Sunday, April 27, 2014
Photo credit: mzacha from morguefile.com
This will be an incomplete post. One that isn't really polished or backed up with links or really specific examples. I just plan on writing and seeing what comes forth on a topic I've been wrestling with for a while now.
When I look out at the American Buddhist landscape these days, I see two camps have formed, around which rallying flags seem to be quite vigorously shaking.
The first camp is the majority from what I can tell. It's overriding tenants are the following:
1. Practice and the teachings are focused on our individual, every day lives, with a particular focus on emotional states and psychological experiences.
2. Enlightenment or awakening is downplayed, or even eliminated all together.
3. In general, intellectual engagement with the teachings and/or practice is also downplayed. In fact, there's often a deep - if almost unconscious - disposition against intellectual understandings or approaches to the dharma and practice forms. Thinking, in other words, is an enemy to practice/understanding, even when there are direct teachings brought in to counter judgements around thinking.
4. There's a fair amount of openness to more intangible parts of spiritual life and the teachings, such as karma, rebirth, a belief in spirits or underlying energy patterns, etc. However, along with this openness seems to often come a New Agey looseness or lack of grounding. In other words, people say things like "It's my karma" without having any real understanding of what the teachings around karma actually are, and/or how that might actually unfold in their lives. The more extreme members of this camp sometimes sound like fundamentalist Christians, replacing concepts like "God's will" or "Jesus will save us" with karma or reincarnation. When folks speak of the "Protestantization of Buddhism," this is one form of that.
5. The majority of the time, using the teachings and/or practices to address social issues, various forms of oppression, or anything collectively outside of the immediate sangha is simply off the table. Or only considered briefly before returning to our individual challenges.
On the flip side, the other camp (which I see as, in part, a reaction to the first one), has the following characteristics:
1. A heavy focus on that which is empirically "provable." For these folks, science, human reason, and intellectual debate/rigor are the pinnacle. Some of these folks seem to be straight materialists. Others perhaps are agnostic on elements of Buddhist teaching/practice that aren't easily pinned down, or which require faith in some form or another.
2. Along those lines, things like karma, rebirth, even faith in practice to some degree are not only rejected, but often are fiercely argued against. Beyond that, I saw a discussion online recently about the scientific research being done around meditation practice. And for some folks, nothing short of rigorous and repeatable double blind studies was worth considering when it comes to speaking about the potential "benefits" or "impacts" of meditation practice. In these discussions, I saw the hard science/soft science distinction come up a few times, with attendant dismissals of things like case studies as "not real science."
3. Deep textual study and intellectual research + debate are hallmarks of strong practice for these folks. Whereas folks in the first camp talk a lot about being compassionate in a general sense, these folks strive to get really clear and precise about what it means to be compassionate according to the Buddhadharma. In addition, I'd say that the push to strip away traditional forms and rituals (chanting, bowing, robes, statues, etc.) is driven more by these folks than people from the first camp.
4. This group seems much more open to discussing and focusing on social issues. However, it sometimes seems like it's mostly as part of an overall intellectual project that doesn't really extend into actually doing anything concretely in the world. Other than produce lots of documents and discussions.
5. Sometimes, it really difficult to locate the individual, living, breathing, feeling person in the worldview these folks offer. Whereas there seems to be a lot of heart, but not much mind present in the first camp, the second camp is almost the reverse.
In offering this, I'm well aware that few fall completely or neatly into either group. However, the overall split I'm presenting here - which perhaps could be called a "Heart-Mind Split" - feels deeply palpable to me. And also troubling. Because neither camp offers anywhere near a full, holistic expression of the dharma. Both have something vital to offer the other side, and yet both seem pretty convinced that they have THE truth, and that the other side is deluded or lacking in some manner or another.
So, that's what I have to offer today. A sketch. Perhaps a bit of a straw man one at that, but still useful I think. What do you make of all this?