Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Between Fundamentalism and Dharma Surfing

The Blessing
The Blessing, Nice, 2006

Over its long history, Buddhism has evolved into a variety of traditions. Many of these have emerged when a Buddhist tradition encountered a non-Buddhist one. Buddhism + Taoism = Zen. Buddhism + Bon = Tibetan Buddhism. Similarly, the various Buddhist traditions have interacted with and cross-fertilized each other.

Some results of this mixing and matching have endured and become traditions of their own. The Harada-Yasutani line in which I practice is a relatively recent fusion of Soto and Rinzai Zen, for example. Others have lingered around a while before either turning into something no longer recognizably Buddhist, or disappeared after their founders or their immediate successors go the way of all that is mortal.

Many prominent Buddhists – not least the Dalai Lama – caution against carelessly mixing traditions. At the same time, especially we in the West have a unique opportunity of being able to study and experiment with many of them. There are even a few efforts at creating an explicitly ”ecumenical” Buddhism that draws from several traditions. The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) is probably the best-established of these movements.

Ultimately, the question of mixing practices comes back to the fundamentals. Why practice at all?

I do a certain amount of physical exercise. I do this partly because I enjoy it, but mostly because I only have this one body, and I want to take as good care of it as I reasonably can.

However, I do not have any particular ambitions to build muscle, or strength, or flexibility, or endurance, or speed, or the rest of it, beyond what I need to do the stuff I want to do. That means that it doesn't really matter what kind of physical exercise I do. If I get bored with gym, I can try chi-gong. If I get bored with cycling, I can try running. The main thing is that I don't completely slob out: any fitness practice is much better than no fitness practice. I'll never become really extremely good at any of it, but it gives me what I want from it in a varied and enjoyable way.

For someone who practices Buddhism for the kinds of reasons I practice physical fitness, mixing traditions makes perfect sense. Meditation practices have immediate benefits. I feel much better when I'm sitting regularly and sitting well than when I'm not. I don't believe that the actual practice you happen to be doing makes a huge amount of difference with regards to these benefits, as long as it isn't something that's completely inimical to your mental make-up. So if your objective is ”bompu Zen” – meditating to feel better – I have a hard time believing that there's any harm in trying tonglen if you get bored with following the breath; meditating on a koan if you get bored with vipassana. Any practice is better than no practice, and if your practice goes so stale you'd stop it if you didn't change it, I believe that changing it is definitely the better alternative.

On the other hand, if you practice for similar reasons a great violinist practices her art, or an Olympic-level athlete practices her sport, things just might look a bit different.

There are musicians who have mastered a variety of instruments. However, they did not usually get there by practicing a bit of violin, then a bit of piano, then a bit of tenor sax, then the accordeon. They immersed themselves deeply in the instrument of their choice, and then extended that to other areas. They had demanding teachers that drilled them and tested them. Even so, most of them retain a main instrument – a great pianist might also be a great cembalist, and she might also be a competent violinist, but it's rather unlikely that she'd be a great one.

I believe that there lies the drawback of freely mixing traditions. It would probably be a lot more difficult to become really good at Buddhism – whatever that may mean – if you hop from one practice to another as your interest takes you, the same way it's a lot more difficult to become a great musician if you hop from one instrument or one style to another. To accomplish that, a teacher and a coherent tradition are if not indispensable, at least of great benefit.

Of course, nobody says you have to practice in order to become really good at it, any more than anybody says that you have to do gym in order to build a body that looks like one of those Belgian Blue oxes. That's nobody's business but yours.

Unfortunately, sticking with a tradition has its downsides as well. Fundamentalism: coming to believe that your tradition is the 'true' one, and other approaches are invalid. Getting discouraged: if the tools your tradition has for surmounting obstacles just don't work for you, for whatever reason, you'll probably just quit, and be worse off for that. There are no easy answers there.

There is another pitfall with mixing traditions too. This one isn't as much of a concern for the lone practitioner, because it involves teachers and sanghas. Highly innovative, nontraditional teachers have a track record that's... mixed. This is largely because going off the rails is an occupational hazard for spiritual teachers.

Whether teachers like it or not, their students want to give them enormous amounts of power over them. Good teachers are able to handle this without turning into cult leaders. Not-so-good ones... not-so-well. Many teachers – even very good ones – often become at least a little eccentric, and I believe a big part of the reason is the sheer weight of the expectations laid on them by their students. They're only human, after all. And, sadly, every once in a while one of them goes spectacularly nuts, turning into Zen Master Rama or Andrew Cohen or Shoko Asahara.

Established traditions have at least some built-in safeguards against teachers going off the rails. If a sangha splits off from the tradition where it originated, or claims lineage from a variety of traditions, or none at all, I consider that a bit of a warning sign. It's at least possible that the leader of the group has fallen afoul of the safeguards in his tradition, and has taken off on his own for that reason, whatever he may tell himself.

Many of these problems take a long time to manifest. It's often only possible to tell that an innovative tradition was solid a generation or two after it was established. Therefore, I would tend to be cautious about relatively young and relatively innovative groups like the FWBO or Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's New Kadampa Tradition. Had I made like Philip Kapleau Roshi in the 1950's and gone in search of a Zen teacher, I would probably not have gravitated toward the then relatively new Harada-Yasutani line. It turned out that Kapleau Roshi made a good call: the tradition has since established itself and is soldiering on with no more than the usual amount of scandal. Perhaps he was an excellent judge of character, or perhaps he just got lucky. I would not have risked it.

That is why I tend to fall on the traditionalist side of the fence. I'm not entirely sure why I practice, but I feel there's something to the reasons that's more than "bompu Zen." I'm somehow convinced that the Way leads somewhere I want to go, even if I don't know where that is. I've – slightly – explored a few of the traditions available in my neck of the woods, and have found one that meshes well with my worldview and personality. I intend to stick with that to see where it takes me, as far as I'm able.


  1. This was an excellent exploration into mixing practices. I wish you well on your path(s)

  2. Yes, very excellent description, thank you!

  3. You're missing the main advantage of sticking to a tradition: the certainty that that specific path lead to nowhere. Following the rules bars the possibility of resorting to the usual excuses (bad teachers, bad school, you didn't try hard enough) when you end up learning nothing and therefore are forced to face the fact that there is nothing to know.

    Now, choosing the way to the awakening to the true self based on the preferences of the (I guess conditioned) personality, that's fresh.

  4. @Anonymous: Good point, that, about the certainty of learning nothing and going nowhere. It hadn't occurred to me. Nothing is difficult to learn, and it's not easy to go nowhere either.

    Re choosing your particular path: how did you choose yours, if not based on the preferences of your conditioned personality?

    The way I see it, some paths are just plain closed to some people. I'm pretty sure that life in a real, tough, traditional Zen monastery, for example, would break me within days. That means that pursuing that path is just not an option, at least not at this time.

    Maintaining the will to keep practicing is, for a beginner like me, the toughest challenge I face. I'm too weak to do that on my own. I need the support of people I feel at ease with, and teaching that makes sense to me. That's why I feel the choice of path is quite important -- and that no one path is suitable for everybody.

  5. The path chose me (Man, you gotta love this esoteric discourse. Once you get the hang of it, you have a comeback for almost anything).

    In fact, if one is really conditioned, there is not much choice (other than to cry, rot in life, and then die, of course), innit?

    Wouldn't you say that phrasing things in terms of "chosing" and "path" (and maybe also "will" or "challenge"), when most likely neither one exist, is a comfortable way of not facing one's own conditioning, in the first place?

    Doing so (just facing it) is also extremely difficult, but maybe a tad easier than knowing nothing.

  6. Anon, I think we're talking at different levels of abstraction. You're talking metaphysics -- whether, in fact, we have any free will at all, or if we're just driven by our karma/conditioning/deterministic universe/whatever, whereas I'm just describing what I did and what I experienced in the everyday, conventional sense.

    I don't really care much for metaphysical questions anyway. They just give me a headache. At the everday, practical level, I did do a certain amount of research and experimentation, and in that process I "chose to" sit with one group and not with another. Whether I had any choice about it in the metaphysical sense I don't know, nor care. It doesn't make any difference to my practice either way.

    As to facing up to my conditioning... I'm doing my best, but I'm not very good at it. I don't even really know how to go about it, other than just sit and follow my breath, as Sensei instructed me. Perhaps it'll become clearer over time. In the meantime, I'm sure I'll be not facing up to it in all manner of inventive ways. Thank you for pointing out one such possible way. I will think about it.

    By the way, I appreciate your taking the time to comment here. You've said some thought-provoking things here before, assuming it's the same Anonymous. I have to admit, though, that I'm getting a bit curious about why you're doing it. Why you, why me, why this blog? It's not like I have much of a readership, and I'm certainly not aspiring to anything much here -- I just like to write stuff that pops into my mind. If there was no Internet, I'd keep a diary.

  7. I believe I was speaking at an existential (or psychological/experiential) level. Being difficult as it is to observe oneself (and isn't that what this is all about?) , you would think that approaching one's actions, not as if one performs them but as if they're performed through one, if you allow me the metaphor, provides a different (hopefully more detached) way of looking at the phenomenon we usually call self. On the flip side (there's always one, of course), the view is not necessarily nice nor healthy, and thus the headaches.

    Oh, and no weird reasons for my stalking. You're cute and all but I'm not that curious, yet. It's just I enjoy your writings and find most of them inspiring. So you may not have a numerous readership *lately*, but you can claim it's loyal, I guess.

  8. Interesting thoughts, Petteri. I too tend to stick somewhat along traditionalist lines - that said, I practice with the FWBO, a Tibetan group, Vipassana, and occasional Zen! So... Even though the DL warns against too much mixing, he himself mixes lineages (a way of being ecumenical in the post 1959 Tibetan world). I have a feeling that, like your anonymous commenter, a path will 'find me' sooner or later. Or perhaps I'm already on it :) One thing I DO avoid is petty talk about this or that tradition: "oh, I don't like Tibetans because of the superstition," or "Zen practitioners are always talking nonsense." (Kyle, you know who you are, hehe)

    Bouncing around can be more about ego than ecumenical appreciation - which is why for most I think a solid single tradition is very good.

    Peace - Justin

  9. Ha! Now I get what you're saying. Yeah, that makes sense. That's pretty much what happens in zazen -- thoughts come and go, and sometimes I manage to somehow observing them as they come and go. Yeah, for sure, I would like to be able to observe my thoughts and actions that way in daily life as well. I've occasionally had "Zen moments" where something like this happens of its own accord, but I'm nowhere near good enough to be able to manage it consistently.

    I've heard that once you get to a certain point, you're able to maintain that "questioning" or "great doubt" all the time. Perhaps one day...

    I'm glad you're enjoying my blog (and that you find me cute). Just make sure not to take anything in it seriously, and thanks for reminding me not to do it either.

  10. You know, the more I practice and the more I explore, the more I find myself coming back to my Zen roots. I think it is important that one explore all the traditions, and certainly there is no harm in trying them out. I guess we will all see how this whole Buddhism in the West thing plays out over time.