Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Emasculated by Buddhism - a response

This is a response to a  post from the The New Heretics blog.  The writer of the blog is a Buddhist in Bible College in the US and wrote a really thought-provoking and humourous piece called 'Emasculated By "Buddhism."'

Click on over to his piece to read the whole post (it's worth it!).  Here's part of it -
Tonight in my Sangha marked yet another in a now long-running series of dharma talks that are really just self-help books wrapped in a bit of meditation and the occasional quote from some Buddhist text. I am just sick and tired of it...I was one of two guys there, and the thing ended with about 20 middle-aged ladies crying on each other’s shoulders over how their dads were not there for them, someone was mean to them in high school, or over some marriage that fell apart. The whole thing ended in a sobbing, wet, group hug.
Seriously, I think there has to be more “Suck-it-up-ness” and “Deal-with-it-ness” in the practice.
I think this current movement of reducuing Buddhism to a non-religious self-help philosophy is sad, and that it has to go.
I read this post a few days ago and have spent a lot of time since thinking about the Heretic's points. (I'm going to ignore the bit about middle-aged ladies and focus on the essence of his piece...)

Has Buddhism in the West been reduced to little more than a self-help organisation?  Or, has Buddhism evolved to meet the needs of Western people?  Obviously, there's no clear answer to these questions, but I think it's part of a dialogue that Buddhists need to have if we are to keep this wonderful religion/psychology alive and relevent to our lives.

The New Heretics blog prompted me to re-listen to a Sounds True interview with Sharon Salzburg. Sharon is a meditation teacher who is well known for her emphasis on Loving Kindness (metta) meditation. 
 I had a chance to ask him [the Dalai Lama]  a question, so I said, "Oh your holiness, what do you think about self-hatred?" And he didn't know what I was talking about. And there was all this buzz in the room and it was really quite funny, and he said, "People like that, are they very violent?" and he said, "Is it some kind of mental disorder?" and he had no idea. And it was really quite fun, because the translators, who were westerners got very animated and were trying to explain to him how so many western people heard certain aspects of Buddhist teaching like right effort and strive on with diligence, and how those words often entered a tremendous pool of self-judgment and self-condemnation within us. It was quite instructive.

My journey with spirituality, meditation, and Buddhism is encapsulated within this quote - I was one of those people who saw everything through lense of self-judgement. I started off as a very hard-core meditator; when I was first introduced to LovingKindness meditation I thought, 'What a load of pansy nonsense this is! What use is all this lovey-dovey stuff?'  I was into Boot Camp Meditation - convinced that I had to meditate longer and better than anyone else in order to overcome my many, many (perceived) psychological problems.

I had a chronic illness, and through an unhelpful experience with a healer, I'd come to the firm opinion that I'd caused my own illness and there was something very wrong with me. I was convinced that if only I was a good enough spiritual person I could fix all my 'ishooos' and then get well. 

For a decade I was utterly lost in this delusion.  Beating myself up about being sick and weak and hopeless was the only way I knew how to relate to myself.  Occasionally I would see a friend, or counsellor, who would encourage me to 'go easy on myself.'  'Huh!' I would think, 'What good does that do?  Concentrating on my good qualities won't help... I have to concentrate on my weaknesses - and FIX THEM!' 

I remember going to see one psychologist who was a very warm, compassionate woman.  As I sat there listening to her talking gently to me I vividly remember thinking, 'I'm not paying you to be nice to me lady!  Being nice won't get me well.'

So, at this point, you're probably getting some sense of my inner life.  I knew that meditation was the path for me, but, I couldn't find a way into meditation, or any kind of spirituality, becuase I only knew of one way to react to myself - with blame and judgement. I was aware that this blame and judgement was there, but I had no tools to respond, or sit, with them. 

Last year I went to stay for a month at a Buddhist monastery near Sydney.  The Abbott running the monastary knew I wasn't well, but invited me to come anyway.  'Don't worry about participating in the work schedule, or coming to meetings...just do what you can.'  

When I arrived I got very sick and could hardly get out of bed - let alone help in the kitchen.  I spent the whole month at the monastery crying, and whenever I met with the Abbott I would burst into tears and say, 'I can't meditate.  What am I doing here?!' He would smile kindly and say, 'Don't worry.  Do what you can. Every monastery needs someone who stays in their hut all day and cries.'

Although I found the whole month extremely difficult I later realised what an extraordinary gift the Abbott had given me.  He had accepted me in his monastery exactly as I was.  He didn't demand intense meditation from me, he didn't ask that I work, and he didn't promise that he could help me get well.  All he did was accept me just as a was - which was the last thing I wanted to do.

This Abbott was like a light on the hill for me. His attitude of LovingKindness was a beacon guiding me through the dark night.  Gently, without pushing me in the slightest, he had pointed out the light to me and said 'Go that way...'  Slowly, his attitude and his teachings started to unravel the knots of judgement and self-hatred that had kept me unable to get any benefit from meditation or Buddhism. 

My other revelation was coming across the writer and teacher Tara Brach who practices, I'm sure, what many people would call Soft Buddhism, Buddhism Lite (or, I-can't-believe-it's-not-Buddhism Buddhism!)  But, for me, her teachings of Radical Acceptance have the emphasis on compassion, and psychological understanding, that I need in order to progress in my meditation.  Without the 'softness' she offers, I would not have been able to find a way in to meditation - and the door to Buddhism would have remained locked to me. 

I suppose I do practice a kind of 'watered down' Buddhism - but that doesn't mean it's an easy, feel-good Buddhism.  Radical Acceptance of constant pain and exhaustion is a hard path to follow.

Having said that, I also don't disagree with the New Heretic's post.  I'm very impatient with intellectual laziness when it comes to spirituality.  I've just spent 7 months living in Ubud, in Indonesia.  It's a small town with a growing yoga scene, and I think if I heard one more 'yoga tragic' congratulate themselves on bringing 'beautiful, healing energy to Ubud' I was going to scream. There seemed to be no comprehension that they were in a third-world country, and to pay your child's school fees.

I do think that Buddhism does need to adjust to Western values and psychology in some way in order to thrive in the West.  I doubt many people want Buddhism to morph into a religion resembling a Louise L Hay movie-of-the-week - but it is important to acknowledge that our individualistic and materialistic culture brings its own set of issues to meditation practice.

One thing I find really inspiring, is that we all have our own unique circumstances that lead us along our own spiritual paths.  The fact that I started off as a hard-core meditator and realised a much softer, kinder practice suited me more - and the New Heretics is looking for something a bit less wimpy in his practice  - shows that we all have our own, equally valid, paths to tread.  I'm hoping there's room for us all in the big wide world of Buddhism.

Good luck, and much metta, to us all!

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