The Official Himalayan Masters

I always get a little queasy when I read the biography of someone who cites their training, in Buddhism, Yoga, Chakra training, Advanced Third Eye Cleansing Technique or what have you, as being conducted by The Himalayan Masters. Now I know there is a book with Himalayan Masters in the title by Swami Rama but that’s not what I’m talking about. His is a collection of stories of meetings with remarkable people. I am talking about some “official” Himalayan Masters who seem to pop up now and then on somewhat New-Agey sites.  They seem to grant some kind of empowerments or degrees or something to rather “differently-consciousnessed” individuals and they will, for a price, demonstrate their mystical powers and for an even greater price teach you how to invoke said powers.

It sounds very official, as if there is some kind of Official Himalayan Mastery Institute somewhere on a mountain top and devout pilgrims trek for days to reach this little piece of Shangri-La. There one would expect to find an array of mellow wisened old fellows ready to dispense the wisdom of the ages to all who wish to collect it.

Well, I’ve been wandering around the Himalayas for almost 9 years now and have yet to hear of the location of The Official Himalayan Masters or their Institute. No one I know between Sikkim and Siachen has any information about such individuals either.

It seems like the notion of Himalayan Masters has been taken from the title of Swami Rama’s book and spun into some imaginary group to give credence to whatever is being sold by unaffiliated people.

There are certainly “godmen” aplenty in India. Swamis, babas, priests, spiritualists, tantriks, saints, fakirs, masters, emanations of Bhagwan, adepts, yogis, saddhus, monks, gurus, teachers come in thousands of different varieties. Some are the real deal, some might be the real deal, some aspire to be the real deal, but general consensus amongst those surveyed (by me, unscientifically) is that the majority are either consciously fraudulent or rather deluded.

Here’s a great video about some of them in the Indian state of Kerela. If you love Amma maybe you’ll want to skip this, as she’s mentioned prominently. It is very interesting to draw parallels between this and numerous situations festering in the United States and Canada.

From the video:

“You can really understand why victims are so reluctant to come forward and say how godmen have exploited them, when you see the baying mob that surrounds the godmen.”

People in India though have been experienced in this for centuries. Many don’t speak about it. But much more often than in the West many do. Look up “fake guru” on YouTube and you’ll find plenty of submissions from the sub-continent including from media. People are willing to go to the media and the police about their experiences.  At least the police are willing to take the complaint and sometimes follow up. Perhaps that is what is required more often in “Western” countries.

But we don’t have much of a religious press or a media particularly interested in this kind of thing. There are a few outstanding reporters on the religion beat such as Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun but they are rare. And news reporters generally don’t seem to think this is much by way of news, even when Christians are involved, as compared to Kim Kardashian’s latest fashion statement for example.  So what are we going to do? (hint-blogs, websites, disclosure, transparency)

[Addition Aug. 10-the New York Post had this article today Eat Pray Zilch on these very topics. Let’s see a lot more in the media! ]

And maybe if the police were consulted a little more frequently, for there are quite likely legal issues such as fraud, theft, tax evasion, extortion, intimidation, and perhaps even racketeering involved in some instances, awareness could be raised. (Provided the above mentioned Kardashian doesn’t pick up a new boyfriend)

Whether in India or the United States many aspects of humanity are pretty similar. As to why people are willing to follow the “godmen”:

“They have everything, in plenty. Except peace of mind.”

I don’t know who the Official Himalayan Masters are.  Perhaps they are a cricket team. Maybe they live in Sedona. Quite likely we’ll never really know.

Here’s a couple of chaps I do know who might be unofficial Himalayan masters. I’ve never asked them though.  And I’m quite sure they’ve never attended an Official Himalayan Masters Institute or anything similar. They don’t give degrees or empowerments or trophies so most people aren’t too interested in what they are about. You can click on the photos to go to more information about them.

Here is definitely NOT a Himalayan Master of any sort, at Lacha-Lang-La Ladakh (the closest to Shang-Ri-La I could find-16 617 ft.)  “La” means a pass in the mountains in Tibetan and in the local Ladkhi language. On the right is Bara-Lacha-La also over 16,000 ft.

It’s damn cold and windy on the way to the mountaintop. That’s about as much wisdom as I’ve got about attempting to visit Shangrila.

I Am a Rock

[inspired by Justin’s post Self, No-self, Psychology and Buddhism on Progressive Buddhism]

Carrying around a sense of I-am-me-this-one-separate-thing-now-and-forever,  me vs “that”, “independence”,   is rather like carrying around eggs in a tightly woven basket made only of belief.

The problems with this are:

a) All the eggs are in one basket. Mom said “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket!”

b) The basket frequently comes unwoven because all the ends of the threads are tied up all over the place.

c) They are eggs not chickens and have not and cannot develop into anything else.

d) Eggs are fragile so you spend a great deal of time protecting them and worrying about them.

e) The more eggs the heavier the basket.

f) The eggs are not eggs but little soap bubbles of ideas of who’s who and what’s what. They change all the time.  Some break and more are manufactured to maintain the fullness of the basket.

The term self as a locational device for a particular conglomeration of flesh and point of sentience is useful in a linguistic and geographic sense, as is saying that particular head of cabbage has worms in it.  Maybe don’t buy it or clean it before you cook it or something.

In an interview conducted in Austria for Eurozine, the Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar made an interesting statement contrasting the views of ego in the West with that of India.

… with the Indians the boundaries to the ego aren’t as rigid. That comes from the corporeal, the body itself is open. The image of the body that one has in Ayurveda, for example, is that of a permanent exchange between the ego and the environment. If the body is open, the boundaries to the ego are also open. The body forms the basis of the ego. One views one’s body in the same way one views one’s ego, and in the Indian view this ego is more fluid. For an Indian, mental illnesses come from spirits that force their way into the body; one falls ill because of evil spirits. In the West, the ego is a fortress – that’s why in psychology many biological approaches are taken. What happens in the fortress is important and not what comes from outside. Here in the West, it would be considered esoteric to say that sunlight or stones can influence the character, because the view of the ego is different. The exchange between environment and ego is emphasized much more strongly in India.

Kakar has written a great number of books on the psychology of  Indian culture and the effects of globalization on both Indian and Western, particularly European culture.

In a conversation about arranged marriage with a friend a number of years ago this point of Kakar’s was reinforced in a rather interesting way. She said [and I paraphrase as I didn’t record it]:

My life is not my own. I belong to India, to Gharwhal [a Himalayan region], to my caste and gotra [subcaste]. When I was growing up my life belonged to my parents. Then I went to school and it belonged to my teachers and my family. Then I married and it belonged to my husband and now it belongs to my children. In time it will belong to God.

This view did not disturb her in any way. It is how she identifies and defines herself, by her geographic and social placement in relation to that which surrounds her. It is highly relative in contrast to a movable “fortress” of an ego.

To demonstrate in part how this plays out socio-linguistically in Indian society consider the vast array of kinship terms. For example the name for uncle in  English is specifically subdivided so that the terms  one uses for one’s father’s younger brother (chachi) and one’s father’s older brother(tau) are different and these again are different than the way one’s mother’s brothers (mama) are named.  Each relation is named relative to whomever is speaking so everyone has a plethora of relationship descriptors depending on who is referring to them.  This gives a social context to identity.

And as one traces one’s self to a village in Indian culture, no matter where in the world that one lives this gives a geographic context. Ask one of your friends of Indian origin where their village is and I’ll bet they’ll be able to tell you all about it even if they were born in America or elsewhere. They will probably also be surprised you asked since the concepts of home towns are becoming increasingly of use only for sentimental purposes rather than locative purposes in North America and elsewhere. And this is a trend that will likely continue and appear with more frequency in Indian and similar cultures as populations continue to migrate.

In my last post I wrote that Buddhism is not psychology and psychology is not Buddhism. Buddhist explanations of the experience of life are quite different than psychological explanations.

Psychological explanations are given a great deal of credence [synonyms see belief] in the West but consider the following quote from a review of the book  Vishnu on Freud’s Desk wherein Arjun Mahey states:

… Harold Bloom’s incandescent suggestion that Freud is a late event in European shamanism: it’s as a shaman (self-healed soul-healer) that he can be compared, fruitfully, to Indian shamans: the reductive aspects of his psychology bear point-by-point comparison to, lets say, Buddhist meditational grids. One can analogise Hinduism and Freudianism as two systems of thought, then, or allow one to supplement the other rather than aiming at joint dissonance.

I had to laugh at this since viewing Freud, or psychology as a form of shamanism tends to really get the “scientific” community up in arms. But if not that though,  then what is it?

Neuroscientists work around the clock to try to “demonstrate” some theory to explain consciousness or even sentience but as yet to no avail. These differing categories may well supplement each other but they don’t replace each other.

On more practical terms one can consider the ego-view something of a choice-to work on reinforcing, shoring up the fortress or to work towards seeing it as the  inter-fused ebb and flow that  it is.  And inter-fused is a more accurate term than interdependent which still carries some elements of a will to separateness.

Popular Western culture would have us reinforce this separateness in numerous ways. Consider this popular Simon and Garfunkel song.

Though I like the song and understand the sentiment of the desire to alleviate a sense of suffering it’s certainly not how I would choose to live, just me and my ego locked up in a Fortress of Solitude.

There is a choice.

Simon And Garfunkel — I Am A Rock lyrics

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

 

I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.
I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

Don’t talk of love,
But I’ve heard the words before;
It’s sleeping in my memory.
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.
If I never loved I never would have cried.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries.

Amerikan Tantriks:The Greedy Teaching the Needy

travelingtantrik

Here in India there are folks who go around under the guise of religion and bilk the ignorant, poor and often not-so-poor and not-so-ignorant. They are called Tantriks. The newspapers abound with stories of people convinces to do everything from handing over their life savings to sacrificing their neighbors children for some kind of relief of problems or personal gain.

Seems that America is not much different. There have been snake-oil salesman aplenty in American history. The only thing that sets apart the current crop is their brazen audacity , utterly shameless greed and the willingness of individuals to participate in this lunacy.

These new Amerikan Tantriks are often monastery and ashram drop-outs with little else going for them but a driving ambition and a lot of glib talk.  Some have no credential at all except for the ability to mimic what they have seen done at a retreat or two or on the National Geographic channel and call it some new fangled self-help technique. Throw in a lot of scientific or foreign sounding words and you’ve got a money making machine. Or at least one to polish up the  outrageously inflamed ego of the group leader.

Recently a couple of people died in a makeshift moneymaking “sweat lodge” ceremony in Sedona Arizona, not exactly a place known to be a bastion of rational or critical  thought.

There have been apologists all over the place preaching compassion for the group leader James Arthur Ray and condemning any sort of criticism of the event. The guy should be charged with manslaughter at the very least. What the fuck are people thinking? Are they thinking at all? (Yeah and Roman Polanski should face up as well! Rape is rape even if it isn’t in Whoopi Goldberg’s esteemed legal opinion (there’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever encountered one) “rape-rape” .How would she like her grandchildren raped even if it isn’t “rape-rape”???)

As the few who have been reading this blog for a while know, some critical examination of some of the bullshit wearing Buddhist (and other) religious robes is not something I shy away from much. Not that I want to become a basher of anything that doesn’t fit “MY” definition of Buddhism but some shit is just too hurtful and harmful to let pass in silence.

Conscience is at the heart of ethics and yes compassion too. Without a conscience there is no ability to identify suffering or beyond that identify with suffering and experience empathy. Without a conscience we are psychopaths given over only to our own self-gratification. I mentioned this before but consider the words of H.H Dalai Lama who used the Tibetan phrase “shen dug ngal wa la mi so pa” which means “the inability to bear the sight of another’s suffering”. (Dalai Lama in “Ethics for the New Millennium). What is it in us that cannot “bear”?

It is the conscience.

Links:

The Unquestioned Gurus of the Religion of the Self -I think Duff’s critical examinations of the guru industry in America are much needed. In this piece he talks about the greedy teaching the needy and an important section on psychopathic spiritual teachers. And there are a few of them in the Buddhist world too!

American False Idols-Brenda P. asks some pertinent questions along this line in the Yoga world. Choice comments too.

James Arthur Ray’s Spiritual Warrior Event Kills 2, Injures 19 in Sweat Lodge Fiasco-Duff has at it again with this tragedy. He has a followup piece as well. The Dark Side of The Secret: Reading James Arthur Ray’s Sweat Lodge Disaster through a Magickal Lens

OneCity picks up the thread  in Ellen’s article Spiritual Warrior Death in Sweat Lodge in Sedona, Arizona It’s a fairly tepid piece, on par with the prevailing Zeitgeist of the Buddhist Blogosphere. (WTF we Buddhists would Neeevvveeeer do anything that silly! Though some of us would follow Michael Roach around for three years without saying a word!  See Could you hack 3 years, 3 months & 3 days of silence? )

From the Pagan blogosphere The New Age Sweat Lodge Death Controversy

New Age Frauds and Plastic Shaman is a new website dedicated to examining these sorts of issues.

At Integral Options Cafe the post An Ethical Code for Spiritual Teachers offers some possibilities in future directions

The Zen Site has a critical Zen section and a recent inclusion is that of The Aitken-Shimano Letters which outlines years of inappropriate behavior by Eido Shimano, who is still the head of Zen Studies Society and Dai-Bosatsu monastery. Why does this continue?

A couple of loosely critical attempts at guru and teacher ratings. Some well known Buddhist affiliates are included:

Self Help Guru Ratings

Sarlo-s Guru Ratings (here’s the Zen teacher’s page)  Here’s a criticism of Sarlo’s pages as well

Here is a great explanation of the psychology behind these kinds of self-help situations by a Marketer-Persuading People To Death – When Self Help Turns Deadly

Aside: While not a nice post there just needs to be a little more examination of some of the things that go on under the rubric of spirituality and this includes Buddhism. Lecture away if you will about right speech. Faking it in the “flowers and rainbows” department is not something my conscience would rest easy with. Oh yeah I killed a furry little mammal the other day too.

Would You Die for a "Philosophy"?

By way of an introduction to this post I present the conclusion first:

In Conclusion

After writing this post I almost trashed it. All these words and quibbles and insight and ignorance going round and round.  It felt more and more like a waste of time and effort.  Then I happened upon some interesting words by Paul Lynch in the comments of a post on the Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt blog. (Paul keeps his own blog at Zen Mirror) . Among other pertinent things he said “…all of our constructs are poor substitutions for reality.”

So here I’ve been hacking away on and off for a couple of days on this real fancy construction of a blog post, adorning it with some amount of energetic and wordy decoration yet knowing full well it will never adequately represent the reality of Buddhism, secular culture or my thoughts on these topics.

So there is some choice to be made with these things. As it happens something else occurred which is spurring my choice to put this on the blog anyway. In the past week I’ve been writing comments on a couple of well known blogs and self-identifying as a “religious” Buddhist. That’s the first time I’ve come out with it plainly. Coincidentally today, 2 people have stricken me from their blog-rolls and 2 have dropped me as Facebook friends. (There is a total of 3 people there-all 3 are secularists) Apparently my religious declaration didn’t go down too well with them.  I did not attack a secular view of Buddhism but attempted to write from a religious (not fundamentalist) position. It seems that to do so, especially if you are not a monk, nun, priest or teacher is equated with some sort of coercion into religion.

There are a lot of demands from the secular Buddhist crowd to be heard, acknowledged and validated in their opinions of Buddhism. Many of these opinions are not the result of studying Buddhism in either monastic situations or in academic situations. And often not even with any sort of teacher or Sangha. What is being asked is a validation of an invented form of what Buddhism “ought to be according to me”. And when immediate validation is withheld or consideration of the position is not whole-hearted a reaction ensues. Just to put forward an openly religious opinion, not expecting agreement or even acknowledgement seems to threaten some people.(I am reminded of a short post on the Ramblings of a Monk blog called Disagreeing or not understanding (knowing))

Now it doesn’t really matter to me what lists I am on. It makes little difference to what is written here or how I live. It does matter to me that nice people would withdraw from a position they either don’t understand or apparently don’t agree with. To me that signals fear or dis-ease, dis-comfort and yes suffering.   It is not as simple as East and West or tradition and modern or progressive and traditional or race or culture. The world views of the secular and the religious Buddhists are somewhat different. Having been raised in a secular society and having studied Buddhism in both secular (academic) and religious contexts and presently living in a religious culture has formed my opinions.  Having the benefit of both perspectives gives some justification for the analysis of this question.

Everyone’s got to decide this one for themselves. One can’t just up and switch world views like changing hats. It takes a lot of work to see another’s perspective. It takes no effort at all to shut people down just because you think you may not like their point of view. Just because I’ve chosen to engage Buddhism from a religious perspective does not mean I don’t understand secular perspectives.  It doesn’t necessarily mean I need my perspective “stretched” or that I am in the throes of some kind of “brainwashed” cult-like delusion.  And especially it doesn’t mean I don’t know the difference between reality and it’s representations. Yeah I get it-the finger and the moon.

All told Buddhism represents Buddhism. It is what it is. It doesn’t need to be a science, philosophy, psychology or even a religion. It is itself just like the rest of reality.

So on to the original post….

.

Would You Die for a “Philosophy?”

Introduction

On numerous blogs there are discussions about the religion of Buddhism. Some want to call it a philosophy and others see it as a form of self-help psychology and still others call it a contemplative science.  Buddhism is a big thing. It’s self-stated purpose is one of transformation and liberation. This accords with purpose in most other religions even if it does not accord in terms of specific methodology,doctrine or theology in all ways to all other religions. This rather functionalist view relies on two questions. What does it do? What are it’s ends?

At the Tricycle blog the question was asked “Is Buddhism A Religion?” and within that post the additional question was posed  “And Does it Really Matter?”

Personally it doesn’t matter to me what people call it. But my personal viewpoint is not what is primarily at stake. The question of “Does It Really Matter?” ties in a lot of related and much bigger issues.

There is currently a lot of effort expended to look at Buddhism through the lens of secularity and science.  The purpose here is to look at the attempts of scientific society, modern society, Western society, secular society (choose your term) to remove elements of Buddhism and Buddhism itself from the religious and transplant it into the secular. Let’s examine some of the underlying assumptions in this effort and bring forward some arguments as to the potential success of the endeavor. And finally I want to answer the question posed “And Does it Really Matter?”

Religion or Not? Initial Position

Does it come down to the old science vs. religion argument?  That is the standard viewpoint and not one I want to take up here in too much depth. It becomes something like a contest with taunts “My science is better than your religion.” or “My religion is bigger than your science.” And the measures used by either side differ in quality. For science these measures include rationality, provability, measurability and replicability and other objective criteria. For religion they include faith, devotion, behavior, effectiveness, transformation and other subjective criteria.  There are possibly some scales in terms of social science and other disciplines that could be utilized to measure the socio-cultural impacts of religions on societies but these in turn generally rely on the subjective reports of individuals. Consider the Gross National Happiness factor in Bhutan. (Gross National Happiness: Towards Buddhist Economics from the New Economics Foundation is one related examination, as is Gross National Happiness and altruistic economics from the Global Ideas Bank)

Another of the major differences between science and Buddhism is a matter of ends. Ultimately the activity of science has no end. In dictionary definitions of science we find it to mean “a continuing effort to discover and increase human knowledge and understanding through disciplined research” and “The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation [scientific method], and theoretical explanation of phenomena.” or “knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws, esp. as obtained and tested through scientific method [and] concerned with the physical world.”  But even amongst scientists themselves there is controversy over definitions such as are explicated in this editorial from The Journal of Theoretics. The author posits this as a definition of Science: “the field of study which attempts to describe and understand the nature of the universe in whole or part.”  This rather broad and vague definition could then include just about any field of study including theology, philosophy or even practices like poetry and Buddhism. Clearly it is quite untenable.

Science is about hypothesis and provability of objective reality. Science is specific to the nature of the universe. Science deals with knowledge. It’s purpose is to understand.

Buddhism is about a defined goal-the eradication of suffering, also known as enlightenment. [Even though Zen posits the paradox of relinquishing goals-“Stop seeking, start finding”  or leaving words and even “religion” behind]  Buddhism is specific to individuals even if it is practiced communally.  Buddhism deals with the nature and quality of being and inter-being and by that it becomes closer to the delineated fields of philosophy and psychology but not identical to them. It’s purpose is individual transformation.

There are plenty of definitions of religion too that are as disputed as definitions of science. The typical definition often looks at a set of behaviors such as ritual, prayer, specific place and dress.   These however are lists of characteristics, circumstantial evidence if you will. The list goes on to another set, this time of beliefs. These include Metaphysical or Supernatural or Supramundane Reality, faith, doctrine, salvation, reward.  These come closer to the mark. They deal with motivation.

Often these sets of characteristics are grouped by function.  One such grouping calls them dimensions. The seven dimensions are: 1. practical/ritual; 2. experiential/emotional; 3. narrative/mythic; 4. doctrinal/philosophical; 5. ethical/legal; 6. social/institutional; and, 7. material. The emphasis on each of the dimensions varies according to each instance of religious activity.  These kinds of groupings may present an opportunity to see why from the secular viewpoint Religion has become such a dirty word.

If one has been exposed to a culture who’s dominant religion strongly emphasizes the ethical/legal and social/institutional style all religion would be viewed from this skewed perspective. Other religions like Buddhism and Taoism which emphasize the experiential/emotional, might be painted with the same brush. Similarly with the secular philosophical viewpoint latching onto the philosophical elements in Buddhism to the detriment of other elements. We are drawn to what we are familiar with. And feel alienated from that with which we have little or no experience.

Another grouping of the characteristics of religion includes Intellectual, emotional and active/performance. More will be said later about these, with particular reference to the Intellectual elements.

My definition is:

Religious activity has the main purpose of transformation towards an ultimate, subjectively held ideal. Religion is intellectual, emotional and material action reflecting the process of that transformative function. Religion as a system (of thought, of manipulating emotions or in institutional settings and usually in all 3) mediates inevitable change. Religion then is a mediator of reality.

[I am drawing this definition in part from Systems Theory]

Buddhism, the Abrahamic faiths, and any world-wide religious practices, from Shamanism and charismatic Christian revival to Scientology fulfil this definition. While science (material), philosophy (intellectual), psychology (emotional) do not. (Does my definition stand up to scrutiny? Please let me know in case I need to refine it further)

Religion or Not? Does it Matter?

Arun at Angry Asian Buddhist made some interesting points regarding the more objective socio-political reasons why it matters in  a recent post

  • Freedom of religion doesn’t apply to Buddhism.
  • Buddhism doesn’t belong in interreligious dialogue.
  • Monks and nuns should not be eligible for visas as religious workers.
  • Buddhism doesn’t belong in religious studies.
  • Persecuted Buddhists shouldn’t get religious amnesty.

This makes me think of the situation with yoga. Now yoga itself is not a religion. It is, in India, part of the Hindu religion amongst the yogis of my acquaintance. In North America however it has been sliced off from it’s origins and has become something unto itself. I do know that some yogis and yoginis in the West do understand the historical underpinnings and doctrines behind it. The difference is that in India yogis are seen as holy people. They enjoy the full protection of the Indian constitution with regard to freedom of religion. If you substitute Yogi for the Buddhist references in the above in India all these exclusions would not apply. And Yogis of Hindu origin would also enjoy that in America and elsewhere. In the West yogis that do not identify with the Hindu origins would not be able to access that same protection.

So when meditation in and of itself or Buddhist psychotherapy or Buddhist contemplative science (referring to writings by B. Alan Wallace -and there’s more to say on his hypothesis but not right now) comes into play the usual protections of rights fall away. One could make a case for freedom of association or thought or the like but it’s a much harder one to fight.

Another example of the confusion that occurs in slicing off bits and pieces of a religious practice is in Malaysia which is a Muslim country but with significant and diverse non-Muslim populations as well, including people of Indian and Chinese origins. The government there recently outlawed Yoga practice for Muslim citizens. A  backlash occurred since many Muslims there enjoy yoga as exercise in much the same way that many Western people do. The government amended the restriction and now yoga may be practiced by Muslims as long as it is not in a religious context.

I bring up the latter instance because it represents a situation where freedom of religion, even religion by implication, is not fully enjoyed. The secularization of particular religious practices is not without benefit in this particular instance. So I’m not saying instances of secularization need be condemned or some other fundamentalist type of statement. Sometimes by way of introduction to Buddhist thought and practice the secular avenue is the most approachable for some people. Nothing wrong with that. The only problem arises is when secular thought then, with it’s self-imposed limitations decides that some distorted subset of Buddhism is the whole of Buddhism.  I mentioned several of those limitations above such as philosophy, self-help psychology, or contemplative science. Buddhism is all of these and more. And further when those who do embrace the whole are vilified as religious fundamentalists, superstitious fools, deluded “believers”,  or something equally as obnoxious, this is an attempt to force them into the secularist box.

Some Contentious Assumptions

Over-rating the value of intelligence and scientific approaches and some other contentious assumptions seem to be made by certain secular Buddhists. On one blog recently this comment was left:

“for those who categorize Buddhism as a religion, this essay from B Alan Wallace might stretch your perspective http://bit.ly/YjH27

That the author believes stretching the perspective with B. Alan Wallace’s article is necessary for religiously-oriented Buddhists certainly smacks of some kind of assumption. As for stretching the mind I ask,  “What is the name of that asana?”  Clearly the author of the comment has equated religious Buddhists with small minds, meaning lacking in intelligence.

This worship of the intellect is not confined to one commenter.

Over on BeliefNet, the OneCity blog had an interesting piece about Buddhism and intelligence called Buddhism For Dummies – I Don’t Think So. I admit I quite got into it over there in the comments. Some part of the reason for that relates to the notion that religion is for superstitious and backward types, while philosophy, neuroscience, psychology represent intelligent, modern viewpoints.  There is a certain elitism in some of the more secular forms of Buddhism.

In an interview with Robert Sharf, scholar and Buddhist priest the interviewer has stated the following:

Buddhist modernism, … is the tendency to interpret Buddhist tradition through the lens of contemporary and largely unexamined assumptions, prejudices, and values.

If you read his whole interview on the Tricycle community you will find much to recommend the view to a broader view of Buddhism than through this narrow lens.  Sharf states:

One way of looking at Buddhism is as a conversation, and this conversation has been going on now for over two thousand years – a long time. Participation in this conversation has always been predicated on having a foundation in various aspects of the tradition – its literature, its philosophy, its rituals, its discipline, and so on. It is a conversation about what it is to be a human being: why we suffer, how we can resolve our suffering, what works, what doesn’t, and so forth. These are big issues, and whichever one you choose to look at, you are not going to find a single Buddhist position. There have always been different positions, and these would be debated and argued. But all parties to the debate were presumed to share a common religious culture – a more or less shared world of texts, ideas, practices – without which there could be no real conversation.

That the atomization of Buddhism into the reductionist positions of philosophy, science or psychology then does preclude a continuing conversation.

Here are a couple of self-descriptions of secular Buddhist blogs as examples:

If you’re interested in how your mind works, are interested in meditation (but don’t want to pretend you live in ancient Asia), care about the world, are into media, love contemporary culture, and above all, really dig the truth of interdependence-that nothing happens in a vacuum–then this blog is for you.

This is a group-blog on the topic of progressive, modern Buddhism – looking at Buddhism in the light of modern knowledge, free from over-attachment to ancient dogmas; looking at the best ways to integrate Buddhism into Modern/Western societies; discussing and encouraging an empirical or scientific approach; seeing insight and awakening as a living tradition not just a historical one

Both use the words ancient in contrast to modern/contemporary, both attempt to distance themselves from any sort of Asian connection and both position themselves as being providers of some sort of Buddhist interpretation for the “modern” world.

This attempt to dismantle Buddhism and to import selected ideas and practices may see some success initially. But what happens is that such an integrated system will inevitably bring along all those unselected parts and those will have to be dealt with.

The Conversion of Buddhism

If one has some interest in the history of religions and particularly new religious movements there are some pertinent trends that continually emerge.

One of the principle things to note is that with religious developments historically each does not supercede the last but incorporates it.  Elements of the older religions in a given geographical or socio-cultural area are carried over into the newer forms. (eg. Bon in Tibet)  Religion is not invented anew but pieced together with the prevailing belief systems.  This is important because not only the elements of the new religion but many elements of the old belief system still manifest.

In the case of secular America currently many people who turn to Buddhism have rejected the majority Christian religion. Christianity, with it’s sometimes authoritarian manner has become identified with the word religion.  As have the extremist actions of Muslim fundamentalists in the form of terrorism. Much of this rejection of Christianity (and Religion) has brought about a zeal for rationality and intellectualism. Modern Buddhist religion is suffering from the backlash against aggressive Christian and Islamic prosthelytizing practices and power assertions. I am not arguing against Christianity or Islam, only against aggressive, coercive practices done in the name of a religion in the specific case of America.

What continues to happen though, with the adoption of a new belief system is that a major portion of the undesired framework comes along with it. Some have labeled this “cultural baggage” or “ancient dogma” or “traditional practices” or “Asian influence”. Nonetheless these things do make themselves known (in blog posts too).  Here are a couple of examples of this in North American and European Buddhist convert practices:

  • Seasonal activities tied to the country of origin. If the new improved secular Buddhism has indeed loosed itself from the ties to Asian culture what is the purpose and meaning of  Ango or the rains retreats. There is no summer monsoon season on the continents of North America or Europe or Australia.
  • Secular Buddhism still involves hierarchies, politics and an (increasing)ordering of society (institutions, ritual and moral rules to obey) as in Asia. Teachers, students, rules of a Zendo, are one such example
  • Chanting in a language other than English (or other European language)
  • Buddhist religious symbolism. What is the purpose of a traditional symbol in a philosophy, psychology or science context? (ie Buddha statue) And why are such symbols imported (not the physical thing but the idea or image) rather than constructed locally? (An exception, I believe, is Joko Beck who uses natural local objects rather than statuary)
  • Rites of passage. To practice meditation or psychotherapy even using the Buddhist methodology does not require the taking of vows.

Buddhist religion is already here. And has been for much longer than the Neo-Secular-Buddhists would currently like to recognize.

So whether we wish to call it a religion or not the reality of the situation is that it has already taken on many of the religious characteristics that exist in Asia.  And this will only become more evident in the future.

So it matters if we want to acknowledge reality.

Religion or Not? Does it Matter? The Persecution of Buddhists

It also matters for one other reason. If:

Religious activity has the main purpose of transformation towards an ultimate, subjectively held ideal. Religion is intellectual, emotional and material action reflecting the process of that transformative function. Religion as a system (of thought, of manipulating emotions or in institutional settings and usually in all 3) mediates inevitable change. Religion then is a mediator of reality.

then in this view there is only religion as either action or reflection of action. So since the old adage goes “Action speaks louder than words” consider the actions of all the Buddhist people now and throughout time.

For Buddhism to be seen as anything less than a religion is an insult to hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns who currently dedicate their lives to the dharma. And even more so it is to forget the thousands who have given their lives for the dharma throughout history. In India there have been many persecutions of Buddhists throughout history. As well persecutions have and in some cases currently are underway in China, Tibet, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Burma, Mongolia, Korea, Soviet Union, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Japan, America.

That the Buddhist religion survived concerted efforts to eradicate it speaks strongly about the resilience of the Dharma and it’s adherents and their faith. These people did not die for a philosophy.

In Conclusion

After writing this post I almost trashed it. All these words and quibbles and insight and ignorance going round and round.  It felt more and more like a waste of time and effort.  Then I happened upon some interesting words by Paul Lynch in the comments of a post on the Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt blog. (Paul keeps his own blog at Zen Mirror) . Among other pertinent things he said “…all of our constructs are poor substitutions for reality.”

So here I’ve been hacking away on and off for a couple of days on this real fancy construction of a blog post, adorning it with some amount of energetic and wordy decoration yet knowing full well it will never adequately represent the reality of Buddhism, secular culture or my thoughts on these topics.

So there is some choice to be made with these things. As it happens something else occurred which is spurring my choice to put this on the blog anyway. In the past couple of days I’ve been writing comments on a couple of well known blogs and self-identifying as a “religious” Buddhist. That’s the first time I’ve come out with it plainly. Coincidentally today, 2 people have stricken me from their blog-rolls and 2 have dropped me as Facebook friends. (There is a total of 3 people there-all 3 are secularists) Apparently my religious declaration didn’t go down too well with them.  I did not attack a secular view of Buddhism but attempted to write from a religious (not fundamentalist) position. It seems that to do so, especially if you are not a monk, nun, priest or teacher is equated with some sort of coercion into religion.

There are a lot of demands from the secular Buddhist crowd to be heard, acknowledged and validated in their opinions of Buddhism. Many of these opinions are not the result of studying Buddhism in either monastic situations or in academic situations. And often not even with any sort of teacher or Sangha. What is being asked is a validation of an invented form of what Buddhism “ought to be according to me”. And when immediate validation is withheld or consideration of the position is not whole-hearted a reaction ensues. Just to put forward an openly religious opinion, not expecting agreement or even acknowledgement seems to threaten some people.(I am reminded of a short post on the Ramblings of a Monk blog called Disagreeing or not understanding (knowing))

Now it doesn’t really matter to me what lists I am on. It makes little difference to what is written here or how I live. It does matter to me that nice people would withdraw from a position they either don’t understand or apparently don’t agree with. To me that signals fear or dis-ease, dis-comfort and yes suffering.   It is not as simple as East and West or tradition and modern or progressive and traditional or race or culture. The world views of the secular and the religious Buddhists are different. Having been raised in a secular society and having studied Buddhism in both secular (academic) and religious contexts and presently living in a religious culture has formed my opinions.  Having the benefit of both perspectives gives some justification for the analysis of this question.

Everyone’s got to decide this one for themselves. One can’t just up and switch world views like changing hats. It takes a lot of work to see another’s perspective. It takes no effort at all to shut people down just because you think you may not like their point of view. Just because I’ve chosen to engage Buddhism from a religious perspective does not mean I don’t understand secular perspectives.  It doesn’t necessarily mean I need my perspective “stretched” or that I am in the throes of some kind of “brainwashed” cult-like delusion.  And especially it doesn’t mean I don’t know the difference between reality and it’s representations. Yeah I get it-the finger and the moon.

All told Buddhism represents Buddhism. It is what it is. It doesn’t need to be a science, philosophy, psychology or even a religion. It is itself just like the rest of reality.

Here are some of the blog discussions

Wandering Dhamma  New Trends in ‘Western’ Buddhism

Barbara O’Brien has had a couple of posts on this. Buddhism as Religion and Religion as Buddhism.

Tricycle blog Is Buddhism a Religion? The question that won’t go away.

Secularizing Buddhism–Making it Accessible or Stripping the Roots? from the  One City blog

Beyond Science, Beyond Religion on Progressive Buddhism

Sweep the dust, push the dirt blog offers numerous related posts such as Athiests Love Buddhism!

definitions is the latest post at the buddha is my dj blog that deals with matters related as well

At The Zennist When Buddhism isn’t Buddhism & chili beans ain’t chili beans

Buddhism without the Buddha on the Breathe blog

What Religion Needs to Get Right…If It Doesn’t Want to Go Wrong-Clark Strand offers a broader view of the religion debate

Modernising Buddhism-Ashin Sopaka of the blog a raft offers his view

An article with letter writing back and forth on whether Buddhism is religion or not at Tricycle magazine

On persecutions of Buddhists

Persecutions of Buddhists Wikipedia

Anti-Buddhism -list of further links

Persecution of Buddhists -lists and short descriptions

Spirit of tolerance, harmonisation and assimilation in Buddhism – from The Buddhist Channel

Garlands of Shame

Over at the Worst Horse blog there is an entry about a garland of shoes that have been hung over a statue of Buddha in Geneva Switzerland.  It originated from a story at the Bhutan Observer taken from The Times of India. And the comments everywhere are vitriolic.  Here is what all the fuss is about.

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To many Western people this may not seem to be a big deal. In poor taste perhaps but nothing to start a riot about. But in the cultural context of South Asia this is a very big deal.

The practice of garlanding is very old in India. It is the method by which people are honored and it is also a religious practice in that statues of gods are also often garlanded. This garlanding is usually done with marigolds-a sacred flower due to their saffron color.

Even take the concept of the Rakusu in Zen traditions or the mala worn around the neck in other Buddhist traditions. It is very much like a garland. Or even the name of the Avatamsaka Sutra-Garland of Flowers.

Recently I went on a little hike in the hills and was staying at a small village where I have some friends. There was a ceremony going on in that village and I was invited to be “felicitated”. That means someone speaks a few nice words about you and then you are garlanded.

Here are some photos of the occasion.The date was April 10, 2009 and the occasion was the official opening of Dodital which is a high altitude lake and holy place that is said to be the birthplace of the elephant headed god Ganesha. The whole route is 22 kilometers to Dodital. Agoda village, where this ceremony is taking place, is 7 kilometers from the road.

The festivities included the usual dias of people to be felicitated. Along the back wall of the tent are the officials and guests seated and taking tea. It is about 6:30 in the evening.  The ladies on the left of the picture as you view it are local Panchayat heads (elected village mayors) , the gentleman in the center with the white vest is the local member of the legislative assembly (that’s like a congressman or member of parliament-it was just before the election so politicians really like to make themselves visible-even walking  the whole route rther than taking a mule) , and the men on the right are also some panchayat heads and other guests. I am sitting wearing the black jacket and beige pants forth from the MLA. As a foreigner I get to sit with the men. Partly because the women don’t speak English and partly because some of these men are relatives of the people I know in Agoda.

agodagroup

There were speeches, flowery and bold in language as is the usual Indian way and then some music and a vegetarian dinner was provided by the village for all attendees.  There were probably 200 people there in total. All were accomodated.

Throughout the night the dhols (big drums) were played and chanting and shouting was heard.  As it was just before the full moon the local goddess was taken in her palanquin (sort of like a stretcher with a decorated little house on it where the idol is carried by two men on their shoulders) from her home in the neighboring village temple up to Dodital to greet Ganesha and pay homage. Every full moon this ceremony takes place but this one is particularly well attended since it marks the start of the pilgrimage season to Dodital.

At the felicitation ceremony preceeding the next day’s pilgrimage  the Panchayat leader from the next village did me the honor of placing the marigold garland around my neck. I couldn’t get the photos that were taken by a photographer from a local newspaper and I haven’t seen the article that was written for that paper yet. But you get the idea from these photos.

agodagarland

On a bit of a tangent there were 3 other foreigners in the village but they were not invited to the ceremony. The reason was that local people thought they were hippies. When people in India go to a holy place or a festival they put on their best clothes and jewelry. Women do up their hair and children all wear clean clothes. These foreign “hippies” while having a lot of expensive trekking equipment were, according to comments I heard, dirty. That means unkempt hair and clothes. They talked loudly and acted in a “superior” manner to the locals. (There was actually a discussion about whether to invite them or not but they had already wounded the feelings of several people with their brashness) That is something that is common in foreign travelers in India unfortunately.

Some advice for those going to pilgrimage places, since I am talking about honor and shame here, consider yourself an ambassador for both your country and for other foreigners. Behave appropriately for the country you are in.  Just because you walk about on the beaches of Ibeza or California in a string bathing suit that does not mean it is appropriate in some other places. Just because you are on vacation doesn’t mean the sensibilities of local people are irrelevant.  Just because you are with a few friends of your culture does not mean you are travelling in some impenetrable bubble where the person next to you on a bus or in a restaurant does not exist. A lot of offensive foreigner behavior is due to both ignorance and fear. But once the ignorance is overcome a lot of the fear and insecurity of being in a strange place also disappears. And besides, learning a little bit about local happenings and comportment can get you some really great dinners (and garlands)!

Now there is another side to garlanding in India that has to do with community shame and often vigilanteism.  For example a principle of a school was accused of molesting some young girls in his care. His school was stormed by angry town residents and he was dragged from his office into the street. His hair was cut off (tonsuring), his face was blackened with tar and a garland of shoes was placed around his neck as people nearly beat him to death with fists and sticks and shoes before police arrived.

So that is the meaning of the shoe garland. It is reserved for public shaming.