Sunday, June 10, 2012

Extreme Buddhism?

There has been a fair amount of discussion online in recent weeks about what is, and isn't "extreme" when it comes to Buddhist practice. This is stemming from the debacle in Michael Roach's Diamond Mountain community, which has made it into the mainstream news.

Buddhist blogger Barbara O'Brien, in one of her posts on the Diamond Mountain situation, writes:

I've been thinking about long meditation retreats. Silent meditation retreats can be intense, and three years is extreme. My understanding is that in the Tibetan traditions, three-year retreats are undertaken only by people who already have been nuns or monks for at least a dozen years. So they are already well acclimated to the discipline of monasticism and have experienced many other silent retreats. The three-year retreat is not going to be a complete shock to their systems.

No matter how you slice it, a three year retreat is extreme for the vast majority of people. It may, however, be the perfect level of challenge for a select few whose practice has moved in a direction where such an experience might be exactly what is called for. Odds are for these people, too, it's still "too much" in certain ways, and yet the way they handle that too much is probably markedly different from the way that most of us do.

Zen teacher Brad Warner had this to add in another post:

The early Buddhists did three month retreats during the Indian rainy season when there wasn’t much else anyone could do. This tradition is carried on in many places in the form of what Japanese Buddhists call an ango, a retreat lasting around 90 days that typically occurs in the Summer (though spring, winter and fall angos are common these days too). Three months is pretty intense and there’s a good reason Buddha never recommended doing retreats any longer than that.

While reading the story I found myself wondering just how Mr. Roach Geshe justified such an excessively long retreat. A clue can be found on their website which says, “The word ‘enlightenment’ sounds vague and mystical, but the Buddha taught that it is quite achievable by deliberately following a series of steps. The three-year retreatants have been studying and practicing the steps very seriously for the last six or more years, and by going into the laboratory of solitary retreat they hope (to) realize the final goal taught by Lord Buddha.”

So they figured that if they went at it really hard for three years they’d get enlightened.

Sometimes, I get the sense that the historical Buddha's story gets fetishized. That even though thousands of others have followed widely divergent paths in the past 2500+ years to some form of awakening or enlightenment, there is this idea amongst some that we have to follow in the exact footsteps of Shakyamuni. Never mind that we couldn't even if we tried. The guy grew up and lived in a different pattern of causes and conditions than any of us live in today. So, while we are inspired by his teachings, and use forms that are in some ways just like what he and the first sangha used to practice with - it's not the same. Nor even similar really. And that's for the best in my opinion.

Over at Mumon's blog is a partial rebuttal of a previous post of mine, which also ties into this discussion. Mumon highlights this quote from my post:

In the minds of many Buddhist men historically, and even some still today, enlightenment was a man's domain. And any man who wanted it better "man up" in his practice. The obsession with marathon meditation retreats and hardcore, "balls busting" koan studies you see in some convert Zen communities reminds me a lot of this ancient mud.

And then, later in his post, has this to say:

But the other comment, well, I think that comment is not informed by the experience of which I know.

The fact of the matter is, the historical Buddha himself went to extremes in his practice. Eventually he realized a middle-way course of action, but not before hitting the rails. Typically that's the way practitioners work. Again, you can't say "how much is right" without addressing areas from which motivation comes. Note: the point is not to go anywhere near the rails! The point I'm trying to make is without an ongoing commitment, a resolution to effort no fruits of effort are ever realized.

Yeah, Soto folk: I'm saying even to just sit that requires effort. At the very least the effort required to make the commitment to do so. much effort?

Well, I'll get to that, but first off, but in the spirit of Bill Maher, I'd like to posit a new rule: Soto folks shouldn't opine about koan ( 公案) practice. Seriously folks, what is your point about writing about it if you don't know what it is, and if you haven't practiced it. And just because a Soto teacher "told you" about 公案 practice doesn't mean that teacher knows anything about 公案 practice.

First off, Mumon's right: I don't really know shit about koan practice. A lot of Soto Zen folks don't know shit about it. We've studied some koans in a cursory manner, maybe even taken up a few with our teachers in a much more direct manner. But I'm guessing it's not a central practice for the majority Soto Zen practitioners.

At the same time, there seems to be some that old Soto/Rinzai ax grinding going on here. And I want to stay on track with the issue of right effort and extreme practice here.

In the post Mumon quotes from, I was essentially equating certain forms of extreme practice with men. And by extension, suggesting that the sexism that pervading Buddhist history also has impacted our very notions of what it means to make right effort, and what is considered "enough" and "not enough." He dismisses this link, something that I will admit pissed me off when I first read it. Because frankly, sexism is pretty pervasive in our world. And little is untouched on the relative level.

However, I then went back to earlier in Mumon's post, where he wrote the following:

I'm trying to say that, for at least the reason of how ideation is verbalized, that someone with a less than titanium composure might commit to more than effort than he is able to commit, because he can't ideate the notion of "too much."

This points to the fact - I believe - that going to some sort of extreme is basically necessary. That each of us "won't know" we've gone too far until we do. And from those experiences, we then get a better sense of who we are and where we are at.

None of which justifies the kind of extreme measures being employed at Diamond Mountain, which already led to one person's death. Nor the kind of macho Zen I wrote of in that previous post which is both present, and problematic.

There's room for questioning the extremes, and also recognizing the value of extremes in our lives.

What do you think about all of this?


NellaLou said...

It takes a lot of preparation to confront the edge. Lots of people go over it in all kinds of scenarios. Dunning-Kruger effect in many cases.

Robyn said...

This topic is very interesting to me - not so much the guy with the three-year retreats because that sounds more like a cult than any real dharma teaching - but about how the historical Buddha had to come to near death before he discovered the middle way.

I think about it when I consider my home practice, which seems so piddly and yet I know it is far more than most people will ever take up. I think about it when I get up an hour early each day of sesshin to get yet one more hour in of if anyone really needs that during sesshin! I even think about it when I do my ashtanga practice, which can feel, at once, like a challenging direct practice and like such an immature response to the scope of yoga. And so on.

But the Buddha almost died! How can my little efforts really mean anything?

Right understanding......right effort.....

There is a reason that we need and study those things.

Nathan said...

What is little effort, and what is great effort?

How can it be the same for any of us?

Was Once said...

If I wanted a three year retreat I would just ordain in Thailand or Myanmar, in a working temple to balance the work with real life from surrounding villages.

Mumon said...

Thanks for this post. Like I said over at my place, I don't dismiss the existence and bad effects of sexism over the years.

And of course I don't think things should get out of hand in practice where it comes to harm.

But the point remains that ancestors also often trained arduously, and there are benefits in this.

And as you said, "What is little effort, and what is great effort?"

I'm also reminded of a bit by Gwynne Dyer in his book "War: The Lethal Custom" where he points out that Marine Corps basic training - made out to look extremely arduous, is actually carefully designed so that almost everyone passes it. And not without reason.

So there's that. And all the extraneous useless macho stuff that goes with that.

But the great effort that one puts into practice might be putting practice down to attend to daily life. Anyone who's had to take care of a kid knows that.

Dalai Grandma said...

I thought the idea, in the 8-Fold Path, was "right effort."

As for the extreme practice of an American Zen retreat, it did me good at first. But when I really got on the path was when I blew up and walked out on one after the lead student cautioned us to keep our eyes down walking between buildings. The crabapples were in bloom. It was a beautiful spring. I just knew this couldn't be right, though it has taken me years to realize just how right I was. The purpose of practice is to meet the world face-to-face.

Nathan said...

Yeah, that issue of attachment to form is one thing I'm talking about here for sure. There needs to be room for the crabapple blossoms as well.

Buku said...

Living on grass and brachen, clothed in the skin of deers who died a natural death in the forest, spat upon by children, exiled and banished again and again and sentenced to execution for his beliefs, Nichiren Daishonin exemplifies extreme Buddhism

Omar Von Gimbel said...

I have been practicing the abbhokāsika dhutaṅga without even realizing it. This is the "extreme" practice of sleeping under the open sky.

This has been since just before I started practicing Buddhism itself.

I have just learned of the 13 dhutaṅga practices studying the Puggalapannatti from the Abhidhamma while visiting the Mahajapati Monastery.

There are certain advantages attributed to practicing the abbhokāsika dhutaṅga:

1. We get rid of idleness and torpor.
2. We get rid of attachment towards one's dwelling spot.
3. We get rid of attachment towards our life, we can die without fears.
4. Like a stag, no need for an abode, free from all feelings of attachment to a spot, we are free and serene to live anywhere, and worthy of consideration.
5. We are free from feelings of attachment to a sheltered spot.
6. We can freely proceed by the four directions and settle down wherever we wish, with no need for an invitation.
7. We enjoy a convenient means to provide for what we need, while being able to be satisfied with little.

These are the encouragements to take up the practice of the abbhokāsika dhutaṅga:

The bhikkhu who practices the abbhokāsika dhutaṅga is totally spared of countless domestic, economic and human duties, to which are constrained people living inside of their house, along with children, etc.

The abbhokāsika dhutaṅga ideally corresponds with the life of a bhikkhu.

A bhikkhu who practices this dhutaṅga doesn't even have to worry to find and keep up a place for his lodging. Having the stary sky as sole roof, he easily gets rid of idleness and torpor. Free like a stag, his mind enables him to speed up and ease the realization of the dhamma. By remaining outside, he always stays on a serene and silent spot. Pursuant to that, he can easily and without delay realise some jhānas or magga phalas.

For these reasons, bhikkhus endowed with wisdom do practise the outdoor dwelling, on spots devoid of anything, that is to say the abbhokāsika dhutaṅga.

I can attest to the advantages of practicing this dhutaṅga. Not only does one realize those detachments, but they are realized with ease and quickly too. I have also begun to realize the first jhāna, or what the Tibetans refer to as the state of Mahamudra.

By no means is it developed or anything, but to realize such a rapid change from extreme depression to a deep lasting peace of mind in under a year is something I am very grateful for.

... check out the Rhinoceros Sutta.