations were obvious in the past, which was a mistake. You’re not a mind reader after all. So, once again in honour of clarity here are some clarifying elucidations;
- This project does not assume to be right, correct or to be a replacement in any way of traditional interpretations of Buddhism and Buddhist meditation practices. It does not assume to be superior either.
- This project does not feel a need to carry on faithfully with the cultural forms of Asian Buddhisms. It is appreciative of them but is moving onto new horizons that are outside of said traditions due to necessity: Buddhism changes and adapts wherever it goes and it’s still early days for Buddhism in the West. We can do better than Mindfulness®
- It would be super nice if you were to read on without a dogged need to defend your position, but that may be difficult for you. In today’s world, being right seems to be a thing, being wrong and admitting it, less so. I’m sure I’m often wrong…there you go…I’ve started the ball rolling….it’s really not so hard to do. Join me in potentially being wrong a lot…it’s liberating 🙂
- Know that I am not trying to convince you that my views are the best or drag you over to my view, which is not a possession of mine anyway, or fixed in stone. I’m sharing because I hold to the view that we can benefit from each other’s attempts to venture into new territory or explore matters in useful or untested ways. Buddhism in the West can really benefit from more long-term practitioners doing so by bringing Buddhism into relationship with other knowledge sources without being driven by the need to monetise it.
- I am not claiming to own or present the next, great truth or insight. I am merely exploring and you are welcome to join me that we might walk together for a while.
- The hills and valleys of practice beckon, so onwards!
(Authentic, New Age, imaginative wonder from Plympton’s Cyril…not the sort of thing I’ll be writing, unless he takes possession of my body…)