How To Become Famous in a Few Easy Lessons

In my last post reviewing the book Wisdom 2.0 by Soren Gordhamer I griped about his infatuation with Eckhart Tolle. And I also said I’d tell how to become famous, including how to become a famous Buddhist or spiritual leader in a few easy lessons. So here we go. But first the disclaimer

Disclaimer:There are no guarantees either explicit or implied in the following advice. 15 minutes is generally the average fame gain for participants-your results may vary. I’ve also got a truckload of Enzyte to unload behind the house if anyone needs to buy in bulk-whoops wrong blog

1. Research a particularly esoteric aspect of your area of desired fame and learn as many words in as many languages as possible on that aspect. You will come off like you have tons of experience and years of learning. In the beginning of your quest for fame you will not likely encounter anyone who will challenge you on any of it. By the time you do, experience will have ripened this into a well polished act.

2. Do your one fame-gaining thing single-mindedly, even obsessively, in public so that you will become forever affiliated with that field. Attend parties or gatherings and talk only of your subject. Don’t let the conversation veer anywhere else. Drop names and recite quotes. Dismiss other subjects as somehow inferior to your subject area.

3. Steal originally. If you haven’t got any creativity or talent whatsoever steal well enough so that your version of a thing looks original. Rather like Arj Barker doing the Monty Python/Weird Al/Sacha Baron Cohen thing in the Sickest Buddha video. If someone accuses you of stealing simply laud your “inspiration” and point out that derivative works are not infringements of copyright.

4. Fake it to yourself til you make it. Believe your own hype and everyone else will too.

5. Take training from the best in your field even if you have absolutely no talent. This will help with networking and look good for a potential audience. “You’re the protégé/student of THAT GUY?! WOW!!”

6. Rev up the marketing machine. This works really well on the Internet. Make up a bunch of fake identities and comment all over the place about yourself. If you have a MySpace or blog have long conversations in the comments between your fake identities and yourself so you look witty and popular. Not necessary to give the fakes much background because few people will bother to check. Make some products that are available in limited editions. This will add to your cache (and your cash).

7. When in doubt parody. Either seriously or comedically. For women invoke a Marilyn Monroe lost girl/bad girl stereotype and men having a little more leeway can invoke the action hero/ badboy stereotypes. This can also pump up a lag in the fame trajectory.  It worked for Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton, Madonna, John Travolta, Brad Warner, Angelina Jolie, Micky Roarke, Gordon Ramsey,  etc.

8. The misunderstood loner. This may be related to # 7 depending on how you play it. Johnny Depp does this one perfectly. He shows up at major functions alone and maintains a personal space radius of about 6 feet all around him. This works as well for literary occasions and gallery openings as it does on a red carpet. Affect a slouching posture of absolute ennui and either smile knowingly or pout hautily. Don’t do this in the corner. Stand right in the center of the room. 

9. Stereotype mashups. This is similar to #3 stealing. Watch for particular behaviors that cause people in your field to stand out. Emulate them. Then put them all together in a choreographed fashion. Repeat as necessary. For example for the actor, the Jack Nicholson folded arms and then hand on the cheek (stolen from Jack Benny maybe) followed by the Johnny Depp does Keith Richard’s walk followed by the William Shatner soliloquy style speech in the old Star Trek series. (taken from every Shakespearean actor ever) Certain to get a moment in the spotlight. Another example, for the wanna-be spiritual master, learn all the poses, gestures and facial expressions used in religious statuary, practice the confident voice (an use a few phrases) of your favorite teacher, giggle like the Dalai Lama (but only in interviews, never before your flock) and learn to move and walk like a Shaolin monk (some Jackie Chan movie characters can be imitated to an extent). Put it all together and you’ve got the basic image down. Incorporate more things as you become comfortable (see #10).

10. Change image frequently. This includes hair color and style, weight, marital status, clothes, vehicles, homes, and religion. This shows your versatility as well as the effects of too much work. Change means busy-> Busy means popular-> Popular means famous (eventually if you work it hard enough).

11. Social charity/compassion. You must be seen giving things away. Every gift is a photo-op. Post it on Facebook or your own cable program immediately with long commentary.

12. Write poetry. Even badly. And get some hand made limited edition chapbooks of your stuff into the hands of other “poets”. Poetry is the ticket to all kinds of usually inaccessible networks.

Formulas for Success

Here are the points to concentrate on for certain kinds of fame.

To be a famous… Use points Reverse points Supplement with
Actor 2, 5, 6, 3, 10 8-for quick results you are initially everyone’s friend and then gradually fade to misunderstood loner 9, 7, 11, 12
Writer 12, 2, 3, 8 10-busy for you means a life of the mind not of image, a haphazard writer’s outfit of cardigan and tousled hair will work just fine 1, 6, 11-the latter has to involve imprisoned writers/journalists
TV talk show personality 2, 10, 4, 6, 11 8-you must be the loquacious center of attention at all times 7-but only in a comedic way
Artist 2, 4, 6, 8 12-poetry should be included in visual artwork since words are meant to be transcended by your unique vision 10-although the exception of Andy Warhol can also be kept in mind
Celebrity chef 1, 2, 5 11-unless you wish to be another Jamie Kennedy your food is way too important to be given away to anyone. 12-should be about food and wine
News anchor or journalist 2, 1, 5, 9 12-photography is an acceptable substitute for poetry 11
Stand up Comic 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9 12-no limericks-will probably be related to sex, religion or politics 4
Rock star 2, 7, 9, 4, 3 11-unless you are in U2 the only gifts you give are to yourself (on second thought U2 tell a lot of people what to do and to give stuff away but I can’t come up with an instance where they have done the same-except a few free appearances now and then-maybe they are just shy about it!) 12-worked for Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Gord Downey (a Canadian from the Tragically Hip)-song lyrics are not included here
Buddhist or Spiritual Leader 2, 5, 1 , 8, 11 10-image changes are of a narrower range and only for highly developed spiritual reasons such as being on a fast, becoming a monk or having a dream of hearing divine words etc. 9, 12-should be about nature in the Buddhist case and dreams in other cases

The most important element is number 2 the single minded pursuit within one particular field. Generalists don’t get famous but specialists do. They become representative of that field even if only by their determination. Another lesson in the quick fame contest is not being afraid to sell out at the first decent opportunity that presents itself.  Forget about pretensions of art and the like. Gaining lots of money as quickly as possible attracts attention and this can be further parleyed into bigger fame. Ask Gene Simmons, he is the master of working the fame and money machine. And freely admits it. That’s a guy who knows what he is about and works it with no apologies. (I have found KISS music entertaining at a certain time in my life and I find his reality show quite funny some times so I’m not slagging on Gene for his life’s choices or whatever-I have some respect for his honesty and creativity and he had the insight long ago as to what he was working with both in terms of himself as an individual and in the realm of fame and fortune)

The above formulas are for quick fame and money gain. There are other ways to become famous but they involve dedication, talent, vision, courage, sacrifice and concern for a lot more than fame. And they take much longer. Ask anyone who’s won a Nobel Peace Prize about that.

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.

photo.cms

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.

Science and Religion Make a Lousy Cocktail-A Response to Athena Andreadis and Barbara O’Brien etal

At Barbara’s Buddhism Blog popular columnist, journalist and long-time Buddhist practitioner Barbara O’Brien  in the posting  Dear Scientists: Let’s Talk has taken to task scientist, professor and science fiction writer Athena Andreadis for misrepresenting Buddhism in an opinion piece. Professor Andreadis article “Keeping an Open Mind is a Virtue, but not so Open that Your Brains Fall Out.” was taking to task spiritual folks who were misrepresenting science by attempting to tie elements of science to religious concepts.  Comments have ensued on both sites and on both sides of the debate.

My kneejerk reaction was to agree whole heartedly with Barbara’s assessment. And then I recalled the 30 years of discussion between myself and a close friend with a PhD in biochemistry about the virtues of science versus religion/philosphy/psychology/etc.  And I read Professor Andreadis’ article again with a little more care and with that kind of understanding memory and full mindfulness can bring.  So now it’s a mixed reaction to both of these articles.  Here’s why.

Generally both articles exhibit a type of righteous indignation that slightly undermines their arguments.  This is not a big issue but it clouds some of the very reasonable points that both have to make.  So for the purposes of my discussion I will attempt to sift that chaff from the kernels within.

As Professor Andreadis article sparked the reaction I would like to deal with the content of that first.

She begins with a summary of the Sokal affair in which scientist Alan Sokal had submitted a bogus paper to a prominent cultural studies journal only to find it both accepted and the nonsensical ideas contained within it  embraced by its editors.  This scandal was (and still is) indicative of some of my qualms with social sciences, religion, both orthodox and reformed and academia  in general, as well as the level of acceptance by the general public of just about any sort of gibberish that spouts forth from the mouth of someone labeled an “authority”.  And that which comprises “authority” these days is becoming pretty dodgy. As Professor Andreadis writes “We’re also awash in instant experts, courtesy of the Internet.” Quite so.

In the article religion is introduced with a few sentences describing the continuing turf struggle between church and state or religion and science if you prefer.  The pivotal sentence

As a result of this, religions from Christianity to Buddhism have been attempting to show that their tenets are compatible with concepts of reality developed through science.

contains several points which are of interest. Firstly and this may just be a semantics quibble, the orthodox versions of most religions would rather co-opt science to prove their own validity than water down their various doctrines to accord with science.  That is what is happening in Christian Fundamentalism with the “intelligent design” mythology that is finding its way into science courses in some areas of America. And even various reformed or “modern” branches of many mainstream religions prefer to accept science on it’s own terms rather than attempt some awkward amalgamation.

But there are always fringe elements. The New Age movement is one of those.  It is propelled by amorphous popular culture rather than any sort of historical or doctrinal foundation and appropriates elements from such diverse sources as institutional religion, aboriginal religion, folklore, world-wide cultural practices, Hollywood, advertising, psychology, astrology, martial arts and certainly science. This patchwork of belief is further promulgated by naive irrationality hyped by media and consumer culture.  It’s easy to believe this pretty pastiche because there is nothing too deep to believe in. This shallow lifestyle makes it easy to grasp any new and intriguing jargon, understood or not and graft it on. Everything else from Buddhism to Quantum Mechanics is viewed as equally shallow and available for appropriation.

The video that set off Professor Andreadis’ article does purport to show where science and Buddhism meet.  Link I cannot speak much to the content regarding Quantum science but the Buddhist sections are woefully lacking in understanding. The video states at the end that the concepts of science and spirituality are interchangeable just to give you a taste of this mishmash.  The creator of the video even states at the beginning “While these ideas are not exclusively Buddhist…” Further in he equates the Buddhist concept of sunyata with the Hindu concept of Brahman and the Tao. The concept of Brahman for example  is quite different than that of sunyata. Nor is emptiness like “a blank page”. There is no page! The monist theory (the universe is one) is not a pre-eminent Buddhist teaching. There are some writings which touch on this but there are serious qualifications to it. Interdependence recognizes a diversity though not an independent diversity.

Throughout the video the narrator continues to talk of reality in metaphors that consider it to be a dream. There is a sharp contrast between the material and the non-material viewpoints which are absolutely not reconciled.  There are just so many things wrong with this video from a Buddhist standpoint one could go on at some length. I won’t. Suffice it to say the Buddhist scholarship is as poor as the science scholarship.

Professor Andreadis addressed the tangled science presented  and concluded

…when people who are not conversant with a scientific concept use it to lend credibility to shaky or shady conclusions, they become demagogues and/or charlatans.  And before anyone trots out the elitism hobby-horse, all I can say is, just have the next person you meet on the street repair your car or give you a haircut.  The same logic applies, and no amount of skimming Wikipedia entries will make up for in-depth knowledge and critical thinking.

I do agree with the sentiment.

As for her comments and criticisms regarding contemporary Buddhism and what she considers Buddhism to be, the reaction is a little more mixed. My hypothesis is that she has only been exposed to Buddhism as fashion accessory which is something of a trend in North America.  My responses to each of her points of Buddhist criticism are:

  • Zen is not a philosophy of interior design
  • reincarnation as is stated in the article is principally of Hindu origin,
  • universe-toting turtles are part of several North American aboriginal creation myths (including the Iroquois)  not Buddhism,
  • suffering is not a result of “bad past karma” but of attachment,
  • oppressive political policies of both religious and secular governments have been and are evidenced in abundance in the world-it is not necessarily due to their Buddhist affiliations,
  • the teacher student relationship whether in a Buddhist monastery or in academia has always been subject to the abuse that differential power relationships can engender.

On Buddhist doctrine there are further misunderstandings

  • Buddhism’s ultimate goal is not to suppress desire or anything else, it is to realize the truth of it
  • reality is not an illusion. This is as off the mark as the video presenter stating that Reality is a dream.  Reality is reality.
  • Western religions “figures of defiance” who are “striving for something larger than one’s puny self without letting go of one’s individuality.” are well paralleled particularly in Mahayana Buddhism with the Bodhisattvas as well as many documented historical figures. The Buddha himself was certainly defiant of conventions.

In the final paragraph I had to laugh at the sentence.

I’m often told that science strips away comforting illusions or the mysteries that add beauty and meaning to life.

So many people who convert to Buddhism initially say the same kind of thing!

In response to the article by Professor Andreadis, Barbara O’Brien had several pointed comments.  The principal among them was the apparent lack of understanding of Buddhism on the part of the professor.  While the professor criticizes those who would misuse scientific concepts she herself misrepresents Buddhist concepts. I have elucidated several of these misrepresentations above. Ms. O’Brien responds with:

Dear Ms. (or is that doctor?) Andreadis, there’s an old saying in America — “practice what you preach.” What you have written is arrant nonsense. It is dreadfully ignorant to pass judgment on things we do not understand, isn’t it? I admit I don’t know quantum mechanics from eggplant. You, on the other hand, don’t know Buddhism from chickens. Every sentence in the paragraph above reveals gross misunderstanding of Buddhism. The same logic applies, and no amount of skimming Wikipedia entries will make up for in-depth knowledge and critical thinking.

The final sentence above is a quote from the professor’s article.  I am inclined to agree with both, each in their separate criticisms. It is helpful to know what you know well and become informed of that which is not known well before uttering something.

Another point from the Buddhism blog that is well taken is

Science and Buddhism do not need each other to be credible…

And that is one of the points I will take up in the next section.

Conclusion

While the professor laments the co-opting of science for mystical purposes  it should be remembered that many prominent members within the scientific community have been some of the most avid in attempting to tie religious concepts to advanced science. I am thinking here of physicists Fritjof Capra and his book Tao of Physics and Niels Bohr who even added a yin/yang symbol to his family crest.

This genre of literature is labeled quantum mysticism and was in fact first created by physicists such as Erwin Schrödinger who was a student of Vedanta as early as the 1940s. That they have been amplified by such unqualified personages as Deepak Chopra and others only stretches any credibility further.

Truly these theories are easily debunked as the Sokol affair demonstrates.

That science has an element of wonder to it is undeniable. It does stand on its own without the need to add some sweet sappy icing of mysticism on top.

But if scientists have strayed into the fields of faith and philosophy perhaps their disciplines didn’t provide all the answers to the big questions of life that they had hoped to find.

And Buddhism does not require scientific validation. I say that rather ironically since there are numerous  efforts currently underway in the scientific community to study the neurological effects of meditation among other things. And many Buddhist meditators as participating enthusiastically.

It may seem that the religious are a superstitious lot, believing in imaginary beings or unprovable hypotheses.  That religious sentiments arise from something other than sensory input is problematic to science. Yet science is not problematic to many with religious sentiments. It seems to depend upon the criteria used for the measurement and validation.

Much religion, including Buddhism has an irrationality to it that is hard to digest. I find this problematic myself. Faith is one of the few things that are proven after the fact. In the case of Buddhism at least the results are possible in this lifetime but others aren’t so lucky.  But faith also has a place in science. I am not referring to religious faith but theoretical faith. Ideas and hypotheses are part of the scientific endeavor. Initially unproven they nonetheless persist, sometimes for the lifetime of the thinker.

The human being is fraught with faith at every turn. One has faith in their own knowledge, skills, abilities, talents, viewpoints and even emotions.  Faith underlies our everyday existence. We have faith in our families, neighbors and communities. We have faith that the earth will keep spinning. We believe many things that are unprovable. Here are a few more examples of that unprovable faith:

  • I will wake up tomorrow
  • my partner will not suddenly divorce me
  • my neighbor will lend me his lawn mower
  • I will go to the beach and not encounter a tidal wave
  • my airplane won’t crash

None of these things is knowable, provable or testable. It is only after the fact that they are proven or not.  The leap from the rational to the irrational is not nearly so large as one might imagine.

There does not need to be a competition between science and religion. And there is no need to join them in any attempt at a grand unified theory of everything. And there is also no need to assert the dominance of one over the other. Such attempts are only exercises in ideological  power brokering.

Religion, particularly Buddhism and science do make a lousy cocktail. While one of their purported purposes may be something like looking into the nature of reality the methodology, perspectives, points of origin and even definitions of reality are radically different.  That there may be some points of contact is a possibility and those points lie only in what underlies both-the fact that both are products of the human mind and both at some point rely on faith.

Spiritual Literacy, Blind Dates and a False Guru Test

At the risk of sounding cynical or even obsessive I’m going to hit this one more time from another perspective.This is a topic I had hoped to leave alone for a while but yesterday I encountered a number of websites that gave me pause in what they were advertising with regard to Buddhist teaching. I will briefly discuss two of them. Both claim to be teachers or “guides” and both claim to represent Buddhism.

Case 1

The content seems to be a collection of notes taken from a first year religious studies course mixed in with some personal beliefs.  The author continually states “Let me be your guide” or words to that effect throughout the site. The whole thing equates Boddhisattvas with Catholic saints, has Maitreya awaiting in Heaven to descend in a Christ-like fashion and “salvation” to be the purpose of Buddhism. There is no mention of ego but personality is thought to change somehow by devotion to Boddhisattvas. Not unlike a born-again approach. It is simply a case of a confused Christian wearing Buddhist robes.

Case 2

A philosopher convolutes all things Zen into a nihilistic mishmash of neo-Platonism, Dogen, etymology and linguistics, psychoanalysis and other very diverse tangents. The purpose ostensibly is to demonstrate to his former Zen teacher “how much I can do on my own.” This person also claims to have started his own Zendo but when questioned in comments won’t discuss lineage or qualifications or anything beyond his own opinion.

Both cases left me utterly confused as to their actual subject matter.

Spiritual literacy, like media literacy is applying some level of critical analysis and evaluation to situations one is involved with and messages being received. It means asking pertinent questions such as:

  • Who is giving this information?
  • What is their context and background?
  • What are their qualifications?
  • Do they disclose any future plans such as building a big meditation center?
  • What do their other students say? What about their former students?
  • What is the atmosphere like? Is it tense, studious, confused, subdued, intense, relaxed?
  • What are their ethical guidelines or policies? Do they even have any?
  • What level of obligation on your part would be required in terms of money, time, practice?
  • How accessible is the teacher? Are they distant and remote from the students?

Basically some of the sort of things one would want to know on a blind date. Because walking into a new spiritual center or meeting a new teacher is rather like a blind date. And if one is contemplating spending any number of months, years or a lifetime with this person some fundamental questions need to be answered.

Having dealt with spiritual teachers for thousands of years modern India has some helpful hints on this. Aside from the lurid stories of child sacrifice and sexual escapades of “tantriks” (sort of faith healer/magician types who prey on the faith of villagers) most Indian newspapers at least once a year publish some kind of tips on distinguishing spiritual authenticity from spiritual fraud. So I’ll pass this along.

Here is an example from The Hindustan Times May, 15, 2007 (the article is available in their archives, unfortunately for a fee. I cut it out of the newspaper at the time so am reproducing it here for reference and educational purposes)

The false guru test by Deepam Chatterjee (“inner voice” section columnist)

  1. States his or her own enlightenment:Real teachers tend not to state their own enlightenment or perfection.
  2. Is unable to take criticism: False teachers strongly dislike either personal criticism or criticism of their teachings;they do not take kindly to ‘ordinary unenlightened individuals’ questioning them. They will even undertake multi-million dollar law suits to stop ex-members from spilling the beans.
  3. Acts omnipotent with no accountability:Some spiritual communities are run like concentration camps, with the guru and his chosen ones acting like Gestapo officers. These are the dangerous gurus who have often severely damaged their students.
  4. Focuses on enlightenment itself rather than teaching the path leading to it:It is amazing how much false gurus have to say about enlightenment. They argue their points like how scholars in the Middle Ages argued how many angels could sit on the head of a pin. Anyone can talk about the end goal. But his job is guiding you to self-realization.
  5. If a teacher preaches love and forgiveness, then he should act that way. If he teaches meditation, he should meditate. If he insists that his followers live austerely, so should he.
  6. Takes credit for a particular meditative or healing technique: Meditation and guided visualization do work. Anyone doing them will experience major benefits. The false guru will try to own or trademark particular methods and techniques.
  7. Lives in total opulence: There is nothing wrong with living in luxury or being wealthy. But a genuine master is more likely to use such wealth to lessen the suffering in this world, not to buy another yacht, private jet or Rolls Royce.
  8. Encourages or permits adoration from his followers:Avoid any group that focuses on the “master” himself rather than the teachings or spiritual practices. This will be a hindrance to your self-realization.
  9. Runs expensive workshops and courses:You are unlikely to reach enlightenment after a few weekends workshops. In our society of “must have now” we want to be able to purchase spiritual development with minimal fuss.

A couple more I’d add would be:

  1. Spends more time criticizing other schools and teachers than teaching.
  2. Does not give credit to sources of teachings. It appears they are inventing it on the spot or that they are just “downloading” divine wisdom.
  3. Adopts titles that are not earned. (Roshi, Osho, Lama or whatever)

In India many think, “But we are sophisticated, educated, cosmopolitan people who know bullshit when we see it.” Quite so. But that doesn’t account for national politicians and other influential public figures flocking to Satya Sai Baba darshans to watch him “manifest” gold watches by sleight of hand tricks. Or the employment of “tantriks” to influence election or box office results. (see also Money and Sex Tarnish Indian Guru Image in the UK Times online.)

And many in the West think “But we are sophisticated, educated, cosmopolitan people who know bullshit when we see it”. Quite so. But then can someone please explain the re-election of George W. Bush or Jonestown or stock market bubbles or the power of celebrity (including celebrity Buddhists).

All in all “faith” (in teachings, teacher, religion) doesn’t have to replace some amount of rational thought. They are not some opposite forces one must choose between.

Note: And just remember I am not a teacher. I’m just another loudmouth on the Internet with a few opinions about stuff. So use your own common sense with EVERYTHING someone tells you.

Smelly Cat Buddhism and Other New Improved Brands

Many people in the west and a fair number in India believe they know the words to the song Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. But not too many think about it’s opening lines.

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality
Open your eyes, Look up to the skies and see

Fantasy is the currency of Samsara.  And for  Mara, that great shill of fantasy,  Buddhism in the west and particularly in America is proving to be a very fertile marketplace.

In an excellent article in Salon.com entitled Boomer Buddhism Stephen Prothero states:

Instead of preserving Buddhism, Americans seem intent on co-opting and commercializing it, dissolving a religion deeply suspicious of the self into an engine of self-absorption

Buddhism has become confused with, exploited by,  and a replacement term for self-help,  12 step programs, secular humanism, security blanket, social club, dating service, social activism, political lobbying, recreational drugs, advertising agency, kitsch decor, therapy, New Age ideology, environmentalism, vegetarianism, antidote to whining, ego posturing and other attention seeking activity.

Quite a number of criticisms have been aimed at the American Zen scene in particular in the past decade or so.  Stuart Lachs is perhaps the best known writer in this area.  His articles such as Coming Down from the Zen Clouds:A Critique of the Current State of American Zen have created strong reactions. There is a large section on thezensite related to Critiques of Zen which is well worth reading.

Other western approaches to Zen Buddhism have also been examined with a critical eye.  AZI, Association Zen International based in Europe has been discussed by Ralf Halfmann in Zen in the West:A Critical Review of the International Zen Association.

Part of the issue seems to be the dislocation of the term Zen from Buddhism as if something called “Zen” arose spontaneously and is an independent self-sustaining entity. In the Buddhist context this is ridiculous.

One writer bemoans the lack of Buddha in American Zen Buddhism. Gary Ray had said:

What happens when Zen is removed from its context and its support in Buddhism? It becomes a technique either for relaxation or for enhancement of the ego to protect oneself from reality.

Another part of the problem lies with the authority, training, authenticity and honesty of teachers.

Mike Port, now known as Dosho Mike Port on his blog Wild Fox Zen and on his other writings wrote an article in Still Point about the role of authority in the Zen situation.  With regard to teacher’s ethics:

The teacher must acknowledge when she is speaking from experience, from studying the teachings, or from speculation in order to teach anything true.

This kind of honesty is still necessary.

But Zen Buddhism is not the only Buddhist sect that has come under scrutiny. There is much controversy about the Soka Gakkai practices in the Nichiren school. There have been some who have labeled it as a cult. Rick Ross is such a person and maintains a website here. The SGI organization maintains a website here. I am not going to label the organization as a whole.  But I do question some of the practices in light of Buddhist teachings and modern culture.

In  The Journal of Buddhist Ethics on a review of the book Soka Gakkai in America: Accommodation and Conversion,  Jane Hurst, Professor of Philosophy and Religion,  Gallaudet University wrote:

Members have told me that chanting has transformed their lives in myriad ways. One example used in this book is that members begin by chanting for material things (for example, a new car), but end up experiencing more subtle benefits (better relationships). In other words, the original goal one has in chanting is not necessarily identified with the benefit that one receives.

In advertising terms this is called the Bait and Switch.

Why would chanting or even meditation be rewarded? There are many elsewhere one could call needy in as many or more ways. And why should it be rewarded? Even things like Enlightenment, Wisdom and Compassion are not rewards for practicing Buddhism.

And also consider. Who are you making this deal with anyways? GOD, the Universe, yourself, Who? As long as you think you are going to get SOMETHING from Buddhism you will remain in the dark. Might as well read that mishmash of delusion called The Secret.

Even more middle-of-the-road Buddhist teachers are beginning to be viewed with a more critical eye. The well known Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs comes under review by Bhikkhu Punnadhamm.

Mr. Batchelor is enthusiastic about many aspects of the western tradition and words like democratic, secular, agnostic and scientific occur often, with an unexamined positive valuation. These are contrasted to the perceived negative values of what he terms “religious Buddhism”, that is the Buddhism as understood and practiced by all Buddhists prior to the last few decades. The author is very definitely a product of the Enlightenment (in the historic, not the mystical sense), the Protestant Reformation and the democratic and scientific revolutions. It is significant for understanding his thesis that he takes this complex of values as primary; indeed, in every case where there is a perceived conflict between the Buddhist teachings and these western values, it is the Buddhist teachings which must be modified or abandoned to force a reconciliation.

To Mr. Batchelor’s credit the entire critique is posted on his own website.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post Buddhism is taken for a lot of other things. Some of the reasons for that are fallacies of logic,  thinking errors, excuses or rationalization and all have to do with over-involvement with ego or self-absorption and self-importance. Here are some of the false assumptions:

  • Buddhism is supposed to help me with my daily life and problems. This assumes that the principal purpose of Buddhism is therapy or “life coaching”.  Buddhist practice may give some insight into one’s life circumstances but that would be a byproduct. Adherence to Buddhist morality such as with Bodhisattva vows, can be used to improve one’s life and assist others  but that again is a byproduct of personal Buddhist practice and commitment which requires a recognition of and relinquishing of ego-based existence in favor of a non-delusional based existence.
  • Buddhism just means behaving compassionately. This is just mental laziness. This is an oversimplification of a vast system. And it marks a single element of behavior for a whole scope of teaching. This is reminiscent of the elephant and the blind men story wherein each examines a small portion of the elephant and makes a generalization about the whole thing. “They assert the elephant is like a pot (head), winnowing basket (ear), ploughshare (tusk), plough (trunk), granary (body), pillar (foot), mortar (back), pestle (tail) or brush (tip of the tail).” (from Wikipedia)
  • My teacher or the Dalai Lama is nice therefore whatever they say is true. The connection between one’s unfounded expectations of how a Buddhist behaves and the knowledge and ability to teach the truth are unrelated phenomenon.
  • The Buddha just sat so nothing else is necessary. Eventually he sat. First he studied and mastered several then-current systems and sought teachers to answer his questions. This gave him the foundation from which he could pursue inquiries. The teachings that have been handed down are the results of his inquiries. Their intent is to guide people on this particular path now called Buddhism.
  • Old teachings are irrelevant. Things have evolved. Buddhism has to fit with modern views and beliefs.  My own experience is what is important. Aside from the egotistical elements in such statements the counter-point to this is the same as the previous point. As for fitting with modern beliefs, it then ceases to be Buddhism and becomes any one the the things I’ve listed at the top of this post.
  • All the forms of Buddhism are not the same thing. There really is not one way. One is free to invent things. This kind of thing is found on some websites. One I ran across urged people to recite the following several times per day since monks all over the world do it. No other explanation was given.  (I’ve not encountered any sort of prayer or dedication that is this self-centered!)

Metta Prayer
May I be safe and protected from inner and outer harm,
May I be happy and peaceful just as I am,
May I be kind and loving with myself especially in times of difficulty,
May I be strong and healthy in my body,
May I care for myself joyfully in this life.

Invented self-talk, affirmation kind of things that are labeled as Buddhist practice are just feel-good forms of delusion that ultimately lead to either another “happiness” layer added onto the ego or a bitter disappointment when the enchantment ceases to work after the first rush of enthusiasm. In terms of forms, language and cultural accoutrement there are differences but the foundation and purpose in terms of the individual involved are identical.  That is to realize truth.

  • But these teachers are part of a lineage. What they say must be right. In some of the references above are some very good historical discussions about the validity of lineage. While it may have some relevance it has also been open to abuse historically and presently. There are plenty of “qualified professionals” who “malpractice” in every field including as Buddhist teachers.
  • Personal experience Buddhism. This is the kind of trans-personal psychology that is often sold as Buddhism. Get the light overnight kind of hype. $$$ Real Smelly Cat Buddhism.

So in the end The Zen of Friends sums it up. Cue Phoebe:

Smelly cat, smelly cat
What are they feeding you?