My new bride on the spiritual path is perhaps best defined as Post-Traditional Buddhism. A term I picked up from Hokai Sobol, who is a Buddhist Geeks associate. What a grand title that sounds. Yet, what it appears to imply in essence is the shedding of deference of authority for the path to traditional Buddhism, whether it be Zen, Gelugpa, Burmese, or Hokai’s own traditional roots, Shingon Buddhism. Emerging Western Buddhism that is post-traditional is in a very early stage of birth. What follows is my own understanding of this emerging phenomenon. Others will no doubt be wiser on this topic, but for now too few voices are discussing it in the public sphere, so, not one to fear for my safety, I’ll dive straight on in and do my best to paint a rather challenging picture with words.
It appears that the pregnancy started in earnest in the 1960s, although it seems to me that the birth has only really begun to take place in this century. Whereas Western Buddhism defines any form of Buddhism, traditional or otherwise, that is alive and functioning on western soil, Post-Traditional Buddhism is perhaps the most radical and accurate description for what is starting to show tentative signs of flowering in both North America and Europe as a response to the inadequacies of traditional Buddhism for a contemporary western audience. Secular Buddhism is one of the more well-known faces of this emerging phenomenon. Though most often this disconnected movement towards a radical re-engagement with Buddhism is found in very small pockets of physically disconnected individuals, couples and groups who are connecting primarily through the Internet and through informal meetings. Some of them came together at the Buddhist Geeks conferences in 2012 and 2011, but rumours abound that they were infiltrated by many traditional Buddhist buddies. In fact a key feature of Post-Traditional Buddhism is the mixing of old and new. Post-Traditional Buddhism is built on the work that has come before it.
Imagine a giant golden Buddha statue sat in front of you right now. The Buddha’s golden gaze stares out onto an invisible horizon, expressing an out of reach wisdom and supreme intellect. His hands are clasped in unifying grace and his legs are perfectly placed in a lotus posture. The statue gives off an aura of graceful bliss, of wisdom, compassion and perfect meditational equipoise. Surely this image represents the quintessence of Buddhist iconography, its most transcendent and instantly recognisable form.
Golden statues are accompanied by exotic robes in most traditional gathering places for Buddhists. Incense is lit and golden bowls may hold offerings for imagined beings. Other more mundane objects such as zafus still draw heavily on Eastern forms, colours and shapes and each adds to that ‘je ne sais quoi’ that inspires warm feelings in the bellies of curious seekers, and quite possibly a smidgen of confusion. Seekers of one kind or another are still attracted by the exotic, by other, by the symbolic matrices that accompany religion, and most likely always will be as we are visual, feeling creatures.
Although not up to Hinduism’s standards, Buddhism has its fair share of rich visual display that acts to seduce the observer. Why is it that we are so drawn to symbols? Why is it that so many are drawn to religion, in this case by Buddhism, through rich symbology and unarticulated appearance? Perhaps in part, such exotic symbolism provides us with an alternative experiential environment, within which, we can explore different meaning-making systems, and feel free, to some degree, to shed the binds that adhere us to pre-existing, culturally normalised realms of being. The exotic provides us with a back door exit from our mundane existence, and further, from the pain and suffocation of modernity. The problem is that such an exit can lead us not to freedom, but to escapism and the adoption of a new identity, a newly fabricated self that reflects its new environment, both ideologically and behaviourally. We become new all right. Though we emerge as a false image of a distorted self that is framed in new jargon, hidden and stifled beneath the surface in a prism that distorts our own voice, our own knowing, and lack of knowing, through the lens of a Buddhist persona.
Concentration is the last element of the Eightfold Path. Practising all of the eight factors of the path pretty much guarantees us a powerful and transformative journey of discovery, growth and change. If we go far enough down this path, it ought to lead to some sort of liberation from suffering and confusion and awakening to authentic being. This is what the label on the packet suggests, you will have to make your own way and sample the goods to find out whether the claims are true, or not.
The Eightfold Path does not exist out there somewhere and I hope I have made that clear to some degree in these blog posts. It cannot be perfected in any absolute sense and there is no committee to measure your progress, and, most likely, no one will pat you on the back and say well done if you make notable progress on it, and, well, what is ‘it’ anyway? Many followers of Buddhism mistake the external forms, teachings and practises as ‘the’ path. This is a mistake. The Eightfold Path is simply an effective model to inspire, guide and prompt us to action that has been reliable enough to warrant its survival and continued propagation for a couple of thousand years. The path though is ‘our’ actual-personal-experience of putting these practices and concepts into action. We need to start and gain some first-hand experience before we can relate experientially to what is alluded to in the many books out there. The path then is created through the raw elements of our own actions, choices and intent. As we gain first-hand experience we can start to relate to what teachers and teachings are hinting at and decide for ourselves what works and what doesn’t, whether a given teacher or form of Buddhism has its head in a dark place, or if it/they might be worth investing time and energy into. There are many Buddhisms out there and most of them believe they have the final say on what Buddhism is. Outside of institutions and organisations, authoritative figures, leaders and followers is the simple matter of an individual, or a group exploring the consequences of dedicated practise on this human life, in this time and place.
Getting away from the computer screen, unplugging our ears from an iPad, putting the beer back in the fridge, and settling in for twenty or thirty minutes meditation requires effort. There’s no getting away from it. Modern technology, and in particular the internet, promises instant gratification, satisfaction and stimulation. Meditation does not. Perhaps meditation is the antithesis of the internet? Meditation brings us to where we are and slows everything down so we can see clearly, so we can feel deeply, and gain insight into our human condition. It provides a space where we let go of indulging the impulsive desire to absorb more and more data, to open a browser for the umpteenth time, to track down the latest video on YouTube, the latest track on iTunes and surf ever onwards to further, new stimulation. And effort? How unfashionable. Why pay when you can download for free, why leave the house to go to the bookshop when almost everything is freely available within that dark screen of limitless magical images.
I have always been interested in the world as mirror, as macrocosm of our microcosm, and in this regard the internet is a wonderful manifestation of our collective ability to constantly distract ourselves with busyness and with seemingly important and vital tasks, which simply cannot wait. The internet has given rise to an obsession with instant updating, and a new form of anxiety at the thought of not being in touch and digitally connected. But what are we connecting to and how real is it? How does this new relationship with data, bits and bytes absorb our energies and efforts? We have created a new experience of reality based on immediacy where waiting and delay have vanished. The internet and computer technology may increasingly give rise to artificial experiences that provide instant gratification of desires that would otherwise be complex and perhaps impossible to meet in the world outside the confines of digital screens.
In the world of flesh and blood, of earth and stone, effort is almost always required to create or achieve anything meaningful and worthwhile. Long-term investment and commitment produces results and rewards that cannot be rushed. Whiskey and fine wine are aged and better for being so and the best of human qualities are the same. Maturity and wisdom require long-term commitment to growth and a concerted investment in entering the depths of human experience. The culture of instant gratification and access will undoubtedly change younger generations’ relationship with knowledge, entertainment and stimulation of the five senses in unforeseen ways and it is likely that many will indeed be positive. Will the pendulum swing and the value of real flesh and bones experience becomes equally attractive again as a counter-balance to noses glued to screens? Who can tell? Much of this new wave of being is caught up in a great deal of physical separation and isolation; cinema attendance is in decline and book shops are closing down on a monthly basis. It is quicker and easier to watch a film at home and order books from Amazon. The raw meat and bones experience of dynamic tension that marks a more complete approach to living in the world can only take form in relationship with the phenomenal world with all its messiness and paradox, and progress in engaged practice can only come about through a concerted and dedicated effort to transform our experience with matter. A digital version is simply not enough.
As most of us do not work in the aforementioned unethical trades, the question of right livelihood will primarily concern the way we work. It can be useful to start by looking at whether our relationship to our job, workplace and colleagues contributes to the creation or maintenance of forms of gross and subtle suffering for ourselves and for others. This may be as simple as recognising that a poor attitude affects not only the approach we take to the events of a working day, but contributes to the establishment of an unpleasant working environment and perhaps even a culture of bad attitude that permeates the working establishment. An ethical approach to work is to honour our agreements (contractually, verbally and interpersonally) and be as impeccable as possible. We dedicate ourselves to excellence as a commitment to ongoing development and we align our use of energy with practice. We use the working environment as a sphere of activity in which we firstly learn to recognise patterns of reactivity, or aversion, and how our preferences, attraction, play out. We let go of frenetic reactivity to stressful circumstances and seek to align with the movements of our working day in a way that allows us to maintain internal balance and presence. It is an ongoing art to do so. It is likely not possible in all working environments and this is the point when a change of circumstances may become necessary. If our working environment demands too many hours, too much stress inducing work, excessive aggressivity, or the giving away of our autonomy and individuality, we may need to consider a different career path if we are dedicated to long-term meditation practice.
As we are all too aware, work takes up a considerable amount of our waking life. That may be good news for some, but for many it is not. Work is a must for a great number of people: an obligation that would be preferably avoided. Even though this attitude is being tested by the global economic crisis we are currently going through, once you step outside of job anxiety, the same dissatisfaction that so many have in relationship to work remains.
So, what can be done about this? A dichotomy seems to emerge between two basic approaches to an unsatisfactory working life. The first is to accept your lot, view experience as experience and let go of any particular preference. In the light, this is taking a sort of Zen approach of accepting what arises, which is easier said than done, but certainly possible. In the dark it’s resigning yourself to circumstances, because to change would either be impossible, or simply not worth it. These two excuses arise as pretence voices with lots of baggage in tow.
The second approach recognises a genuine necessity for change and engages in the search for more meaningful work, and more rewarding circumstances. Both are important to recognise and develop familiarity with and are certainly not mutually exclusive. The basis for working effectively with either is having a sense of the genuine priority in a given period and a sensitivity to timing.
There have been many books written about finding the job of your dreams. Many of them are very good and have certainly helped many people change their lives and find more rewarding work. For many people this is certainly something to look at, even in challenging economic times like the one we are living in. There is no doubt that when we are enthusiastic about the activity we are investing our energy and time into, we work better and we feel better doing it and it is easier usually to remain present and open to experience. In an ideal world we would all have the job of our dreams and dedicate ourselves to doing the best we can whilst at work.