75. IBP – George Haas on the Practicing Life

Let’s get started!

Happy New Year to one and all and welcome to this new season (proper) of the Imperfect Buddha Podcast. Focussed on practice, this season engages Buddhist teachers, long-term practitioners, and creative innovators engaged in the practising life. Interspersed with regular interviews, this practice focussed season finally gets the podcast off of the couch and responding to the long stream of listeners calling for a practice focus.

We are also finally getting in touch with many of the guest suggestions put forth by you, dear listeners.

We have four episodes recorded already and I can tell you that guests have been generous and candid, and their struggles, insights and experience have already made me realise how important and useful such a personal line of inquiry can be.

Feedback as always can be posted at the usual locations. Suggestions for guests are welcome too. You can email the podcast at: imperfectbuddha@outlook.com

George Haas

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Thoughts on Practice: warming up for exercise

The Great Feast provides us with an infinite number of takes on practice. Great and lesser minds since time recorded have shared opinions, ideas, beliefs, assumptions and assertions on what practice is, and should be. Sometimes what those minds produced (or received), developed into a tradition, a pathway, an institution, a religion; or disappeared entirely, folded back into the sands of time, as our ancestors pushed onwards, most merely surviving, others attempting to construct a better world. The hardier remnants of this great wealth linger on today, and with them an ever increasing wealth of books, workshops, retreats, podcasts, apps and online groups proposing new configurations, recycled products, and a variety of attempts by living human minds to imagine and leap towards that which might come.

Because of all this, whether we wish to be or not, we are all consumers. We can view ourselves economically as such; many propose we do so. We could also view ourselves as beasts, as animals, as mammals feasting on the world. Our existence requires we devour parts of the world for our mere survival after all. So, why would it be different with knowledge, practices, or the fulfilment of the religious impulse? Sorry, was I meant to say spiritual, but not-religious? To feast, devour, consume; these are metaphors civilised folks sit uncomfortably with. Our animal nature has a long history of being dismissed, ignored or suppressed in the name of progress, civilisation, and the pursuit of a world apart from the horrors of our carnal nature. This creates a bind in us, of course. As we attempt to transcend our animal nature, we also transcend our intimacy with the organic world we are forever intimate with. We downplay our interconnection with the limitations of the animal-human body, the animal-human heart. Oddly, in our attempt to mark Homo sapiens out as distinct from the other animals, we dehumanise ourselves; all too often in projects of escape. To be human is to be of this Earth. To be interdependent is to be in exchange with all the things of this Earth; not operating as an aloof being apart, casting its thoughts and mental projections outwards or downwards.

Such a dualistic vision is a practice, and one I would argue is fundamentally dysfunctional. For some Buddhists, such a view will irritate: Watching the mind, seeing your thoughts, all of this language betrays a dualistic tendency. There are other practices too. Ones involving immersion, this is also a stream within Buddhism and its long-history of variant practices and modes of practice. It presents its own problems too.

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My Practice

How can I expect teachers, philosophers and academics to open up about their private, personal practice if I won’t do the same and lead by example? I’ve tended to keep myself out of the picture throughout the life of the podcast, and even the Turns were an act of service (believe it or not), as opposed to ego projects of self-congratulatory, insight porn of the sort you see constantly on Twitter, Youtube and Facebook.

Letting go of the personal is, in part, one of the great themes that runs through Buddhism. But there is a paradox at hand, and it is one that recalls our current age, and its concern with identities. No fear, don’t panic, I have no intention of going there; rather, I merely wish to suggest that the many Buddhisms give rise to their own dynamics of identities, non-identities, the sacred and the profane. The personal is sacred in many ways, and an essential bulwark against the trappings of collective identities, but perhaps we should appreciate its sacrality is always in passing. Paradox resolved.

As mentioned in the last podcast episodes, I will be embarking on a series looking at the personal side of practice with a range of quite different guests, many the Buddhist teachers I have been asked to interview over the years by regular listeners. This is an experimental season and it will be interesting to see how folks respond, what they share, and what we all learn from each other’s struggles with practice, and ideas about it. The critical element will remain but also, why not, autoarchaeology and insider-ethnography to mention a couple of highfalutin terms for something very simple.

There are two topics I should address before starting, however, then I can answer some of the questions I have pre-prepared for upcoming guests.

I will go first, so to speak. Start the ball rolling. Kick things off.

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74. IBP: Being at Large with Santiago Zabala

Santiago Zabala was once described as a most ignorant philosopher by the American philosopher Brian Leiter: An interesting take that one will need to interpret for themselves in listening to this conversation on fake news, the role of interpretation, freedom, and being at large. Santiago is not at all ignorant, of course, and might be better understood as a pluralistic thinker in the stream of European philosophy, thus accompanying living thinkers such as Slavoj Zizek, and Simon Critchley; philosophers who aren’t afraid to risk controversy by expressing ideas and opinions on all manner of topic, from film to Covid. Thinkers that Mr Leiter no doubt dislikes, in fact he considers poor old Zizek to be a charlatan and bigot! American Imperialism indeed!
Santiago is rooted in the hermeneutic tradition of philosophy and we discuss the role and unavoidability of interpretation in our relationship with the world, and the latest phenomena of fake news, online battles, and the wider sphere of social life, politics, and, that topic so fundamental to western Buddhists, freedom.
What is freedom today? What would it mean to use the concept of ’being at large’ to understand how we might or might not be free today? What does it mean to have a return to order?
We cover this and more in this conversation which stretches well beyond the world of Buddhism, but also philosophy, by looking at how society is evolving today. We discuss Santiago’s latest book, Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts, but asides from his books you can also find his writing in The Guardian, The New York Times, and Aeon, to name a few.
This is the third in this trifecta of episodes signalling a return to podcasting for the Imperfect Buddha Podcast.

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73. IBP: Buddhism & Magic with Sam van Schaik

This episode involves a conversation with the Tibetologist Sam van Schaik. Sam wrote his original PHd thesis on Dzogchen and the work of Jigme Lingpa and has been involved in the International Dunhuang Project at the British Library, where he currently works, and also teaches at the SOAS University in London. He also happened to write one of my favourite books on Tibet, called appropriately, Tibet: A History. Well-written, entertaining and informative, Sam’s overview of the history of the country that has lived larger than life as a place holder for all manner of western fantasy is a book with academic chops but aimed at a general audience. If you like Donald S. Lopez’s work on Tibet and Buddhism, this is one for you for sure. We discuss it as well as his book Tibetan Zen but the lion’s share of the conversation concerns his latest work on Buddhist Magic. Something of a companion piece to Tibet: A History, it looks at the role magic has played throughout the history of Buddhism and in the wider world of Buddhism today beyond Mindfulness, Secularism, and the cute fantasy that westerners hold that Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy. Such folks might like to wonder if the other world religions have ever made similar claims too. I get a story in about my first encounter with the Shugden Oracle in case you are interested.

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