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thoughts on various forms of Buddhism and some Western ways of practicing them

April 9, 2010

Silly me, thought I’d lost interest in Buddhism.. Ah.. it’s how my mind works.. get really interested in something, then burn out.. round and round..

Right then, yes I’m back studying this stuff again, except it is not all the same stuff.

I hadn’t read as much about the other Buddhist traditions as I had about Zen. I have been aware for many years that there are many traditions, sometimes more than one being practiced in the same country. (For example, in Japan, there’s Zen, Amida, and Shin Buddhism, right?)

I’ve not felt so great about Zen.. hard to put into words, but I’ll try. It seems very very strict, at least out here, and the least mystical, and very intense. I am talking about Western Zen, though, I don’t know how it is done in Japan. I have been told by some folks that in Japan, people, although they be Buddhists in the Zen tradition, do not often spend time meditating, chanting, etc., they leave that stuff up to the monks. I heard this years ago. I w0nder if that is accurate?

I recently spoke with a woman from China, who said most Buddhists in China don’t spend hours meditating and chanting and all that. They go to a temple here and there, light incense and so forth, but it’s only the monks who are so devout as to dedicate so much of their time to such practices. Buddhism is practiced differently by Easterners.

Out here, it can be pretty tough. I stopped going to the local Zen meeting regularly. I have a hard time meditating for 25 minutes twice in one night, with a brief period of walking meditation in between. Seasoned Buddhists are probably laughing and laughing at me right now. Those who are used to meditating spend hours, even days in half lotus or full lotus or Burmese positions staring at the wall and breathing. Some do this for months, and some for years. So yeah I am guessing that having trouble with 2 25 minute sessions sounds silly, but there it is.

And, it gets harder. The more experienced Zennies in the sangha of this city go for retreats and some go to monasteries, and the teaching gets tougher to deal with and stranger and koans are introduced…and people stop drinking entirely (which, if you are alcoholic, is a good thing, but for the rest of us?), and give up meat and..

And there are these teachings about not having any desires and not delineating between good and bad and avoiding having any preferences, and eventually folks turn into unfeeling Buddhist robots with no feelings whatsoever and.. Well, that’s how I felt myself starting to become.. And it has NOT felt good!

The no-self thing has also really been hanging me up (and yes, I know that is not just a Zen thing, but a Buddhism in general thing), but I’m starting to get a grasp of that. Yes, we are all impermanent, and this is proven by science, and that is ok. I can still use the words “I” and “me.” Using such words has recently been difficult, sparking questions like, “is there really a “me?” is “me” an illusion? do these words “I” and “me” have any meaning at all?” I would say these words do, even if I am impermanent. Language is not perfect, but is an indispensable tool for communication, so I still need to use these words, and have some sort of an identity and sense of self, even if self is impermanent.

Anyway.. one of the last Zen meetings I went to, I read further along in their little folder – some teachings not discussed in the meeting.. things I had trouble with, things I mentioned about, and said, “nope!”

And yet, here I am, reading Buddhist books again.

You can thank BRILLIANT crime fiction author John Burdett for that. He’s written four detective stories set in Bangkok. The first is called “Bangkok 8.” These books are brutal, raunchy, subversive, and at the same time, very spiritual! The kind of Buddhism practiced in Thailand (and the kind Mr. Burdett writes about) is Theravada, which I know next to nothing about. I have read that there are two main branches of Buddhism. One is Mahayana, and the other, Theravada. Mahayana splits into further branches, I don’t yet know if Theravada does or not. The Mahayana branches include Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.

Theravada, I have read, is older, and purer (less influenced by various cultures?) than the Mahayana traditions, and is practiced differently. I can’t get into that, because I have lots more studying to do.

I am currently reading a book called “The Gods Drink Whiskey,” by Stephen T. Asma, who also wrote and illustrated “Buddha for Beginners.” I read B4B already, and highly recommend it. I lent it out to a girl some years back, and never saw her again because I dropped the class in which I met her. I will be buying another copy next month.

While searching for copies of B4B on Amazon, I found that Mr. Asma had written another Buddhist book, and this one is about his travels in Cambodia. I had already reading about Buddhism in Thailand, in Mr. Burdett’s heavily Buddhist novels (I wonder if he got his facts right. I hope so. He seems like the kind of author who does research first.) And, Cambodia shares a border with Thailand and Theravada is practiced in both countries. (I have read that this is not true of Vietnam, and that the Buddhism being practiced in Vietnam is much more like Zen.. hmm..)

What Mr. Asma says about Zen in the first chapter may offend some people, but I have been sort of having the same thoughts, just not been able to put them into words as well as Mr. Asma..In this quote he is talking about Buddhism in America.

“Buddhism has become just one more self-improvement gimick among the designer-water-drinker set. Perhaps this was inevitable when the form of Buddhism that entered America during the counterculture was Zen. Zen, which I also love, is the hyper-puritan descendant of Buddhism – the neurotic cousin that’s always disinfecting the furniture and showering off the impurities. It’s so vigilant about eliminating dogma and anything outside of pristiine meditation practice that it no longer bears any resemblance to Buddhis (except for its connection to the “minduflness” discussion in the Buddha’s Mahasatupatthana Sutta). This is not really a cricism of Zen,. But my humble observation is tat American Dharma has evolved into its rather narcissistic form because Zen introduced Buddhism as a simple concentration practice and nothing more. Americans adopted the meditation but left behind the discipline of Zen and the cultural context… Buddhism becomes another accessory. Living in Southeast Asia, however, rids you of this confusion very quickly.”

Mr Asma continues, “Theravada is the whole enchildada. If Zen is the abstract, hygenic Felix Unger of Buddhism, then Theravada is the cluttered, messy Oscar Madison. It has its Vipassana meditation practice, but also its rich metaphysical and epistemological traditions (largely excised from Zen), its dynamic noral foundations (again, removeed from Zen proper), and its dense (sometimes contradictory) cultural expressions. No one of these alone is the true dharma. Together they are all aspects of the Dharma.. ”

And,  ” I am not saying that we Americans should never borrow or pilfer ideas and practices from Buddhism. In the global village, fusion is inevitable. But before we just shave off  a thin slice of Buddhism and then call ourselves “Buddhist” because it serves our conceit, we should first have the humility to appreciate its own inner logic and heritage. We should examine the roots carefully before we trim and collect the upper flora.”

These quotes are from pages xiv and xv in the introduction of “The Gods Drink Whiskey : Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha.”

Are Mr. Asma’s quotes accurate? I guess that is up to each reader to decide. I do think that it is pointless to take a strong position that this kind of Buddhism is far superior to that.  Mr. Asma’s comments on Zen do seem rather condescending perhaps, but maybe they are accurate too, for some of us.

I had been thinking for awhile that Zen seems too stripped down and severe and that there must be more to Buddhism. But I didn’t get very far at all in Zen as a practicioner. This was just the impression I got sometimes as I was sitting on the cushion, or thinking while driving (bad habit) or doing the dishes.

A really great book I first read some years ago is called, “The Accidental Buddhist.” It is written by Dinty Moore (yes, I am aware of the brand of beef stew by that name, and I don’t think it is the same guy.) Moore’s book is about his travels and experiences with various forms of Buddhism as practiced by non-Asians in America. He talks about Zen retreats, Tibetan meetings, attending Theravada groups, and more, and that’s partly how I  know there is more out there than Zen, and also partly what got me thinking that maybe another tradition would be better for me..

Here’s the trouble with that… There is a Theravada temple in the town where I live, but it is in an Asian neighborhood, and the services are conducted by Cambodians for Cambodians. I asked a Cambodian acquaintance if I could attend, if that would be ok. He said, “no.” I asked, “Why not?” He looked at me a little funny, and said, “Because you are not Cambodian.”

Cambodians and other Asians out here are going about Buddhism as they would in their countries of origin, and I really don’t need to buy a ticket to Cambodia, I could just pay bus fare and ride across town to the local wat (temple) Except.. I’m not allowed in. It’s really too bad.

Not all ethnically Asian temples in the West are that closed to non-Asians, so I have been told. But, the one in the city where I live is. If I want to practice Theravada, I will have to either move to Southeast Asia, or somehow try to practice that tradition on my own, sort of. Doesn’t genuine Buddhist practice involve involvement in a sangha – a Buddhist community? Is not the sangha one of the 3 treasures? Yes!

But, at least I can incorporate a Theravadan perspective if I so choose, and adopt certain practices I learn from books? That may be the best I can do.

Do I even have the right to call myself a Buddhist? I suppose that really doesn’t matter much. If I apply the teachings in my life, if I occasionally meditate, try to reduce cravings, live more in the present moment, and follow the instructions of the Noble 8 Fold path, does that make me a Buddhist? Maybe it does. Maybe I shouldn’t worry about it. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

We Americans love love love our labels! I’m a this, you’re a that. We go so far as to actually pay for clothing that is covered in brand names – clothing lines, sports teams, beer. We pay for the privilege of spreading advertising! And, of course we like our religious labels. I’m not saying labels are all bad, they do give one a frame of reference. But, labels can be misleading, and lead to lots of assumptions.

Being an American, I get hung up on labels too. Like Mr. Asma said, a Buddhist label can serve my conceit. In other words, I cling to it as a source of identity, even pride .. a sign of my hipness and originality. But that isn’t at all what Buddhism about. Wanting other people to think I’m hip and cool and original and different, well, that’s all ego, isn’t it?

And, why is ego bad? Because it is so damn fragile. So easily diminished, offended, wounded, and we just might die or kill to protect it. Being too self-absorbed is tremendously unhealthy, and can erode compassion.

Why is compassion good? If you believe in interconnectivity, then you will likely believe compassion is good, even if it is called enlightened self interest. If we are all interconnected, it might just do me good to help you out. A person with a larger heart and more spiritual awareness might just believe doing good is good without worrying about him or herself.

Gotta be careful with compassion though. Got to take care of yourself as well, too. One of the few quotes from Christ I really like is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There are probably parallel teachings by the Buddha.

And damn, I’m rambling..

Ok then, moving on… we Americans, besides loving labels, can be a really fanatical bunch of folks! Not all religious people are fundamentalists, but fundamentalism does quite well here. Some of us become Buddhists and really go for it! Really strict practices, and being harsh on ourselves, trying to totally drive away desire and feel bad for even enjoying a meal, because that is saying, “this meal is good,” and thus engaging in dualistic thinking, and indulging. In seeking balance, we can often become very imbalanced. I’ve had this problem already.

I used to be a Christian. I didn’t behave like a fundamentalist – what I mean is I didn’t go bothering people about converting or anything like that. I was quiet in my fundamentalism, and I really nutted up. I got to the point where I first gave up all secular (non-Christian) music, and then stopped listening to music at all. I just listened to sermons and teachings on the radio. I read almost nothing but the Bible, and prayed  in my room for hours and hours, feeling like shit the whole time, and dealing with delusional compulsions. I of course had extremely judgmental thoughts about people (still do, but I’ve been working on that.) Part of my being judgmental is due to the fact that I’m Dutch, and have my roots in the Christian Reform tradition, even though my parents left the Christian Reform church shortly after I was born. This feeling of racial and religious superiority, it’s not entirely a Dutch thing, but it is a Dutch thing. I suppose, regardless of one’s faith, it is easy to feel superior to someone who believes other than we do.

Part of being fundamentalist is being really focused on morality – obsessed with sin.. am I doing good enough, am I being good enough? That person sure isn’t! But me, I’m worried about me, I had a lustful thought, I’m such a bad person.

I can even be this way while dealing with Buddhism. “Oh, that is a craving, I am craving, that’s bad.”  “Oh no, that thing I did, it was really really bad karma, I bet. I’ll be screwed in the next life for sure… and now I’m worrying, that’s really destructive and wrong, and oh I’m still thinking negative thoughts..” Yes, even with Buddhism, I can make myself sick! Focused on things that hurt (or a misunderstanding of things, and therefore they hurt), instead of focusing on helpful things.

But guess what?! There is no “sin” in Buddhism! It’s about attachment. Some acts Christians might consider horrible sins are not considered wrong action by Buddhists, and some things most folks see as being totally innocuous can in fact be insidious if we get attached to them. If you are fanatically devoted to stamp collecting or keeping your car super clean, then you are dealing with an attachment issue, and according to Buddhist teaching, that is not good.

I should not feel guilty about my biological urges though. It is not going against Buddhism to have sexual desire (the Tibetans even have special sexual practices.. something having to do with Tantra, but you will have to go somewhere else on the net to read about that). Sex is ok to want. Not ok to have the sex drive take over, though.

Sex – enjoying sex is not wrong, in fact, if you are not enjoying it, why do it? Becoming a sex addict is wrong, as in, unhealthy. Being ruled by anything, even, in my case, at times, an obsession with Buddhism, is attachment. With attachment, our minds are no longer free, and we are not living in the present.

Right then..

Mr. Asma has some words that helped me with my worries regarding meeting our needs, whether they be gastronomical or sexual.  I just read these words earlier today, and feel better. I shall pause for a moment, because I didn’t mark the page.

Ah, here we are.. lots of good stuff here, even in the first few chapters (after you get past the pages on Cambodian politics, which I did not find very interesting),

Hmm.. back on topic then, regarding being human and Buddhist..

“When you’re hungry, eat. When you want to have sex, have sex. That’s not the same thing as hedonism. In Buddhism, you are not trying to become a robot, immune from feelings, inspirations, and impulses. Having a body means that you naturally encounter attractions and repulsions – that is the first step of experience. But Gotama teaches that we must stop the second stage of experience – ego consciousness, or the egoistic attempt to possess that which cannot be possessed. This second step is where the discipline must come into play.”

Thanks, that helps!  Food is good, sex is good, music is good, writing is good, art is good, nature is good, helping people is good, but getting hung up on any of this stuff, not good.

I get hung up on being hung up. Worried Worried and worried about being worried. Analyze and over-analyze, and keep that brain whirring and eroding itself until my ears are ringing terribly and I’m getting headaches and dealing with intense anxiety and despair and turning good Buddhist teachings around on myself and using these as a rope to cut off my air. That’s my problem.

But, reading this book, and books like it help.

It might help also to talk to other Buddhists, but to do that, I have to go back to the Zen meeting, or somehow try to meet other Buddhists in the community who speak English.

Well, as for me, I will try not to become a Buddhist fundamentalist, because that would be totally going against Buddhism. One is not supposed to get attached to the teachings, the religion, the rituals, etc. There is even a Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Sounds rather extreme, but what this means is, don’t get so attached to the Buddha, or to the teachings, etc. If, while meditating, one gets an image of Buddha in his head and fixates on that image, than the meditation is ineffective (at least from the Zen perspective) because one is attached to something.

Meditation.. I don’t know what meditation is like in these other traditions… more on that later, I suppose. Lots to read.

I will try to get off my own back though, not worry about if I’m meditating wrong or correctly, or if this or that is bad karma.

That is my goal, anyway.

Well, I don’t know if reading all this has done you any good. I hope it has. I’ve just recently placed my feet on the dharma path, and people who are just barely learning to walk tend to stumble and fall a lot, but, it seems, I keep getting back up.

Thanks for reading.

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