Here are a few updates for the podcast. We have two episodes left from the wonderful world of academia with the next one being a conversation with Richard K. Payne, Yehan Numata professor of Japanese Buddhist Studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkley, and senior editor of the Pacific World Journal. Richard also trained as a Shingon priest in Japan, and has an insightful blog called Critical Reflections on Buddhist Thought. We talk about aspects of online Buddhist culture, White Buddhism, why Richard Wright’s “Why Buddhism is True” may not be true at all, perennialism, ideology and transcendence, as well as anti-intellectualism in Buddhism. As I mention on the podcast interview, I highly recommend reading a text by Richard on traditionalism and perennialism and the role they have played in forming many of our enduring fantasies about Buddhism.
After that, you will get to hear an interview with Donald S. Lopez, Arthur E. Link distinguished professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan. Many of you will be familiar with Donald’s work already, in particular his texts that look at the history of Buddhism with a very original twist. From Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism in the West, to The Scientific Buddha, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: a Biography, Donald has written entertaining accessible books thoroughly rooted in deep scholarly work that dismantle many of the enduring myths we hold regarding Buddhism and its authentic past. Many of you will also be familiar with The Madman’s Middle Way, and we talk about this text along with his others throughout the interview. I’m a big fan of Donald’s work, and if you are too, you will no doubt find this conversation highly stimulating.
These two interviews conclude our cycle of conversations with academics. A major theme throughout has been to challenge the myths that endure amongst western Buddhists in order to undermine the fantasies used to uncritically engage with Buddhist practice: fantasies that obstruct many a newbie and sideline many a long-term practitioner. It should be obvious by now that intellectual engagement with Buddhist materials is a vital form of practice in itself and that when it’s ignored, undermined, or undervalued, it tends to lead to an impoverished capacity to engage with practice, and an inability to contextualise the consequences that emerge in the formation of identity, beliefs, and engagement, and disengagement, with wider society and its concerns.
It takes a great deal of ignorance to argue the Buddhism is concerned primarily with pragmatism, with meditation, and with deconstructing one’s identity. It should be clear by now that ideas, beliefs, myths, fantasies, and ideology underpin such ignorance, and that those who claim to be beyond thinking, reasoning, and the use of intelligence are merely professing a form of ideological indoctrination, and striking ignorance. Yes, meditation and similar practices can enable a person to radically change their relationship with thought, discover sustained periods of inner silence, find a state of liberated being in which thought rises and falls effortlessly, but to hang out in that space is too often a form of escapism, self-indulgence (oddly enough), and, dare I say, narcissism. For who is it that possesses such realisation? Why would they need to hold onto it so tightly? And, who is afraid of engaging again with thought anyway? Well, many stories can be told in response to such questions, but I for one find most thoroughly unconvincing. You are free to decide for yourself, but if you’ve been listening to the series up to now, I would be surprised if you didn’t agree with this conclusion. Ideas have a habit of determining the person when unquestioned and even realisation can end up becoming an all too familiar habit of being. When approached as living, thought, theory, ideas and concepts become a creative landscape in which to travel and a means for liberation.
After a short break, the next season of the podcast will begin and will feature a focus on the teacher and the practitioner. As I have brought academics to discuss ideas, theories and their work in relationship to practitioners, I would like to bring on teachers of Buddhism and meditation, and practitioners who would be willing to engage with the ideas we have covered, as well as new ones, and the impact they have on practice: this will be a non- practice on my part in which I seek to avoid slipping into the many seductive positions available to those who would grasp at identity. How successful I will be in getting teachers and practitioners to join me in this is anybody’s guess. There is often quite a bit of resistance on the part of Buddhist teachers to discussing theoretical propositions and in analysing practice from a variety of intellectual positions. Teachers can fall into the trap of identifying with the role of the one who knows all too easily and when coupled with Buddhist Sufficiency, dialogue quickly becomes a dead end of platitudes, tropes and the call to authority or personal experience.
I see a creative, fluid engagement with ideas, without the need to assert roles, as part of the meta-modern approach. That is, one that is not afraid of bringing different kinds of ideas and practices together to see what happens, and how they might inform, impact, destabilise, or shine a light on aspects that were once hidden, to create new kinds of connections and possibilities. To come to the world of ideas afresh each time is itself to suspend the selfing process with its fixation on positions and possession. I have very little interest in discussing what Buddhist teachers know already, or in feeding Buddhist sufficiency and the myths that Glenn Wallis has pointed out again and again. Who might join me in such a journey? I am optimistic that there are folks out there who would be up for this.
Here’s a request to you dear reader. If you are reading this and you know Buddhist teachers, young or old, famous or unknown, from one tradition or another, or simply doing their own thing that might be capable of this kind of conversation, then let me know. I’m open to suggestions and recommendations. My general feeling is that this is going to be more of a challenge than the academic series, so any help would be appreciated. If you are one of those practitioners that has been at Buddhism for many, many years, and feel like you have some contributions to make in this regard, feel free to drop me a line as well. Ideally I would get a mixture of teachers and long-term practitioners to come on. Although well-known figures always get more plays and downloads, I’m not the slightest bit interested in chasing numbers. What I am after are quality conversations that matter.
Finally, if you have any feedback about the series we’ve run and the podcast in general, feel free to drop me a line about that too. You can write a comment below if you prefer, but emails are generally preferable.
This is the email address to use; firstname.lastname@example.org