Self-centred Buddhism

Mark Vernon: Guardian

Western Buddhism can be a serious business. If you travel to Newton Abbot in Devon, and then make your way a few miles further west – through the village of East Ogwell, and then the hamlet of West Ogwell – you arrive at Gaia House, one of the places in the UK where western Buddhism is being forged with impressive commitment. It’s a meditation centre. Run by volunteers, who offer a year at a time to manage the place, it hosts retreats – periods of time, running from a single day to many weeks, during which retreatants meditate.

Silence is the watchword of the house. It’s a mark of the seriousness of the place, and the element visitors are quite sternly asked to respect. Even the library was out of bounds on the three day retreat that I booked in for, along with about 30 others (accommodation is comfortable though lacks privacy). Reading would disturb the inner stillness that the outer observance is designed to engender. It would spoil the quality of the silence that together we were pursuing.

Meditation is the central activity of this style of Buddhism, and insight meditation in particular, the kind in which you are encouraged to develop an ability to hold your attention on one thing, usually your breathing. Apart from mealtimes and an hour doing household chores, the day is devoted to it: three quarters of an hour sitting in the meditation hall, followed by three quarters of an hour doing walking meditation – the same activity of concentration conducted whilst walking very slowly, and focusing on the sensations in your feet. Then back to sitting meditation. Then more walking. It adds up to about 7 hours a day.

The mind repeatedly and routinely wanders, of course. But you’re not asked to attempt to control it. Rather, you are to become aware of the fact, and then draw your attention back to the breathing or the walking. Most of the meditation periods pass easily enough. A handful were a struggle. One was a real joy. But what’s it for? What is meditation supposed to deliver?

The retreat was led by two teachers. They topped and tailed the sitting sessions with a few helpful words, and were also on hand lest any participants develop problems, an important safeguard as prolonged silence can be unsettling. One of them also gave a talk on the second evening, and she explained the central Buddhist doctrine that meditation is designed to address: the reality of suffering.

Suffering here is meant in a broad sense, everything from the faintest feeling that something is wrong, to the profound injuries that human beings inflict on themselves and each other. It’s a worldview that is humanistic and tragic. The first of the Buddha’s noble truths is that life is suffering. It’s called a “noble” truth since that realisation is also the first step towards an ennobled life, namely one in which the suffering can cease.

That’s where meditation comes in. It’s a technique designed to develop mindfulness, the awareness and acceptance of suffering existence. Meditation itself needn’t always be painful. It might be pleasant, even elating. But the aim is neither to cling to experience, nor to reject it, but rather to know it as it is. Hence, the “insight” in insight meditation. “To understand all is to forgive all,” the proverb says, and the Buddhist version would be, “To understand all is to let go of all”. It just takes practice.

It’s religion as a kind of therapy, and points to one of the reasons that Buddhism is finding such a ready audience in the west. Modernity has damaged many egos, perhaps as a result of the Enlightenment teaching that we are autonomous selves, capable of self-creation, control and consolation. Only, it turns out that we are not so self-sufficient. Hence, if that’s right, the spread of loneliness and alienation, stress and depression. Western Buddhism is developing a radical remedy for this condition. Look closely, it says, and you’ll see that the self is an illusion. Let go of that, and liberation follows.

It is a plausible gospel to many, and committed Buddhists, like those at Gaia House, are devoting themselves to deepening the insight. My time in the place was good: how can a city-dweller not gain much from the silence? However, I did come away with questions. And they sprang from the nature of the project.

The raison d’être of Gaia House is the wellbeing of the those who come to stay in it. That seems like a pretty good raison d’être, and it is. However, it comes with risk. Meditation-as-therapy flirts with narcissism when it is devoted to observing yourself, for that can lead to self-absorption and self-obsession. It’s a danger inherent in any community devoted to a particular task, though perhaps more so in one that lacks a reference point beyond the individuals taking part.

Religious houses in a Christian tradition would be different, in theory at least. Ultimately, they don’t exist for the wellbeing of the occupants, but for the glory of God. That nurtures a way of life that has less to do with the self, and more to do with the service of something greater. You have to believe in God, of course. That many don’t, and might say they are “spiritual but not religious”, must be another reason why Buddhism appeals. But I did wonder whether a God-centred spiritual practice might offer a better way to get over yourself, and in turn offer a more satisfying “therapy”.

I suspect this is a key paradox with which western Buddhism is currently grappling: the practice that tells you the self is a delusion could, in the modern context, deepen the very attitude it seeks to dislodge. It’s a risk compounded when self-concern is arguably the secret of western Buddhism’s current success.

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