Buddhist ideology: The Great Escape

Following on from my last post in which I featured an article written by Ken Jones, one of the more articulate and profound commentators upon modern Buddhism, I would like to recommend a very erudite and informative book of his, called The new social face of Buddhism: a call to action (Wisdom Publications, 2003).  There is much in this book that not only shows insight into Buddhism in general but also into the difficulties and dilemmas that Buddhism – especially the traditional forms of it coming from the East – faces in it attempt to not only integrate itself within Western societies but also deal with the challenges of modernity. But there are some issues within Buddhism that show up in any age and in any society, and one of them is the issue of ‘Buddhism as ideology’ and under this section Jones comments upon the phenomenon, that:

…virtually every Buddhist starts out as something of a Buddhist ideologue, for whom Buddhism is an idea that makes self and world more understandable, and that provides  assurance, consolation, and self-identity. This helps to get started! However, there are plenty of warnings in the scriptures about getting stuck there for the rest of one’s life, such as this admonition from the Vimalakirti Sutra:

He who is attached to anything, even to liberation, is not interested in the Dharma but in the taint of desire… The Dharma is not a secure refuge. He who enjoys a secure refuge is not interested in the Dharma but is interested in a secure refuge…. The Dharma is not a society. He who seeks to associate through the Dharma is not interested in the Dharma, but is interested in association.

Similarly the Zen master Sengchen warned: “Do not search after the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.” Buddhism is a religion of ehi-passika, come and see, come and experiment for yourself.

What amazes me when I contemplate passages such as these is how much I suppressed my intuitive understanding of the need for creative experimentation in my search for inner truth in order to conform to the organisational needs of the Buddhist tradition I ‘belonged’ to, despite the increasing frustration I felt over the years about how those organisational needs were increasingly going in  strange, and non-Buddhist directions without any open or transparent explanations of why that was happening. The mystery and the wonder is that I remained loyal to that tradition for so long despite my misgivings. Perhaps the simple answer is that I was attached to the ideological baggage that the tradition so amply provided by the truckload. The secondary gratification I was getting from just belonging to the tradition was greater than the unsatisfied but deeper, more primary need I had for Dharma wisdom, which is always a double-edged sword that cannot be defined and controlled by any organisation, even a Buddhist one, and certainly in the long-term undercuts any ideological underpinnings such an organisation may have. Anyway, whatever the answer, it is fascinating that I have, over the last nine months, found the freedom of Dharma study and practice outside of the organisation, outside of any Buddhist organisation, to be liberating and profoundly creative, even though it has been a sometimes lonely, and emotionally uncomfortable process. But I suspect that you can’t have your cake and eat it: the freedom to be a true Dharma seeker perhaps often comes at the cost of being an outsider, unable to accept, or be accepted by, any formal Buddhist organisation – and being an outsider, any kind of outsider, is often an emotionally or psychologically uncomfortable place to be. Crazy yogis in Himalayan caves and Dharma-nerds in suburbia perhaps have that in common…

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back to the future…

I recently re-read an article from some years ago that was written by Ken Jones, (available here), a founder of the UK Network of Engaged Buddhists, and was fascinated by the following passage which, considering that the article was written in 2006, makes the article quite prophetic and perceptive for its time given how things have moved on since 2006:

Many Buddhist organisations do sustain quite ambitious projects (like Samye-Ling’s Holy Island initiative) but none can equal the ambitiousness of the three movements [SGI-UK, FWBO, and NKT] — busy making new members, servicing the existing membership with professionally managed programmes to suit each grade, training teachers and middle managers, maintaining impressive publishing programmes, handling PR and promotion, mounting cultural and charitable projects, and even running “Right Livelihood” businesses (in the case of the FWBO). All this busyness arguably implies an imbalance between the traditional Buddhist virtues of virya (energy, forcefulness) and ksanti (spiritually creative humility and acceptance) — and, in the case of the FWBO, between “True Individuality” and anatta (no-self). Contemporary society already suffers from too much unreflective virya, and Buddhists-with-attitude sell it short in moving too far from the religion’s contemplative tradition. Surely the Fast Lane and the Middle Way are ultimately incompatible?

A more tangible cause of unease is that even if they were not as exclusivist as they are, the dominance of three such movements would be unhealthy for UK Buddhism. In the spirit of the Kalama Sutta free, personal, experiential search lies at the heart of Buddhism. Teacher and sangha exist to provide support and guidance, but that is all, and the ultimate guidance of the best teachers is to throw searchers back upon themselves, undercutting every successive clinging attachment — even to Buddhism or the teacher — or the movement… This is inner path religion. There is always the danger that the supportive institutional framework of community, doctrine and teacher will seduce searchers and become the end rather than the means, in this case filling their existential sense of “lack” with all the exhilarating righteousness of a missionary movement. That is the outer path, so easily confused with the other path. To make ideological movements out of Buddhist organisations is thus ultimately adhammic.

Seems like some mainstream Buddhists knew all along what was going to happen…