Saturday, 24 January 2015

Free Speech and Buddhism

The recent events in Paris have stimulated a lot of discussion regarding free speech in the press, blogs and across social networks and the issue of whether free speech equals having the right to insult others has been centre stage in discussion taking place in the UK. I wanted to say a few words on the topic and look at comments that have come from a number of Buddhist sources that I think are complicit in calling for the suppression of free speech. It seems to me that a lot of well-meaning folks are unable to distinguish between being nice and being socially and politically irresponsible, demonstrating at times a rather warped utopian view of the world which seems prevalent amongst well-meaning western Buddhists and liberals. Some of what I write here will be obvious to the politically informed reader, but I am writing it nonetheless, because it turns out that a lot of folks just do not get why a secular pluralistic society is so important and seem all to willing to start giving up on freedom of speech.
I teach English in Italy and have spent the last week engaging students in debate on free speech. I introduced the same questions with high school teenagers, university students and adults, and there have been consistent responses to the questions posed, which are more or less as follow:
1. Do you think free speech is important? Why?
2. Should free speech ever be limited? Why?
3. Is it right to punish people for the things they say? Who should punish them?
4. Does free speech allow us to offend people? Why? Why not? Are there exceptions?

Radical Identity and Non-Duality

(Michael O’Connell, Syncromesh, 1957)

The Need for Context

Societies necessarily need to establish shared ways of viewing and conceptualising the world and of establishing the shared subjective landscapes of individuals: a role that has historically been undertaken most commonly by religion, more recently perhaps by capitalism, materialism and the cult of the self. The same problem tends to emerge from this shared human compulsion to establish familiar routes of becoming. Modes of perception and being become frozen or normalised and identities form around them into pre-given destinies, lines along which individuals and groups are expected to travel. An alternative way of conceiving of the world is potentially overtly relativistic and denies any form of truth or the possibility of hierarchy. This is what Tom Pepper would criticise as the failing of post-modernity. As individuals in the West, we are to some degree left to choose: to bind our experience of self to a belief system and ideology that we are attracted to, such as Buddhism, or drift wherever the ideological currents of the dominant society lead. In either case, the collective nature of self is often ignored or under-appreciated.

Non-duality and problems in affirming our existence

When talking about non-duality these days, there are two primary schools of thought that tend to dominate discussion: Buddhism and Advaita. If we look at figures such as Nagarjuna, the originator of the Madhyamaka School of Indian philosophy, non-duality is presented along the lines of reductionism ad infinitum and the deconstruction of the self to its empty conclusion. Hokai Sobol once explained that the Yogacara school of Indian philosophy describes the experience of non-duality or emptiness in the affirmative: an experience that is intimately bound with compassion and the awareness of our co-arising existence or entrapment. Paul Williams states much the same in his textbook on the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism whilst observing how early scripture of the Yogacara emerge specifically in the context of first person meditation practice, rather than philosophical argumentation. It seems inevitable that once we work out what we are not, we are left to ask ourselves what remains, and consider how our view of what remains determines to a great deal how we build community and establish values, and in the Buddhist context, how meditative and ethical practices are constructed. What a person remains as once non-duality has been meaningfully confronted and the false identification with an atomistic self has been discarded requires pragmatic formulation. Not wanting to remain within a reflection on this topic from a strictly Buddhist perspective, and with a desire to open up the discussion so that it isn’t imprisoned in Buddhist discourse and therefore impoverished, I am motivated by the need to build descriptions of the individual and shared subjective experience of living non-duality as a matter of fact. I think the logic of no-self is sufficient to be a matter of fact and that it does not need to remain a Buddhist or spiritual idea. If we take it as a given that the individual self is not self-existing, or a separate entity to be found somewhere, then the question naturally emerges: what are we? It is inevitable that we need find some sense of who or what we are; we are questioning, self-reflective beings after all and in our shared existence, we need shared ideas of who and what we are that can potentially reduce ignorance, suffering and the continued pursuit of growth at the expense of natural capital.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Buddhist Bullshit

I generally avoid getting political on this blog. Not because I am apolitical, or think it too messy a subject to broach, but because I have used this blog primarily as an exercise in exploring ideas and experiences I think might be interesting for those with a fair few years of involvement with Buddhism in their back pocket. It’s been a rather personal affair I guess.
Although I have been attempting to write a blog post on non-duality this December, I have failed three times and the pleasure in the task has evaporated, which is never a good sign. In wondering what to write next, I was surfing the net on Boxing Day and came across a couple of videos by ex-members of a Western Buddhist organisation of which I was a solid member for a number of years, even once considering ordination (yikes!). The organisation is called the NKT (New Kadampa Tradition) and is to be found on many cult-watch websites.
I was involved with the NKT back in the early 90s and I moved out of their failed South-western Buddhist college project, after realising how similar they were to Scientology and how incompatible I was with their group think approach. There is much that can be said about them and their nefarious activities, but I will leave that up to others: links can be found below if you are curious. The content of the Youtube videos reminded me of the issue of ignorance so many Westerners have regarding the history of Buddhism and the general lack of knowledge regarding Buddhism as a political and cultural phenomenon.
The videos lead to a website with an article making the same comparison with Scientology and in doing so highlights much of what is suspect about the organisation. As an entity, it is a fascinating case study for it seems to demonstrate all of what is wrong with Tibetan Buddhism in the West, but in a hyper-real fashion. One tactic regularly carried out by the organisation is to white-wash criticism and they have worked their Wikipedia entry countless times. For anyone who reads anti-China, or anti-Russia articles on the Independent or Guardian, their behaviour will be familiar. NKT followers troll sites that criticise any aspect of their tradition and shout as loudly as possible whilst posting links to their own highly politicised website, spookily named ‘NKT Truth’: George Orwell must be shivering in his grave.
Another absurdity is their political opposition to Mr Lhamo Dondrub (the old DL if you don’t recognise the name). White NKT Westerners willingly protest Dalai Lama events globally and assume anyone who speaks out against them is one of his devout supporters. Yes, it’s the old ‘us and them’ game so popular with insecure folks highly invested in their belief systems. It never fails to amaze me how ignorant these people are to allow themselves to be so easily led into fighting for an odd political cause concerning an imaginary figure. I guess a lot of folks are looking for meaning in their lives and this inter-tribal battle seems to fire them up. I guess it is a wonderful release for that special Buddhist brand of passive-aggression readers will be all too familiar with.
What strikes me most though in re-reading the same old tripe spouted by these followers is the incredible level ignorance of the wider Buddhist context and in particular the history of Buddhism in Tibet made particularly intense by their glorious leader’s insistence that his followers read no other Buddhists books apart from his own. Like a good dictator, all other materials are excluded from his centres.
Like all cherished beliefs, the outside world threatens the stability of adherence to apparent truths, so followers shout more loudly, invest more fervently in their secluded pockets of make-believe and eventually, with time, find a comfortable and bland unthinking allegiance to the comfort of certainties that only closed, insular circles of fellow-members can provide.
All too aware of how poorly read so many devout Western Buddhists are, I thought it might be worth highlighting a small number of widely available books on Buddhism that put the absurdities of an organisation like the NKT in context. Old Glenn Wallis wrote of Buddhemes in his original account of Buddhism’s self-referential failings, but with the NKT we can speak of a specific dialect called NKT-speak. When it is used by NKT followers, they come across as lobotomised hungry ghosts, perfectly parroting the party line in unthinking devotion.

Here then are a number of books I found ‘enlightening’ in my ‘purification’ from Buddhist ignorance. If you know of more, feel free to add them in the comments section. By the way, any NKTers trolling here will be thoroughly ignored.


A fascinating and highly readable account of the history of Tibet, it shines a light on developments in Tibet and provides the historical and political background of current affairs. It helpfully pulls apart many of the preconceptions that Westerners have about Tibet and really is a pleasure ot read. Highly recommended.

A great read and essential for an understanding of Tibet without the romanticism. This book sets out to destroy the myths still lingering in dharma centres left, right and centre.

A thorough review of the history of Buddhism and pre-Buddhist religion in Tibet, it explores the relationship between indigenous, shamanic Tibetan traditions and their influence on the imported Indian Buddhism that came to dominate the high plains of Tibet. It’s not for the timid though and rather encyclopaedic.

A sober, accessible overview of key Mahayana doctrinal sources, philosophical views and history that will provide greater context for Buddhists who are enamoured with a single tradition and hagiographic accounts of teachers and teachings.

Modernity and scandal

A modern classic which shines a light on Buddhism in the West and its recent history and intermeshing of cultural values. It may make a number of contemporary Buddhists feel rather embarrassed. The NKT is a perfectly Western result of Buddhist Modernism and one of the most adept forms of Western Buddhism at adopting capitalist values with all their moral grey areas.

An interesting account of the power of faith in maintaining ignorance and abuse and the problems with hero worship. The book well highlights the internal mechanisms that lead to unquestioning devotion and the need of Buddhist identities for firm belief systems.

Finally, the best material I picked up from the Speculative Non-Buddhism boys was Glen Wallis’ original text on deconstructing the Western Buddhist confusion. I will link here to his original article which is well worth a look. Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism.


Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Tricky Issue of Being Authentic

“For the dignified Shambhala person, an unwaning authentic presence dawns.” Chogyam Trungpa

Words allow us to enter into new worlds. They allow us to inhabit new spaces, evoke new feelings, receive different ideas and come to the see the world differently. They also allow us to experiment with the creation of those same things. The opposite is also true, familiar words can permit us to reinforce boundaries that separate what is experienced as ‘me’ and ‘other’ and build and sustain allegiances, whilst creating distance from all manner of forms and possibilities. Language is a network of possibilities and worlds.

We have what is called an idiolect, which is our own personal dialect, made up of specific chunks of language, favourite words, and phrases that we use again and again and that stimulate certain feelings and posturing whilst formulating and stabilising our own subjective realm of being and the ground on which we build our ideas and beliefs. Groups have their own dialects too. We usually learn this when we go to university and find a whole lot of specialist terminology to memorize and then use appropriately in order to be able to inhabit a new world of ideas successfully, and importantly, reproduce it. The same is true of religions. In Buddhism new followers of the different traditions begin to learn the lingo and in doing so reproduce the dialect, and therefore the ideas and beliefs, of the group. If they choose to become integral members, they assimilate into the group in great part through the reproduction of the group’s language, which forms a significant part of the glue that binds the members into a shared sense of meaning and perspectives. Such actions have the potential to entrap as much as free and sometimes the line between the two is difficult to perceive.

The more educated, intelligent reader will likely be all too aware of the power of language and the close knit relationship between a basic understanding of language and the ability to think for one’s self, as well as enter into the thinking, ideas and discoveries of our great historical thinkers, writers and innovators. Words matter.

One of the ideas that is central to a post-traditional approach to Buddhism is to examine and reconsider the language that we use when discussing Buddhism. This has two facets. The first is to find our own voice and to use our own words to capture and describe accurately our own experience, thoughts and opinions: where those words are missing, to find other linguistic forms to use through an expansion of the network of ideas that we have at our disposal. The second is to find a way to talk about Buddhism, and experience within and of Buddhism, without relying on the dialects that fill dharma halls. To do so is to challenge assumptions, unpack beliefs and liberate the potential of Buddhist ideas and practices to come into dialogue with the wider world of human experience and knowledge.