Western Buddhism

“Warrior King of Shambhala: Remembering Chogyam Trungpa,” by Jeremy Hayward

warrior king of shambhalaChogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a charismatic, brilliant teacher whose drinking and sexual dalliances left a problematic legacy. Suriyavamsa reviews a new book that appreciates Trungpa’s monumental contribution to western Buddhism but doesn’t shy away from describing his shortcomings.

The Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche stands out among the pioneers of Western Buddhism as a colorful and dangerous force making a huge impact on the Buddhism we find here today.

His short life was characterized by a tension between his thorough engagement with traditional Buddhist practice and his breaking with this traditional form in an often outrageous way. Both facets were part of his traditional Tibetan upbringing — a meticulous monastic training in Buddhist practice and theory and an inheritance of the spirit of the crazy yogi.

The encounter between his Tibetan “crazy wisdom” approach and the wild world of early seventies post-hippy America resembles the serious car crash he survived in the late sixties when he ran his powerful vehicle into, of all things, a joke shop.

 We get an insight into the tenderness and depth of Hayward’s personal relationship with his teacher  

Despite his notoriety — his drinking which eventually killed him, his promiscuity, the outrageous way he sometimes treated people and the acrimonious chaos, after his death, of the movement he founded — he left a formidable legacy. He trained many of today’s eminent Buddhists such as Pema Chodron, Reginald Ray, Judith Simmer Brown, Francesca Freemantle and Sherab Chodzin Kohn. Due to Trungpa there exist Shambhala Books, the Shambhala Meditation and Retreat Centers and an accredited university in Boulder, Colorado.

How many of us reading this had our interest in the Dharma kick-started with the thrills of one of his many books? Meditation in Action and Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism in particular have been an introduction to Buddhism for thousands of people.

There are now a number of books appearing that allow us a fresh re-appraisal of Trungpa. We have his wife Diana Mukpo’s Dragon Thunder and Fabrice Midal’s two works, Chogyam Trungpa, His Life and Vision and Recalling Chogyam Trungpa. All go much deeper than either sordid exposure or the fawning lama worship so often found with Western presentations of Tibetan Buddhism. Added to these is the book I am reviewing here — Jeremy Hayward’s Warrior King of Shambala, Remembering Chogyam Trungpa.

 Trungpa was trying to establish the Kingdom of Shambhala, a society with traditional values of etiquette and respect  

Jeremy Hayward is an Oxford trained physicist who first met Trungpa shortly after the Rinpoche arrived in the United States in 1970. Hayward writes from personal experience, giving an account of the years he spent practicing and working with Trungpa. It is good reading; you feel for him as he describes his own awkwardness and English reserve amongst the antics of Trungpa and his followers.

We get an insight into the tenderness and depth of his personal relationship with his teacher — a strong emotional bond akin to a love affair, with all the joy and pain this brings. Trungpa spoke of devotion to one’s guru as being one of longing, an unrequited love. There is valuable personal testimony here to be added to the debate around the matter of teachers, hierarchy and boundaries that has been raging in Western Buddhism over the past two decades.

Hayward writes about the struggles of managing a rapidly growing sangha as it moved from being a commune living in one house to a complex network of institutions holding seminars for up to 1,500 people and conducting courses across the US in everything from meditation and Buddhism to the social experiment of the Shambala program to flower arranging. There are tales of rivalry and resolution and of egos restrained and unrestrained. As someone involved on a humbler scale in another Buddhist institution I found valuable lessons in this shop-talk. I particularly cherish the advice given by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (a teacher of both Trungpa and my own teacher, Sangharakshita) to the staff of the early Naropa Institute as it struggled with low enrollments, canceled classes and missed payrolls. His response was, “If you let the roots go deep enough, the tree will blossom abundantly.”

 Trungpa’s drinking and multiple partners are described in an unsensational, matter of fact way.  

Then there’s the “crazy” stuff. The book contains pictures of men in suits marching with flags, Trungpa in military uniform looking like a banana republic dictator on horseback and with uniformed bodyguards, and holding court on a throne in tails and sash and with his wife in a ball-gown, both bedecked with insignia. Senior members of the sangha were made sirs, lords and ladies and formal dinners were laid on with detailed rules of how to hold a fork. Trungpa was trying to establish the Kingdom of Shambhala, a society with traditional values of etiquette and respect for oneself, others and the natural world and a way of life leading to egoless behavior; the result appears a little bizarre.

Hayward points to something completely “other” in Trungpa’s behavior. He meets with Nova Scotia’s agricultural department officials, holds an informed and detailed discussion on farming methods and impresses the experts; yet all the time he is wearing an admiral’s uniform, having been introduced as a Prince of Tibet, a country with no coastline. Hayward also tells of Trungpa’s ability to see and describe ghosts and other denizens of a world beyond the sight of most of us, and also his ability to really see the people he met, time and time again penetrating to the deeper situation of the person and responding with just what was required.

 Hayward invokes the challenge, the danger and complexity of living with Trungpa and his vision  

Trungpa’s drinking and multiple partners are described in an unsensational, matter of fact way. All the same I couldn’t square the ideals these people were establishing with this man at the center of it all, killing himself with alcohol. People are complex.

The strangest part of the book is Hayward’s time as an “attaché” caring for Trungpa on a retreat he termed “Fortress Free From Concept.” This was solitary apart from an entourage of attendants and consorts, and as it progressed Trungpa’s behavior became increasingly bizarre, free of convention if not concepts. He would be awake for days on end, not want to begin a meal until Shantarakshita (an 8th century teacher) turned up, battle an unseen green woman sent by some anti-dharmic lama and go on “journeys” back to India and England where his attendants had to act as if they were in Bengal or London. All this time Hayward was being constantly stretched mentally and physically and yet when Trungpa slept… “Then my mind could rest in a brilliant space that was extremely peaceful… The whole atmosphere of the house seemed to be filled with luminous warmth and peaceful radiation.”

Most importantly, this book gives us a window into what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was trying to do and how he went about doing it. He attempted a more radical reappraisal of the Dharma for the West than almost all other teachers before or since, whether Asian or Western born. He was trying to create a Buddhist practice for Western culture unencumbered by the historical and cultural adornments of Tibetan Buddhism without betraying the profundity and authenticity of the Dharma he was taught. He was also attempting to build the sane society he had read of in Erich Fromm’s book of that title in the form of his Kingdom of Shambhala. By doing so he was stressing the importance of thinking in a cultural and social perspective bigger than one’s own isolated experience. It is too early yet to know if he succeeded — that will take a century or two!

This book and those by Diane Mukpo and Fabrice Midal help counter Trungpa’s message being simplified and reduced to a comfortable therapy or palliative consumable. Trungpa strongly argued against this acquisitive approach to the Dharma in his Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Hayward invokes the challenge, the danger and complexity of living with Trungpa and his vision in a detailed and personal way and in that he is to be congratulated.

Warrior King of Shambala: Remembering Chogyam Trungpa
by Jeremy Hayward
Wisdom Publications
ISBN 0-86171-546-2

Suriyavamsa Suriyavamsa lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and works as a Dharma teacher and class coordinator at the Glasgow Buddhist Centre. He was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order in 1993, on the same four month retreat as Bodhipaksa. He has developed a love of traveling in India, and likes books, curries, heavy metal and matters esoteric.

Read More

“Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution,” by David Loy

1 Comment
Money, Sex, War, Karma

Buy Local: Available from Indiebound (US) and Bookshop.org (UK)

Buddhist author and scholar Nagapriya reviews a new book that takes a passionate and bold survey of Buddhism, how it interacts with the west, and what that means for us individually.

David Loy has established a formidable reputation as a serious Buddhist thinker able to tackle the big issues. He is especially concerned with the encounter between Buddhist ideas and practices and the contemporary world, an encounter that he believes has the potential to be mutually beneficial. In his words, “Buddhism and the West need each other.” (p.3) He adopts a broadly existential approach to interpreting Buddhism through an analysis of what he calls “lack” — an idea that derives from the traditional Buddhist teachings of anātman and Emptiness. In previous publications, Loy has emphasized that “lack” underlies the existential condition and is the driving force behind human suffering.

See also:

Loy’s latest work, the sensationally titled Money, Sex, War, Karma, comprises a series of fourteen essays that continue to address major cultural, political, economic, and spiritual issues from a Buddhist perspective. The book is written in a direct, urgent tone and adopts a conversational style.

…we must renew Buddhism in the light of the needs and challenges of contemporary, westernized life

Although he is a committed Buddhist, Loy is no apologist. His appraisal of traditional Buddhism is sober and critical. He is concerned to “distinguish what is vital and still living in its Asian versions from what is unnecessary and perhaps outdated.” (p.4) Loy argues that rather than simply adopt some ready-made Asian version of Buddhism, we must renew it in the light of the needs and challenges of contemporary, westernized life. A key theme here is that any personal awakening that we may realize needs to be supplemented by what Loy calls “social awakening.” This means that while Buddhist practice aims to transform the individual it must also transform society because the two are interdependent.

In “Lack of Money,” Loy shows how the commoditization of experience can lead us to be more concerned with how much, say, a bottle of wine costs then what it tastes like. The fact that everything has a price tag means that we tend to evaluate quality in terms of expense, rather than experience. Moreover, he argues, the principle of capital investment and return implies that we can never have too much money. The downside, though, is that this can lead to the anxiety that we will never have enough (p.28). One consequence of this is a perpetual future-orientation towards the day when things will be better.

Loy suggests that the problem with money is not that it makes us materialistic, but rather the opposite; we begin to cherish the symbolic value of money above what we can actually buy with it. So, for instance, a wealthy professional may be more concerned with how his luxury car advances his social prestige, rather than with simply enjoying its practical comforts (p.29). Ironically — and I think convincingly — he argues, “the problem is not that we are too materialistic, but that we are not materialistic enough” (p.29). This underlines that there is nothing intrinsically anti-spiritual about enjoying material contact. Far from it, the ability to appreciate sensory experience fully seems to be an indicator of enhanced spiritual awareness.

…there is nothing intrinsically anti-spiritual about enjoying material contact

In “How to Drive your Karma,” Loy faces up to the apparent contradictions between traditional models of Karma and the contemporary scientific world view, which for many modern Buddhists results in an experience of “cognitive dissonance” (p.53). In traditional societies, belief in Karma has led to passivity on the part of laypeople, who defer the challenge of self-transformation to a future life, and a slavish rule-following on the part of the monastic Sangha, as monks are reduced to merit-machines offering opportunities for lay people to gain merit through giving them donations. For Loy, “many Asian Sanghas and their lay supporters are locked in a co-dependent marriage where it’s difficult for either partner to change.” (p.54) More sinister is that Karma can be used to rationalize all kinds of injustice and suffering because they can be interpreted as the natural consequences of previous evil conduct.

Loy argues that Karma, like all Buddhist teachings, must be seen as a product of social and cultural conditions, rather than as some freestanding, absolute revelation. In doing so, he draws on an apposite passage from Erich Fromm:

The creative thinker must think in the terms of the logic, the thought patterns, the expressible concepts of his culture … The consequence is that the new thought as he formulates it is a blend of what is truly new and the conventional thought which it transcends. (p.57)

Loy emphasizes Karma as a forward- rather than backward-thinking principle. In other words, rather than necessarily seeing one’s current situation in terms of one’s past karma, he emphasises “how our life situation can be transformed by transforming the motivations of our actions right now.” (p.61) For him, karma is not something the self has but what it is. “People are ‘punished’ or ‘rewarded’ not for what they have done but for what they have become” (p.62). I would add that we are also punished or rewarded by what we have done.

Our present economic system institutionalizes greed, our militarism institutionalizes ill will, and our corporate media institutionalize delusion

In “What’s Wrong with Sex?” Loy subjects the Buddhist perspective on one of our deepest urges to some much needed scrutiny. Why, he asks, has Buddhism generally taken such a negative view of sexual activity? Intriguingly, he speculates that some of this negativity may arise from a general disparagement of the body in India (p.71). More pragmatic issues, such as the lack of contraception and the expectations of lay supporters, may also have been significant factors in producing a culture where renunciates were expected to abstain from sex completely (p.72-3). Loy argues that our present cultural situation poses somewhat different challenges in relation to sexual desire. In particular, he believes “there is something delusive about the myths of romantic love and sexual fulfillment.” (p.75) Genuine happiness, he argues, has little to do with sex. To paraphrase Loy, we use sex and romantic attachments to try to fill up our lack, but this strategy never fully succeeds because nothing can fill this gap. Our over-expectations of sex and intimate relationships result in suffering, as they ultimately fail to deliver what we hope for.

In “What Would the Buddha do?” Loy tackles the environmental crisis. In a hard-hitting essay, he challenges all Buddhists to face up to the global catastrophe that may result from human activity on Earth. In doing so, he rejects quietist models of practice that aim to overcome one’s own failings before addressing wider social questions, arguing that Buddhist practice consists in doing what we can in relation to such issues right now. As he puts it: “We don’t wait until we overcome our self-centeredness before engaging with the world; addressing the suffering of the wider world is how we overcome our self-centeredness.” (p.82) Loy argues that Interdependence is not just an abstract insight that we must cultivate on our cushions but something we must recognize in our daily lives.

In “The Three Poisons, Institutionalized,” Loy takes a novel approach to the basic Buddhist teaching of the three poisons and explores how they can be applied to organizations. He concludes that “Our present economic system institutionalizes greed, our militarism institutionalizes ill will, and our corporate media institutionalize delusion.” (p.89) As a consequence, the three poisons have taken on a life of their own independent of individual wills. Importantly for Loy, gaining insight into the operation of the three poisons at the collective, institutional level is just as important as recognizing these forces at work in ourselves, which once again emphasizes the linkage between personal and social liberation.

In “Consciousness Commodified” Loy argues that in the present age it is not attachment that is the problem but rather distraction. Our attention has become a precious commodity, which all kinds of agencies compete for. This leads to a “fragmentation of attention” (p.96), which results in having less time to give to what is most crucial in our lives. As soon as we begin to focus on something important, we are distracted by an advertisement, our mobile phone, or an internet message. The degradation of our ability to attend struck me as an especially serious issue; the overwhelming range of choice that we have to negotiate every day entails that living simply can be extremely difficult to achieve.

“Healing Ecology” applies an understanding of anātman (non-self) to our relationship with the planet. Loy argues that in the same way that we, as a self, feel estranged from others, we, as a species, are alienated from nature. Rather than feeling part of the planet, we regard it as a resource to be controlled and exploited. In doing so, we try to build a sense of collective security through consumption, but this strategy never fully succeeds because the self can never be made secure. For Loy, recognizing that we are part of nature, not separate from it, is central to resolving the ecological crisis.

In “Why We Love War” Loy draws on the thought of the war correspondent Chris Hedges who argues that war “can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.” (p.132) In Loy’s terms, it becomes another way of dealing with our sense of lack. Religious fundamentalism in particular is a response to this sense of lack and its sometimes violent manifestations express the need to create a sense of meaning and purpose in a world where secular narratives dominate. For Loy, “War offers a simple way to bind together our individual lacks and project them outside, onto the enemy.” (p.138)

Addressing the suffering of the wider world is how we overcome our self-centeredness

The final essay, “Notes for a Buddhist Revolution,” offers a reflective overview of the themes explored in previous essays. In particular, Loy explores what Buddhism has to offer existing groups and currents that promote peace, social justice, and ecological responsibility. He identifies its commitment to individual transformation, nonviolence, and mutual awakening as key principles. In addition, he believes Buddhism’s insights into impermanence and Emptiness are crucial in resolving global problems. Loy rightly recognizes that for the socially motivated Buddhist there are so many problems to tackle that it is hard to know where to start.

Loy does not pretend to have a blueprint to solve all the world’s ills, but believes that Buddhism can help to open our awareness to some of the deepest problems and enable us to begin to imagine how things could be different. His work succeeds in drawing attention to a wide range of issues facing the contemporary world and the contemporary spiritual practitioner. Two points seem most compelling; first, Buddhist ideas and practices must be renewed in order to deal with the unique challenges of modern life; and second, individual and social transformation are inextricably linked.

David Loy’s is an urgent and vital voice in the Buddhist world, and his latest work is a passionate and bold survey of some of the big issues that face us individually and collectively. This thoughtful, probing work warrants the attention of anyone interested in creative change on either an individual or social level. I strongly recommend it.

Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution by David Loy, Somerville MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008, 160 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0861715589.

Reviewed by Dharmacāri Nāgapriya
Reviews Editor, Western Buddhist Review
This review is published by kind permission of The Western Buddhist Review

Read More

The Upper Middle Way – Have North American Buddhists renounced renunciation?

woman meditating in front of an Indonesian shrine

Historians of religion often repeat the accepted truth that it takes about two centuries for a culture to absorb a new religion and make it its own. Buddhism is certainly not a new religion on the world scene; nevertheless, it may be turning into something new as it is adapted to fit Euro-American culture. And this revised Buddhism might be neglecting crucial elements of the original teachings in favor of values and practices that give comfort to us in the receiving culture. As North Americans and Europeans, we seem particularly attracted to the enticing and psychologized project of spiritual enlightenment, but we are neglecting, at our peril, other fundamental Buddhist values and practices.

As we find ourselves one-quarter of the way through this two-century process, one of the original themes of the historical Buddha’s teaching, namely, the ideal of renunciation, is being conveniently renounced in the West. While the original Pali term (nekkhamma) means the negation of kama (desire), or “withdrawing from sensuality,” the English word has come to mean something like “putting aside the things of the world.” Thus, in English, we refer to monks and nuns as renunciants. Yet the suttas show us that all serious practitioners must in some way be renunciant. The Buddha held forth a rather strict standard of renunciation for his monks compared to his householder followers. The Pali canon makes clear in many places that householders, as well as monks and nuns, can all attain nirvana. A particularly beautiful expression of this truth is found in the Mahavacchagotta Sutta:

Just as the river Ganges inclines towards the sea, slopes towards the sea, flows towards the sea, and extends all the way the sea, so too Master Gotama’s assembly with its homeless ones and its householders inclines towards Nibbana, slopes towards Nibbana, flows towards Nibbana, and extends all the way to Nibbana. (Majjhima Nikaya (MN) 73:14)

Although the layperson may not be “homeless,” to use another phrase that refers to monks and nuns, it is still very clear that renunciation must be a part of every follower’s path as they incline, or slide, toward nirvana. In the Dantabhumi Sutta, the Buddha addresses Aggivessana and talks about the layman, Prince Jayasena:

So too, Aggivessana, Prince Jayasena is obstructed, hindered, blocked, and enveloped by a still greater mass than this—the mass of ignorance. Thus it is impossible that Prince Jayasena, living in the midst of sensual pleasures,…could know, see, or realize that which must be known through renunciation, seen through renunciation, attained through renunciation, realized through renunciation. (MN 125:10)

Here, the Buddha is talking about someone very much like himself as a young man. Some Western teachers have explained that what the Buddha meant by renunciation was that his followers should relinquish their attachment to things, not necessarily the things themselves, a notion that the American Theravadin teacher Santikaro calls “a liberal legalism, à la Bill Clinton.”

There is perhaps confusion between the term relinquishment (patinissagga), which could be defined as this mental exercise, and the more concrete concept of renouncing those things which embroil us in desire. But both these actions are necessary in the Buddha’s outline of the path to nirvana. We must give up things, people, and concepts, as well as extinguish the mental mechanism of attaching to them.

Abandoning the trappings of wealth, as Gotama did, is still put forward in the teachings as a practice for householders. Speaking to the monk Udayin in the Latukikopama Sutta, Gotama says,

There are certain clansmen here who, when told by me ‘Abandon this’ …abandon that and do not show discourtesy towards me or towards those bhikkhus desirous of training. Having abandoned it, they live at ease, unruffled, subsisting on others’ gifts, with mind [as aloof] as a wild deer’s. (MN 66:12)

In the Dhammapada, one of the most revered and accessible of Buddhist scriptures, it says, “I do not call him a Brahman merely because he was born in the caste of holy ones, or of a Brahman mother.… But one who is free from possessions and worldly attachments—him I call a Brahman.” (XXVI:396) (The word brahman referred originally to any holy person, but now when capitalized refers to the caste of Vedic priests.) This quote makes clear that both the mental attachments and the possessions themselves are to be renounced, but Buddhist teachers in the West rarely cite such passages.

Santikaro says that the Buddha never required his lay disciples to lead lives of voluntary simplicity, they just did it as a result of their deepening spiritual insight. “You see that most of the really important lay leaders in the early sangha renounced their wealth and status,” explains Santikaro. “King Pasenandi gives up his throne, the merchant banker Anathapindika gives his wealth away; Citta, the foremost dhamma speaker among the laity and Visakha, a very accomplished laywoman, do the same.”

Writings and dharma talks by North American Buddhist interpreters soothe middle-class devotees with the diminished expectations of Buddhism-lite. Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire, to pick only one recent example, says: “Renunciation need not mean a turning away from desire, but only a forsaking of the acting out that clinging creates.” Zen teacher Ed Brown once summarized this concept by saying, “It’s OK to pick something up, as long as you can put it back down again.” These simple dicta are true as far as they go, but emphasizing the importance of detachment, or nonattachment to things, as mere mental attitude, without any real-life implications, compromises the nature of the original teachings. This smoothed-out version of Buddhism gives us permission to have our lifestyle, to be wealthy—even pampered—without having to wring our hands in guilt. It requires no concrete action in the real world—except for the occasional retreat with our favorite teacher.

But it’s important to notice a few things before we rest easy in this comforting interpretation of the dharma. The first principle that should not escape our attention is the original teaching on generosity (dana). The Buddha saw poverty as a curse and wanted householders to earn enough to support themselves and their families—and to help their villages. He even gave very specific advice to Anathapindika, one of his wealthiest lay followers, on what today we call “asset allocation.” As Robert Aitken Roshi said once, “Someone has to make money so others of us can be poor.” And this is indeed the Buddhist formula for supporting monastics. It relies on a laity with enough disposable income to support the monks.

In Asia, Buddhist teachers summarize the path for laypeople as being composed of dana, sila (ethical behavior), and bhavana (spiritual development). In the West, however, the formula is recited, and emphasized, in reverse: bhavana (more specifically, “meditation,” which was the formula for monks) sila, dana. Middle-class North Americans want to become accomplished meditators, and many of us spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars each year to attend retreats and workshops in an effort to “get” enlightenment, as though it were one more accomplishment, one more thing to cross off our to-do list. We want to buy enlightenment rather than sacrifice for it.

But instead of getting, the early teachings suggest that we engage in the practice of giving. Dana is really a spiritual method. Practicing generosity helps us to overcome greed and clinging; it facilitates the realization of no-self—and it feels good. The Dhammapada says clearly:

These three ways lead to the deathless realm:
living in the truth,
not yielding to anger,
and giving, even if you have
only a little to share. (XVII:224)

The difficulties of householder life are also noted:

Renunciation of the worldly life is difficult;
difficult it is to be happy in the monastic life;
equally difficult and painful it is
to lead the householder’s life. (XXI:303)

Renunciation is difficult, yes, but as contemporary Buddhists, we have fled from this challenge and we have turned renunciation into a painless mental exercise. It’s much easier to say, “Yeah, but I’m not attached to my BMW.” That way we never have to question what could have been done with the money we spent on an upscale car, house, or vacation. Thus, we avoid the implications of simplicity, nonconsumption, and generosity enshrined in the original teachings. And few Euro-American Buddhist teachers call on their followers to set aside wealth and comfort for the practice of real, tangible renunciation and simplicity.

There are some exceptions. Ajahn Brahmavamso, an Australian Theravadin abbot, was recently teaching in the U.S. and, referring to practice, said, “You don’t have to go for the big idea, but just keep moving forward, toward greater simplicity—a smaller home, for example. Less clutter in the physical world leads to less clutter in the mind and more freedom.” As Buddhist discourse in the U.S. goes, this is a very rare sentiment.

Of course, I cannot know in any statistical sense what my Buddhist colleagues are doing with their incomes, but I have plenty of anecdotal experience. For instance, I’m on the board of a small Buddhist nonprofit called Paramita House, which helps released prison inmates reintegrate into the community. In our routine solicitations to sanghas in the region, only a few Buddhist groups have responded positively. When we ask groups why they can’t contribute, they often say, “We’re raising money for the new temple.” If they’ve built their temple, they say they need money for landscaping. If the landscaping is done, they talk about keeping a prudent reserve and, of course, once there are sufficient reserves, it’s time to fund the endowment. Some sanghas do engage in social justice commitments, but all too many spend their time fluffing up the meditation cushions, waiting for the next retreat.

Many in my own generation, the boomers, are immensely wealthy—yet we don’t feel that way. Investment firms and retirement advisors constantly challenge us with the huge amounts of money they say will be needed to fund our retirement lifestyles. So we feel we haven’t saved enough to support that eighty-six-year-old person who does not yet—and may never—exist. As Buddhism entered various cultures over the last two and a half millennia, it changed as it incorporated various spiritual traditions—the Brahmanistic and animistic traditions of South and Southeast Asia, Taoism and Confucianism in China, and the Bonpo practices of Tibet. But Santikaro points out that “As Buddhism is adapting to the West, rather than incorporating a healthy or effective spiritual tradition, it is adapting to secularism. This is unique in Buddhist history. It is being molded and changed—not by the Western monotheisms—but by pop-psychology and consumerist capitalism. Perhaps the only thing Western Buddhism is inheriting from monotheism is a tendency toward dogmatism.”

I am not asking that North American Buddhists turn into tottering Mother Teresas or throw the BMW keys to the ground and walk off into the mountain mists, but if we really took up the ideal of householder renunciation, we would become more generous—much more generous—with our time and our money and our talents. We could vow to make do with less and stop consuming needlessly. Boomers might consider the old Indo-Aryan ideal that the final decades of life ought best be devoted to simplicity and spiritual development. Many of us will play golf in gated communities till that final trumpet sounds, but those of us who call ourselves Buddhists owe the world, and ourselves, much more. What if we turned our backs on the false security of our L.L. Bean lifestyles? What if we gave generously to the causes that stir our hearts? What if we worked hard to improve the lives of the poor and the marginalized in our own communities? That would give us what Buddhism promises, and what we’ve longed for all along—the taste of genuine freedom.


Read More

Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, by Stephen Batchelor

Stephen Batchelor was formerly a Tibetan monk, a monk in the Korean Zen tradition, a respected translator (of Shantideva’s “Guide to the Buddhist Path”), and a student of existentialist philosophy. He’s now a determinedly freelance Buddhist practitioner and thinker, and “Buddhism Without Beliefs” is an uncompromising guide to his existentialist, stripped-to-the-basics, agnostic Buddhist practice.

As such I found the book both irritating and deeply inspiring, although on balance I was more inspired than annoyed. Batchelor got me thinking — which is very much his aim — about the way in which a well-lived life should be conducted and, if this doesn’t sound too grand, about the nature of reality.

Batchelor is a deep thinker, and he guides us step-by-step into an appreciation of “emptiness”, the Buddhist teaching that all things are “interactive processes rather than aggregates of discrete things”, and how an experience of emptiness necessarily results in the experience of compassion. It’s hard to convey in writing the effect this has, but ordinary things cease to look so ordinary, and begin to have an aura or wonder. It’s the depths of experience to which Batchelor leads us that I found particularly inspiring, as well as the freshness of his thinking and of his writing.

The irritability? Well, on occasion I got the impression that Batchelor thinks he has “got” what the Buddha taught, while just about everyone else is just “doing religion” — saying the words without understanding or practicing them. In fact he comes across as being rather dismissive (and unfairly so) of traditional Buddhism. Does this mar an otherwise excellent book? To me it does, and yet I found it worthwhile to breathe deeply and to let go of my irritation and delve joyfully into the many insights that Batchelor presents.

On balance, I found this to be a deeply satisfying and practice-provoking book.

Available at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk

Read More

Utah Buddhists share meditation tips

Brigham Young University: Members from several different sects of Buddhism came to the Jordan Peace Park in Salt Lake City, Saturday, June 7, for music, poetry, dancing and meditation.

Change Your Mind Day, a Buddhist gathering, takes place in over 30 cities across the United States.

This year marked the third annual celebration of the event in Utah.

During the tradition, different Buddhists come together to teach and learn meditation techniques from a variety of Buddhist traditions.

“The teachings and meditations focus on awareness and compassion, and they are appreciated by anyone wanting more spiritual understanding,” said Rande Brown, the national Change Your Mind Day coordinator. “Change Your Mind Day reflects the Buddhist concept that if we transform our thinking from confusion to wisdom, we will have much happier lives.”

Shirley Ray, a resident of Salt Lake City and an organizer of the event, said many people have misconceptions about Buddhism.

Buddhism is not a religion but rather a way of thought, Ray said.

In Buddhism, there is no church and there is no hierarchy, someone simply chooses the way of thought and they do it for themselves, Ray said.

“What we teach is how to meditate and to listen to your inner wisdom and to know your own mind,” she said. “That is the only reason for mediation – to sit and watch the mind.”

Ray said Western Buddhism comes from many different stems of Buddhism that intermingle and converge.

“Each sect of Buddhism is a cultural-based expression of Buddhism,” she said. “Since the turn of the century, we have been developing a Western Buddhism, so that it reflects our culture, like in other Asian cultures,” Ray said.

Change Your Mind Day is unique because it brings together a tapestry of beliefs and approaches found only in Western Buddhism, Ray said.

Roberta Chase, a Salt Lake City resident attending the gathering, was drawn to the Buddhist way of thought five years ago because of the example of a Tibetan family.

Chase said she noticed how peaceful, kind and loving the family was, and she found a greater respect for the things of this life.

“I came to realize that I could be a better person by incorporating some of the principles they lived by,” she said. “It has given me more respect for life and an appreciation for people.”

Chase said the Buddhist way is much a philosophical, rather than a religious practice.

“Buddhism does not address the idea of a God, so you can live your life according to these ideas and be any religion,” she said. “There is no conflict.”

Chase said they don’t worship Buddha either and that Western culture often has a misunderstanding about how they worship.

Chase said it is a tradition to bow to the Buddha, and it is much like saying hello.

“When Westerners see this, they think that we are bowing to a golden statue,” she said. “Buddha was only a man, a teacher who came up with these ideas.”

This is how Buddhists show respect and tradition, and how they greet each other, Chase said. She said they bow to friends and family as well.

Chase said this change of thought has helped her in her life.

“It’s inspirational,” she said. “It’s a practice that you can use every moment of your life especially in being kind to everyone and not excluding anyone or anything.”

Read an archive of this article…

Read More