(The reason for my absence here is a rather fine one: He’s called Julian)
Stuart and I have had busy summers with little activity taking place in terms of the podcast and my writing here at the Post-traditional Buddhism site. I’ve been promising to produce something for readers and listeners, and can now provide you with this post and the reality of a soon-to-be-released podcast. The latest episode has actually been recorded and will require some editing before becoming available at the end of the coming week. This time round we interviewed Ken McLeod, a prominent figure in Western Buddhism with a rich background in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. Ken has authored a number of books that have broken the mould in presenting aspects of Tibetan Buddhism in a pragmatic, western approach, with care paid to language and metaphors (more on this below). His works have been heavily informed by his own experience as a practitioner, and his role in teaching and coaching westerners over a long career. I found his last book A Trackless Path to be most interesting as an attempt by a westerner to decode the Tibetan language into the western vernacular with priority being given to the sort of message being transmitted in the original text rather than a faithfully rigid, word for word translation (BTW, It would be good to see much more of this taking place amongst translators and authors).
The choice of guest was deliberate. We had planned to have Ken on for some time now and he was on the list of our desired guests when we were starting out with the podcast. As luck would have it, he was in Croatia close to where I live this past weekend and so I met up with him in person and recorded enough material for a decent episode. I wasn’t 100% sure of the direction to take, which is unusual for me. I tend to have a clear intention and set of concerns when approaching guests but in spite of giving it considerable thought beforehand, I found myself driving from Italy through Slovenia down to the Croatian coast clutching a handful of loosely connected themes, and I had to play it by ear as the interview went on. Ken was generous with his time and candid in his responses and I felt we touched on a number of interesting and relevant topics. The content of the podcast additionally reflects an important and unexpressed desire that I have for the podcast as a whole, which I would like to write about here.
Ken is an important choice of guest but one that may concern some of our more critical listeners, importantly though, he represents the second strand that informs our podcast episodes. Hiss interview signals an important opportunity to talk to the different types of listeners the podcast gets. For, although we have put out a lot of episodes exploring a critical evaluation of western Buddhism, Stuart and I are practitioners first and foremost, who have deeply personal relationships with Buddhist practices and ideas. Although I consider myself to be post-traditional in my approach and dedicated to the frail, temporal, inquisitive human within these practices, I continue to find Buddhism to be a most meaningful source for the practices I draw on in navigating my life. The question then becomes not whether to be Buddhist, but rather how to relate to Buddhist materials in the sanest, most intelligent way possible, and this is necessarily a work in progress. It is a relationship that is very much personal and very much shared and the podcast navigates these two realms. The whole project is run through with these two primary strands and I cannot see how any meaningful engagement with Buddhism could dismiss one or the other. In fact, part of the desire for the podcast has always been to bridge this divide.
What follows is a simple means for understanding what informs the topics and guests we approach and where we’re heading in navigating what is often a terrain that divides folks thinking about Buddhism intelligently;
We’re interested in the theoretical: meaning the application of thought, reflection, contemplation, analysis, comparison, deconstruction, ideas, theories, alternative ways of viewing and relating, but, and this but is essential, this is specifically for the practitioner and not the theoretician. Questions that drive the interviews and questions posed are seeking to bring together different categories of thought, challenge beliefs, identities, ideological leanings, and, the pay-offs that come from such affiliations for practitioners engaging seriously with Buddhist practices. We attempt to bring our reading of a range of sources to bear on Buddhism, but the concern is how this affects the way the human experiences himself or herself, as a consequence, in the world.
We’re interested in the practical: meaning how a human, in their humanity (rather than strict adherence to a Buddhist or spiritual identity), approaches practices, and the meaning of Buddhist practices that is drawn from allowing them to create change and movement. This includes how one approaches, experiences, and evaluates practices, whether meditation or otherwise, and gives value and meaning to the outcomes of them. Which is to say; how a practitioner understands what he or she is doing before, during and after doing something like tantric practices. This has social implications of course and we are additionally interested in how a personal practice relates to and informs the social relations that person has and constructs.
Practice involves the whole person so these two are as much about the application of intelligence as they are to do with the exploration of feeling, emotion, drives, desire, needs, etc. And the social formation of the individual, their familial influences, education, culture, environment, etc. All of this should be seen as companion parts and not as existing in some sort of opposition and it might be helpful to imagine the human as a complex ecology, rather than some mechanistic, mechanical, or even digital form. We are interested in the ecology then and see theory and practice as organically inseparable.
These two are additionally informed by a critical and creative attitude and approach. To be critical is to question and avoid being lazy by refusing to accept received wisdom and bring a variety of tools to bear in thinking about, elaborating, and understanding: this can include bringing the intellect and emotional self into different relational forms. To be creative is to avoid slipping into conventional and convenient responses, to find a position from which to look, relate, and respond, rather than simply react from a pre-determined position: it is essentially an attempt to look anew, afresh, and from different perspectives to enrichen. This can include a certain suspicion of ideological allegiance, but not a wholesale refusal to engage with ideologies that we don’t like for they are part of the shared human ecology. We are all afflicted to some degree by neo-liberal Capitalistic ideological formation. It is part of the fabric of our being so ignoring it or just shouting at it will not do very much. We are all afflicted, to some degree, by current western attitudes towards religion and spirituality. Do you unconsciously carry those within you or seek to unpack their existence in your thoughts and emotions and come to relate to them with some modicum of self-awareness?
Part of what we are trying to do with the podcast is navigate these terrains, where the individual is honoured in its own concerns, drives, desire for meaning and a pathway of sorts, and the shared, collective formation process, which we are participants in. We have no desire to adopt the extremist ideologies of ‘all nature’ or ‘all nurture’ or remain beholden to unthinking business as usual.
What’s your type?
I believe I’ve mentioned already that I prepare for episodes by imagining myself in conversation with the different types of listeners we get, and I can loosely break them down into a set of types that mirror our own concerns and approach to Buddhist materials, ideas, and practices. This will illustrate further the influences driving our inquiry with the Imperfect Buddha. The following likely define most if not all of our listeners with some very serious commentary added to help you orientate your own identification with your special in-group.
- The critical Buddhist, ex-Buddhist, non-Buddhist, and loiterer.
Motto: look at that capitalist, neo-liberal, ideological fool meditating on his own navel.
- The post-traditional Buddhist, unsure of where to go next, but beyond the point of no-return with regards to traditional Buddhisms.
Moto: should I stay or should I go?
- Those secular folks, who like the idea of Buddhism as applied philosophy with a slice of meditation.
Motto: you don’t expect me to believe in that woo woo, spiritual mumbo jumbo, do you?
- The mystical folks, plumbing the depths of the unknown at every corner.
Motto: I have no idea what is going on, but it is all fascinating and I cannot turn away.
There is obviously going to be some overlap amongst these categories for many of you but I would suggest that we are attempting to say something to each of them in our own imperfect way.
Approaching the other
I shall borrow a popular term used in anthropology, sociology and religious studies these days that seemingly originates from phenomenology: this term is “the other”. The way this term is abused at present is fascinating, but we can put it to use here all the same and hopefully avoid the tribal excesses splitting the world up again into reliable identity formations.
What are the implications of this term? Well, your identity is strongly dependent on the difference you feel and perceive between yourself and “the other”, with the other being whatever you choose it to be, or that identity or group that you instinctively feel a sharp distinction from so that the “they” are distinct from you and their role as other is key to your sense of self. This means that identity rooted in distinction from an “other” is a binary split and rooted in a simplistic dichotomy. This is surely just a fancy way of reiterating the old us and them game. The whole process of reaffirming yourself in distinction to an “other” is also dehumanising and typically robs that other of their humanity as they are frozen into their ideological roles and identities. This conveniently confirms the strong sense of self, righteousness, or superiority on the part of the person pushing the other into a box. Some simple, and seemingly harmless binaries within Buddhism might include the following; spiritual V non-spiritual, vaguely spiritual V authentic Buddhist, real-Buddhist V Mindfulness practitioner, atman hugger V anatman fanatic, x-Buddhist V non-x-Buddhist, CLC (caring, loving, compassionate) V cynical meany, rational-secular Buddhist V superstitious, irrational Buddhist, scientifically verified practitioner V dumby practitioner, etc, etc.
I would suggest that we are all guilty of this sort of thing as it is a natural component of identity formation and more often than not it is benign but this does not mean that such sharp category distinctions are not the cause of delusion and lazy thinking. Each category could learn something from engaging more generously with the other; if only out of curiosity. I certainly believe that the four groups above would benefit from engaging with each other constructively rather than perceiving the “other” as distinctly opposing or in opposition to one’s own project. BTW, this is one of the reasons why we interview the range of guests that we do.
Context is key in navigating this divide
Starting points always require context, whether as an actual physical space or a set of assumptions, questions, or something even as abstract as an intuition, a feeling, or a sensation. So, what are your concerns in relating to Buddhism, reading this text or following the podcast? To use Glenn’s recall to Critical Theory, what are the different types of questions you bring to practice and theory productive of? Those questions don’t have magical powers; they simply provide direction and a set of implicit concerns or priorities that when made explicit can illuminate the way. They can also signal the difference in priorities that a person takes in their relationship with Buddhism. Appreciating this might shift the sort of critique being made and the types of questions being asked of that person and yourself as the critic, or not.
Is it wrong to judge a category of human practice by the standards of a different category of human practice? I suspect it might be if the judgements are used to assert the distinction between self and other. It can be extremely helpful and eye-opening to question, critique, and engage from a different perspective to that used by a given group, but an appreciation for the experiences, opportunities and concerns of the group being critiqued can only come about by connecting to the humanity that drives the group’s concerns and their particular approach to questioning theory and practice. This is part of what I consider to be generosity: By appreciating their concerns and questions, critique can be less driven by a need to assert one’s position or perspective of critique. It can still be harsh, break taboos and be experienced negatively by the group at hand, but it should be open-ended if it is to transcend the simple affirmation of one’s identity.
Ontological, epistemological and phenomenological questions are driven by distinct concerns and parameters. I am all too aware that spiritual folks are in the habit of confusing phenomenological experience with reality proofs. And of taking deeply personal experiences as indicators that everyone else and even the universe are a given way. This is deeply confused thinking and is a form of rudimentary category error. But, to dismiss their claims entirely based on their confusion is to miss the point that their confusion is serving a meaningful purpose for them. If we were to be generous, we might help them understand why their beliefs are problematic and HOW they might continue to explore what is meaningful without the delusional reality claims.
Rational, intelligent analysis of social phenomenon can be applied to a critique of religious and spiritual experience and it is very useful to do so, but those experiences cannot be fully or successfully navigated at a personal level by only applying an ontological critique, or an epistemological one. This is especially true if you are exploring those same practices in a deeply, personal and meaningful way. Rational critique is a great form of protection from delusion, but it won’t necessarily help you to navigate messy emotions, attachment to feelings, or the complexities of love, death, desire and the creative impulse.
So, it might be useful to create a triad of interlocking perspectives for understanding the phenomena of applied practice, with a regular habit of avoiding any absolutist claims about what a thing is or is not. Shifting perspectives is a common coaching technique that helps to dissolve identification with a phenomenon or step outside of a compulsive, reactive pattern. We can do the same here by approaching the phenomena of practice, ideas, and experience phenomenologically, epistemologically, and ontologically. In terms of questions we could play around with some of the following if we felt compelled to do so;
What is my experience? What is its quality in my body? Emotionally? Sensorially? What is the feeling within me?
How do I know this? How do I define all this in terms that I can understand? How do I make sense of it and communicate this to others? How do we know and assign value to the experience as a group?
What is actually taking place according our general knowledge of the world? What is this state according to psychology? To what degree is this recognised phenomena that has a pattern that can be understood within a given worldview?
And, just for good measure, what is our historical understanding of this phenomenon and how does that reflect in my own experience?
Religious Studies has long accepted William James’ suggestion that religious experience be understood as human experience and be appreciated as fundamental to a human life. Without heading off into the wilderness of whether religious and spiritual experiences are real, transcendent, delusional and so forth, I will simply continue by acknowledging that such experiences are deeply meaningful for many folks, potentially life transforming, and not only the outcomes of escapist, narcissistic fantasy; although that is certainly a regular occurrence. I also believe that the quality of one’s day-to-day existence is marked by ongoing value assignment and that ‘spiritual’ practice is as much about exploring the limits and potential of the value of day to day existence as it is to do with some form of transcendent leap into the unknown or upwards towards some imagined salvation. This perhaps reflects the transcendence/immanence divide that we have explored so much in this podcast. Taking time to approach spiritual experiences from the three different paradigms can be a fascinating process and open up a far more nuanced understanding of practice. I doubt it’s for everyone though!
What would Wittgenstein say?
Ken referred to the work of Wittgenstein in our conversation by stating that he was heavily influenced by his conclusion that words are tools and that you do things with them. I studied linguistics at university and at the time corpus linguistics was the go-to area of study. One of the conclusions of corpus linguistics is that language is functional, transactional and constantly changing. This fits with Wittgenstein’s claim so that language, rather than being a set of symbolic representations of real things existing in the world, is a means for navigating the world and the relationships we have within it. We do things with words and have choice in terms of tool.
Practice itself can be understood as a form of communication. I view the practices I engage with as relational gestures. They are a means for relating to the phenomena of my experience and the shared experiences I live each day which involves ongoing negotiation. Practice often consists of intentionally driven acts directed to disrupt dysfunctionality in my behaviour towards the complexity of my being and that of others. The language I use to navigate these relationships is certainly functional. It can be more or less so and is dependent on the context and changing the definitions and terms I use can change the qualitative experience. Learning to be flexible in assigning value and terminology to experiences and dynamics is applied practice and this can be done critically and creatively.
Critique is a hell of a lot of fun for me. I’ve written before that I found the Speculative non-Buddhism site to be exhilarating as well as extremely challenging. We might even say that a certain flavour of trauma was experienced in my relationship to the ideas presented there: not the personal bickering, but the force of destruction of various spiritual tropes I was harbouring and the depth to which they informed my sense of self. But the importance of practice and many principles I have adopted from Buddhism never left me. The powerfully meaningful and transformative experiences did not disappear. The way I related to them, or rather, live them, and the way I have interpreted them has changed in the sense it has been liberated from the reactive Buddhist subject that filters its experiences through Buddhist ideology or a spiritual, transcendent worldview.
Often a deconstructive approach to analysing language, identity and ideology is effective in understanding the dysfunctional nature of the constructed forms of practice and Buddhist ideas, but it also tends to ignore the reasons why such forms have emerged. We typically find that critique is simple enough with a bit of training and a few ideational tools, but the next step, which is replacing the thing, is a far more difficult task and if the attempt is even made (a rare occurrence indeed), the complexity of human needs, diversity, desires and the challenges of building a form, of inspiring adherence to that form, and motivating others to care is soon a challenge that very few will accept or have any success with. All of this is to say, that humans are very complex creatures, especially when they start interacting with each other. Even simple interactions are filled with complexity as corpus linguistics highlights. A simple hello involves a network of meaning, value assignment, identity expectations, and so on.
I practice generosity towards others in the context of Buddhism and the groups defined above. Not Buddhist generosity, not spiritual generosity, but run of the mill human generosity. I will continue to explore a post-traditional approach to Buddhist practices and ideas informed by a shifting set of tools for engaging critically and creatively with the phenomena of Western Buddhism, primarily in its role within a personal practice that bridges the individual and their personal concerns, drives and calling with the shared realms of the social, the political, the educational, the relational. This will continue to be the basis for the guests and topics in the podcast. There is no unified approach that I know of that doesn’t lack a fundamental element for understanding the complexity of this, because, as James noted, religious and spiritual experiences are human experiences, and we humans are extremely complex organisms. We need a very wide set of tools for thinking about Buddhist practices and ideas creatively and critically, as well as a flexibility in shifting perspectives to see what is most important to us and those sharing in these human practices. Doing all of this to worthy outcomes means appreciating the diversity in concerns and desires and understanding how those desires change the fabric of evaluating what is important, or not. Certainly a constructive engagement with the claims being made is generally most fruitful when the “other” is returned to their human flesh and not frozen in isolated, artificial forms.
If you are one of my very critical audience members, I shan’t try to convince you of anything. What I have written above will either resonate or turn you off. I would suggest having a listen to Ken’s interview anyway with an open mind and a drop of generosity.
I have approached Evan Thompson for an interview based on his wonderful critique of Mindfulness he made at 2016’s Mind and Life Institute gathering. He agreed to come on but is super busy so we’re waiting patiently for that. There ought to be another session with the wonderful Glenn Wallis to look at his book in the works and, hopefully, explore an interesting take on emptiness. Finally, once Stuart has finished his training and exams, we will have a return to banter in discussing meditation.
I have a number of semi-finished texts to share at this site too. Now my son is back at school, I should have the time to finish some of those!
Enjoy the upcoming podcast and thanks again for stopping by and reading through my ramblings. Feel free to comment, complain, or whatever else feels important.