finding a modern catalyst: is it possible?

I have been reading some very interesting stuff on the Juniper website, which is very relevant to the Buddhism and modernity discussion we are having on this blog, and one article in particular caught my attention. The article is called Heirs to Insight: Assimilating Buddhist methods into modern culture, and it contains the following passage:


The optimal mode for a relationship with a teacher or guide for Buddhist training, therefore, is the one that best suits the psychological profile, norms, and sensibilities of the time.

Modern catalysts

Teachers, or guides, play a vital role on the Buddhist path. They are the catalysts that open the door to inner change and help to counter resistance and stabilize one’s progress. Although a relationship with a teacher or guide can take many forms, they tend to take on a style that is very much in line with local standards and culture. In some cultures, for example, a very high degree of formality and subservience is accorded to Buddhist teachers, whose words are rarely, if ever, subject to question. Although our modern culture does not have a direct counterpart to Buddhist training, challenging and questioning one’s teacher is well accepted—even encouraged—in other fields, and teacher relationships tend to be more informal.

There is no single correct way in which teacher relationships in Buddhist training should be structured. The degree of formality or subservience, for example, does not in and of itself characterize a successful relationship with a teacher or guide. What matters is the quality of the relationship and the level of mutual respect and trust cultivated over time. The optimal mode for a relationship with a teacher or guide for Buddhist training, therefore, is the one that best suits the psychological profile, norms, and sensibilities of the time.

The right balance

Modern education places a high value on independent thinking, critical inquiry, and the questioning of norms and standards. Successful relationships with teachers tend to be characterized by high levels of respect and trust, but they also allow for high levels of individual expression on the part of the student. Questions and independent thinking are generally encouraged. If this type of relationship is optimum for the psychological profile of the Western or modern individual, it would also seem to be optimal for the Buddhist training of such individuals.

In short, the principle of modern teacher relationships in Buddhist training calls for preserving the potency and vitality of relationships with a teacher or guide in ways that best suit modern norms and sensibilities. The goal is to build a healthy balance between self-reliance and the opening of oneself to the guidance of another. In this way, we will be able to cultivate teacher relationships that reflect modern sensibility while also building the trust needed for teachers to effectively serve as catalysts for growth and inner development.

This is a fascinating and nuanced commentary on the need to tweak the traditional Tibetan notion of reliance upon a Spiritual Guide, a notion that is particularly difficult to translate into a Western context where modern styles of learning  are often so different to the traditional Tibetan educational background. I, for one, find Juniper’s presentation of the issue both illuminating and reassuring, particularly the latter, as it fits in with my own new-found inclination to be a lot more independent and critical in my examination of tradition Buddhist teachings and organisations, especially in the light of my own experience of how reliance upon a Spiritual Guide can be distorted and manipulated as a resource for the furtherance of dysfunctional and authoritarian structures and goals within a Buddhist organisation. Juniper’s approach opens up the possibility of harmoniously combining the best of modern Western educational methods with the traditional Tibetan notion of relying upon a qualified teacher for guidance along the Buddhist path. But it is a possibility that requires much patient and subtle discrimination of what reliance upon a  Spiritual Guide really means and how best to integrate that within one’s own experience so as to retain the autonomy and critical abilities one needs in order to truly take responsibility for one’s own spiritual progress and successfully avoid that autonomy being compromised by the unreasonable demands of any organisation, even an avowedly Buddhist one.

Modern Buddhism: the new koan?

So, a significant milestone in the life of this blog has just passed: the number of visitors to this site has just gone over 10,000 just 6 months after its birth amidst the agonies of a fractured Dharma community. No doubt the ‘popularity’ of this blog owes something to the ‘notoriety’ of myself and my fellow contributors to this blog. Curiosity about the eventual fate of the of the ousted management of the Dharma community is also a strong draw, as attested by the fact that about 40% of the visits have been to the news section of this blog. But the majority of visits have been to the actual blog posts themselves, which indicates that they did contain relevant and timely material, much of which raised questions and issues that many visitors have undoubtedly felt worth raising and worth thinking about. For Dharma study and practice, I think we can all agree, does involve some serious thinking for oneself, and such thinking always involves asking deep questions of both oneself and the ‘reality’ one apparently experiences.

Of course, for some visitors the raising of questions, especially about the validity of certain aspects of a traditional form of Buddhism is iconoclastic and evident of my guilt as an ‘impure’ Dharma practitioner. Actually,you can’t get more ‘traditional’ than an accusation of ‘impurity’, which looks very odd in a ‘modern’ cultural context! But I’m pretty sure that for a lot of other visitors the questions raised, not just by me but by many of the most respected Western Buddhists of our time, are pertinent and provocative enough to warrant a considered and careful response from any Dharma practitioner who cares about the way Buddhism evolves within our Western society, and especially about how traditional Buddhisms negotiate the difficult interaction with, and adjustment to, the various aspects of modernity, both self-evident and subconscious, that are unavoidable for all of us. I certainly see the dispute at Maitreya Centre as being derived in large part from unspoken and unexamined assumptions on both sides of the dispute about what the relationship between tradition and modernity should be, and the need for a dialogue about that relationship cannot be forever suppressed by the reliance upon secular law and constitutional procedure to settle every argument within the tradition, whichever tradition that is; sooner or later the skeletons of inappropriate grasping at traditional forms of authority or unskilful adaptations to modernity will burst out of the proverbial closet. If you doubt this, I recommend the incisive analysis of David L. McMahan in his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (OUP USA, 2008). And no, just sticking the word ‘modern’ into the title of a book called ‘Modern Buddhism’ does not mean one has created the perfect union of modernism with Buddhism! And no, that is not a criticism of  THE book ‘Modern Buddhism’, written by you-know-who; merely to say that a book title like that cannot be taken literally as read, as if it were unproblematic. A modern Buddhism can indeed exist, but only after wading through, and hopefully resolving, a veritable Pandora’s box of paradoxes and contradictions. Actually, I think ‘Modern Buddhism’ is a naff title for an otherwise brilliant book that actually has precious little to do with modernism or any kind of ‘modern’ and which represents just one particular strand of one kind of Buddhism amongst a whole family of Buddhisms (some of them a lot more ‘modern’), and a kind of  Buddhism still very similar in many ways to its pre-modern form! There, that probably proves my ‘heresy’ once and for all, at least for those convinced that particular strand of Buddhism is perfectly pure and completely unequalled! But having the title at all is a classic admission of the overwhelming need, albeit unacknowledged, on the part of the publishers, to make sure that the book is compatible with enough of modernism to ensure its widest possible appeal to a ‘modern’ audience, even though the essential content of the book is supposedly traceable to the Buddha of 2,500 years ago and therefore authentically pre-modern to the point of being ancient! Now there’s a paradox for you! Or perhaps a new koan?

Nevertheless, the trauma of losing a Dharma community and a tradition that I worked so hard for and which I thought I would belong to for the rest of my life has been severe, but it has eventually been purifying and positive, opening up the time and space in my mind to ask questions of my own Dharma study and practice and to discover new depths and meanings to it that have given me plenty to follow up on over the years. Yes, I might be stuck in dukkha and, who knows, perhaps driving myself ever deeper into it, but wisdom has definitely shone through the dukkha; a fierce kind of wisdom, no doubt, but then, as T.S.Eliot would say, “we are consumed by either fire or fire”. The dispute may be unresolved still, and may look acrimonious from an observer’s standpoint, but it has ironically resolved a lot of psychological issues for me and made me stronger even though, once again, to external appearances it looks like I lost everything (whereas, in fact, I gained more than I ever dared to). Ironically, it is the teachings of the tradition that now has no place for me that has helped me be strong enough to stand up to the dysfunctional organisational stratagems of the tradition which undermine the mandate of that very tradition itself. Another paradox, another koan…

The encounter of Buddhism with modernity: clash of titans?

Given the immense popularity of my last post about the debate between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt, I would like to refer readers to another, related debate between Stephen Batchelor and B. Allen Wallace which looks in even more detail at the encounter between traditional Buddhisms and modernity. B. Allen Wallace wrote an article entitled: Distorted Visions of Buddhism: Agnostic and Atheist which Stephen Batchelor replied to with: An Open Letter to B. Allen Wallace. I find this debate equally stimulating and useful, and I think it is a debate which perhaps goes on consciously or subconsciously within a lot of Western Buddhist practitioners as there is bound to be a psychological tension between the kind of secular education most of us have had as we grew up in the modern West and the kind of traditional Asian Buddhisms that we developed a strong connection with. If that tension is acknowledged and consciously worked with, it can no doubt be creative and progressive for one’s practice, but if it is denied or repressed in favour of an uncritical acceptance of traditional doctrinal expressions of Buddhism or, indeed, in favour of outright rejection of traditional Buddhist doctrines as simply superstition and myth, then much of the richness and depth of Buddhism is closed off from one’s Dharma study and practice. The debate is important precisely because it touches on the very real existential dilemmas many of us face when trying in our own very human, very fallible ways to integrate the traditional forms of Buddhism we have learnt to cherish with the realities of the secular, scientific world view we have to work within and accept to a large extent as having a validity and relevance that traditional Buddhisms cannot ignore. Anyway, see what you think!

A Buddhism for our times: a work in progress or pie in the sky?

An absolutely fascinating public debate took place recently between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt regarding the evolving nature of religion and religious truth in our time, and the debate contains many stimulating insights into the nature of modern Buddhism and the attempts of Buddhism to entrench itself in the West. The debate had great meaning and especial poignancy for me in the light of the traumatic experiences I and some of my dharma colleagues have been through recently, but it also gave me lots of clues about how to develop my dharma practice in the future and confirms me in my growing conviction that dharma practice has to be protected from the tendency of religious organisations, even Buddhist ones, to periodically become fossilised and over-rigid in their attempts to maintain doctrinal purity and hierarchical authority, destroying the creative tension of debate, even dissent, that is an essential part of keeping any tradition fresh, alive and dynamic. Better still, ways of practising dharma outside of any dependence or over-reliance upon an organisational or institutional structure may need to be developed and/or encouraged.

To give a flavour of the debate, here is some of what Stephen Batchelor said:

I think we have to do more than just modify or reform some of the existing Asian Buddhist traditions, although that is of course something that has been happening now for the last fifty years or so: in other words, the modification of Theravada Buddhism or early Buddhism into the vipassana and the mindfulness movements, certain ways in which Zen Buddhism has been transformed into a practice that Christians and Buddhists alike are engaged in. I think we need a rather more radical rethinking of the dharma, what the Buddha taught, and what is that all about, and can we imagine it in a way that enables the wisdom of this tradition to speak in a language that addresses our circumstances, our condition today? I think, and again I feel I am probably very close to Don here, that Buddhism needs to be rethought from the ground up. We somehow, perhaps, are in such a different situation to that in which Buddhism has traditionally worked in Asia, that we might in a way have to start all over again. That can sound very threatening to someone who is invested in certain traditional Buddhist beliefs, but personally I find it very liberating. I think it brings the imagination, creativity into the scope of our practice as Buddhists and leads us obviously into an unknown. I don’t know where these ideas will go, how they will evolve or develop – or not. I just don’t know. I am concerned therefore that the Buddhist tradition somehow engages in a dialogue with modernity, not just a dialogue with other religions, but begins to somehow get to grips with the secular world, secular culture of which we are a part. 

Later on Batchelor says:

I think that we have to distinguish between a living tradition and a dying tradition. A living tradition surely is one that is in constant ongoing conversation with its own past, which is a phrase I picked up in the writing of the American philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who also says that traditions are “continuities of conflict”. I feel it is only when there is conflict that in a way the religious and spiritual life really comes alive. The danger that we can also see, particularly with certain more fundamentalist forms of religion, is that dialogue, conversation, conflict, interpretation, tend to be suppressed. And there I think a deadening begins to set in. So I feel that although I may be criticised for taking too great a liberty with certain Buddhist texts and traditions, I feel that, in the bigger picture, I am trying to keep alive an animated discussion, a discourse and language that will allow the tradition to breathe afresh.

And to really put the cat amongst the pigeons, this question was put to Stephen Batchelor: “Is a lot of Buddhism’s teaching about happiness a way of trying to promote itself in the West? I just wondered if you could comment on that.”

To which Stephen Batchelor replied:

Well, I think Buddhism has been somewhat hijacked by the happiness industry in some sense, and I think it is another example of how we reach for this knee-jerk inclusion of happiness, because obviously it sells well. But I don’t think Buddhism is in the business of happiness, at least not overtly. I think a great parallel with how Buddhism is presented as being about happiness is that its very first teaching is to embrace suffering and dukkha – the first truth. And the parallel with this is that if one really wishes to live a life fully and abundantly, that requires us to be entirely honest and forthright with the reality of the world as it is, rather than in some imagined perfected future. So I always see happiness as a kind of a bonus, as a rather good side effect, but frankly I don’t practise Buddhism because I want to be happy. I would think that a rather superficial reason. I seek to practise Buddhism because, in the words of Don, it gives me a narrative, a framework within which to make sense of my life. And that to me, in other words the question of meaning and fulfilment, is more important than whether I feel happy or not. One could argue it’s better to live a happy life with the accent on fulfilment and meaning rather than on the feeling of happiness.

Now that makes you think, doesn’t it? But I do recommend reading  the transcript of the whole debate and Stephen Batchelor’s statement distributed before the debate itself. I promise you, it’s compelling stuff!