Doubt Part 2: Practising Your Life

Doubt Part 1

Doubt Part 3

Practice is a funny sort of word and for some of those engaged with Buddhism it may have immediate connotations that render it a sort of insider term. The sort in which we automatically believe we are pointing at the same thing despite never making its meaning explicit. In groups, this is clearly useful, but in impersonal communication, like this, it is helpful to at least attempt to be explicit in one’s intended meaning. Taken in a broader sense, perhaps its broadest, it simply means trying things out, or repeatedly doing something. In the practising life, it can be seen as more, of course: as ongoing commitment to activity and activities that transform you the individual, a given group, society, or even the world. The wonderfully German and rather unconventional Peter Sloterdijk describes it as a process or training that transcends and transforms a person through working on the self, and broadens the concept out beyond religion, self-help and therapy to include art and manual work among the many disciplines. Sloterdjik also reminds us that practice is an ancient form of human activity, distinctive, since the Greeks at least, in explicitly denoting an activity that is self-referential: one that shapes and transforms the person through discipline, unifying the contemplative and the active into a single practice.

Why mention a philosopher, academic and public intellectual like Sloterdjik? A lot of Buddhists I have spoken to over the years seem to think that such a description is self-evident and academic works that revisit meditation, practice and so on are unnecessary, and inferior: We already have the goods in the form of Buddhist teachings and practices, they might say, adding on that they are already more than we could ever manage. The answer to this is partly given in the first sentence of this post. A further answer picks up on concepts from non-buddhism such as sufficiency, but also that old chestnut, ideology. Part of the reason for appreciating the work of an intellectual like Sloterdjik is that he places what is often excessively self-referential back into its historical and cultural context. In so doing, he is in fact liberating concepts such as practice from the cul-de-sac of insider meaning making that can make them of little use to wider society. Works such as ‘You must Change your Life’ offer a spring clean to the conceptual baggage and over-reach of spiritual and religious traditions that may exist within their own worlds and project their visions and ideals onto the wider world as complete systems of knowledge and practice. For those who find such enclosed spaces of practice and thought problematic, the Great Feast really is the antidote and anyone thinking anew on such important ethical concerns as change and practice really does deserve our attention and gratitude.

Practice does not need to be conceived of as something special and precious even though it may well be. We do not need to romanticise or add some sort of spiritual monosodium glutamate to it so it becomes the only truly worthy component of a well-lived life. The practices of the humble are still found in those corners of society where hands touch materials to craft, to cook and bake, to restore, to dig, to decorate and paint and most of those practising thus rarely consider what they are doing as the holy thing everyone else should be doing too though many who meditate or engage with mindfulness, yoga or enlightenment culture really do think so. What’s more, though in many ways personal transformation has been turned into a sort of monolith to the neo-liberal ideal of the self-perfecting individual, with its transactional, consumerist values, it actually has very deep roots in human dignity found through care and craft with often little thought of personal reward. The act is in service to the act. To produce art, to create something beautiful is to refine one’s capacity to honour the process underway, and be of service to the family, the community, or the potential within society. Sometimes, it is merely to allow art to be art, and practice to be practice.

Sloterdjik, in many ways, is reclaiming the transformation of self from the groups who parade it around as its de facto owners: the gurus, online wellness experts, Mindfulness sales people, New Age wonder peddlers, and self-proclaimed enlightened holders of the holy grail of self-perfection or self-liberation. This leads to an indirect visit to the Great Feast. Although he may not think along such lines, Sloterdijk transforms the question of ownership by establishing historical roots that capture far more of our shared human history of practice than just that contained within the healthier visions of Buddhism, or that even the Greeks can provide, and in so doing democratises the notion of transformation and work on the self.

Such a move resonates strongly with me.

Continue reading “Doubt Part 2: Practising Your Life”

Interlude to meditation series: Humanity or Human or Humane or what?

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Bear with me please. This post goes in a number of directions but each is linked and important. It is also representative of an Italian rhetorical style which begins with a good deal of preamble before making the central point at the end. This is a writing style that requires a degree of faith on the part of the reader, and is certainly unfashionable in today’s culture of bite-size nuggets and stimulation triggering.

I’ll assume that if you make it to the end, you are a thinker, and if not, enjoy your social media fix and close the door on your way off this page.

Starting off: down with that sort of thing

When I examined my own set of practices in the last years, I was often been brought back to the flurry of insults thrown at certain meditation traditions, teachers and practices by the non-Speculative Buddhism chaps. I also recall a frequent utterance made that was aimed at claims of results or pro-positive feelings that might emerge from them: “So what?” they would ask. Was this a question, a sneer, or an expression of disinterest on their part? Perhaps it was a mixture of all three. Either way, I took such brusk commentary as a useful reminder to avoid repeating three mistakes; using meditation as a retreat from the world, assuming it was obvious that meditation was always good, and that meditation was what it was being defined as by my fellow Buddhists. Since those days, I have been concerned with the idea that meditation techniques and the framework used to discuss, understand and expand on them be connected more closely with immanence and the non Buddhist world of knowledge and insight, and that the concept of immanence not be taken for granted or encoded within Buddhist lingo. What does it mean to be present to life? What does it mean to be present to the world? What does it mean to engage with something called the present? We take so much for granted; we take so much on blind faith. How often do we stop to ask questions of the exultations that beckon us on into practice? How often do we challenge what can seem so natural? These were just some of the questions that challenged me and brought back a sense of excitement into thinking about meditation, spirituality and Buddhism anew.

To question your assumptions is an essential aspect of practice. This is quite different from forming yourself into the image of a good Buddhist. Questions can radically upset what we take as given. How do you feel if someone undermines everything you hold dear? How do you feel if someone exposes your practice and view of yourself as a practitioner as fraudulent? When our assumptions are challenged and the normalisation of a personally held view is prodded vigorously, typical reactions tend to ensue. They usually include the famous three: retreat, avoidance, or defence. How many are capable of opening to the critique at hand instead, and accepting it may destroy what you hold dear and that this may be exactly what you need in your life? Who is willing to see critique as an opportunity rather than a personal attack in this age of outrage and victimhood? Surely humility involves being willing to be wrong and shown what is hidden behind our ignorance. To be shaken by the world is an invaluable opportunity for genuine transformation. It’s a shame most of us are culturally trained to avoid it. It’s even worse when we bullshit ourselves into justifying our excuses for cowardice in excusing ourselves for disengaging when life invites us to step up.

Continue reading “Interlude to meditation series: Humanity or Human or Humane or what?”

Post-traditional Buddhism: getting practical

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A common request from those travelling around the Buddhist periphery looking for alternatives to traditional Buddhism is for innovators and critics to provide practical solutions and responses to the theoretical critique being made. I myself have been one of those who at various times in the past has asked for something practical to be done with all the theory and it behoves me now to do my part to bridge the gap between theory and practice but also remind listeners and readers that theory is itself the child of pragmatism and always results from action; the action of thought, contemplation, reflection, analysis, questioning, doubting and so on. Theory, therefore, will continue to be a cornerstone of practical, pragmatic approaches to engaging with Buddhism anew and makes up a great deal of the practical side of engaging with Buddhism from a post-traditional perspective.

Emphasising the role of theory is essential as one of the important contributing factors that has allowed Western Buddhism to give rise to its more problematic facets is the general US culture of anti-intellectualism that has accompanied the rise of Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and now Donald Trump: I know I shouldn’t, but I simply couldn’t resist referencing these key figures involved in the dumbing down of American culture. Having been the Empire of the last century, The States has obviously had a very strong influence on Europe and the rest of the world and this includes not only its political and economic exports and political ideology but also in its exportation of cultural forms and styles, so that, although Europe generally does not suffer from the American suspicion of intelligence, nuance, subtlety and sophistication, it has accepted, in the world of Western Buddhism at least, a creeping form of anti-intellectualism, and in the world of the spiritual but not religious, an obsession with first person subjectivity and the cult of feeling. Starting out with the practical business of thinking, therefore, is an essential initial step because, as our more intellectual readers are all too familiar, theory, in the form of ideas and beliefs in particular, underlies, shapes and colours all of the practical stuff that our more down-to-earth brothers and sisters like to front.

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6.1 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: Engaged Buddhism & the apolitical trend

 

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Latest Episode: click here

We’re back! The Imperfect Buddha Podcast’s new episode arrives just in time for the New Year. This time out, we’re exploring Engaged Buddhism and the question of whether to engage or disengage. We discuss how Buddhism could provide tools and practices to support those engaging with the political landscape and activism but also how Buddhism often provides a means for people to hide out from the uncomfortable realities we see around us; the ones that cause endless amounts of collective suffering. We discuss practices that could help individuals and groups wake up from the apolitical stance that is so present in western Buddhist groups and discourse and look at how Engaged Buddhism too often concerns itself with the symptoms of the three institutionalised poisons that David Loy has articulated in his work whilst avoiding a genuine critique of the cause. Ken Knabb helps us on our way as does Loy and we even manage to get in some critique of Stuart’s favourite Buddhist group, Shambhala, as well as one of my least favourite new age capitalists, Eckhart Tolle.There’s plenty of banter and lots of constructive critique and practice suggestions, so jump in and give it a listen.


Happy New Year to one and all.

Continue reading “6.1 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: Engaged Buddhism & the apolitical trend”

4.1 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: cults, cultish shennanigans & Buddhist groups

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Episode 3.1 at Soundcloud.

Here it is, finally, after a long wait, episode 3.1 of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. We get ‘culty’ in this one, discussing Buddhists cults, cultish behaviour in Buddhist groups and the reasons why people join. We look at the NKT, Rigpa, Shambhala, Michael Roach and H.H Maitreya, otherwise known as Ronny Spenser and open the discussion up to a consideration of how cultish behaviours seep into even innocuous Buddhist groups when criticism is left aside and institutional politics encourage group conformity.
We tell a story or two to keep you entertained and manage to generate some banter in spite of this topic being a heavy one in places.
Is it possible that someone will get offended? Yes. Is that our intention? No. We do speak truth to power though and that means shining the light on where things have gone wrong in western Buddhism.
Check it out. Spread the love and let us know what you think at our dedicated Facebook page.