Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Artificial Buddhist Personality"

Over at Open Buddha, Al recounts this useful story:

A friend of mine, named “Robert,” used to own an esoteric bookstore in Seattle. Much of his stock and customers were Buddhists, as opposed to the pagans that I normally ran with. It was one of the places where I began to encounter Buddhist books and ideas though. Robert used to mention that one of the problems with Buddhists, in his experience, was “ABP,” or “Artificial Buddhist Personality.” This is the persona that so many Buddhists seem to assume where they take up the trappings, the mental ones as much as any physical ones like statues or beads, of what they think a Buddhist should be and they wear them like a new skin. They aren’t necessarily compassionate, for example, but they know they should be so they go through the motions. The problem here is, of course, that realization is not a persona. It is not something that we take on or assume as mask or role. It is a waking up from masks and roles. The compassion and other attributes of awakening are the natural result, as expressed in the world, of this awakening.

There is an insidiousness to this "ABP" Al's friend pointed to. It's very easy to get into the habit of acting a certain way you believe is better, and avoid looking at the motivations behind it. I think there is some value in the "faking it until you make it approach," for example, but it's also the case that too much of it leads you away from seeing what's actually arising. You do something kind for another, but you miss the resentment or need to be liked behind the surface. Or you refrain from expressing anger at your co-worker, but you fail to express the need for support or honesty from the same co-worker. There's so much energy put into trying to "do the right thing" that you don't have enough to see what's actually present.

When you think about it, there is a corresponding version of ABP in all religious and spiritual traditions. And this tends to be one of the things secular humanists, atheists, and other folks point to when speaking about how delusional these traditions are. The way I see it, they're totally right that these inflated personas, from which those inhabiting them shame and guilt everyone else around them, are certainly delusional.

Another challenge I have experienced with ABP is that when you put on a "good front," people start to expect that from you all the time. Acting like a saint reinforces the commonplace stereotypes about Buddhists being always kind, peaceful, and loving individuals. Not only is it suffocating for us practitioners to try and uphold such ridiculous standards, but it makes it that much more difficult for others to gain any insight into what Buddhism is all about. Not that some general insight into Buddhism by others is all that important. But it's easier, from my experience, to be yourself when there aren't expectations of some form of perfection inside and all around.


BK Max said...

To be devil's advocate (for a lack of a better term) don't we all do this to some degree, children imitate their parents behavior until they know better(in some cases) or pick any other situation where one is unsure and lost surrounded by people that are ''proficient'' -that kind of intimidation(and it is intimidating)will trigger and automatic reaction to mimic and mirror the approved, required behavior -even though it may not be sincere yet or even understood.
When people are beginner's in any thing there is a period of transition -and hopefully it remains that-just a transition but there are always people that are there for the superficial , cultural context. On some levels though if they are going to be a poser , at least they are posing something positive and maybe over time it develops into their nature?

Uku said...

Really nice post, Nathan!

I agree with you. It seems to be pretty natural to us all that in the beginning of our path, we tend to be idealistic; we're in the middle of the Zen Porn. But one important side of this path is to let go of that porn. It's not an easy task though.

I wrote a pretty similar post about this subject a while ago:

Thank you for your posts, Nathan. It's really a pleasure to read them.


Nathan said...

BD - I did say that there's some value to the "fake it until you make it" approach. It's impossible to avoid imitating as you learn, and that isn't a problem in my view.

BK Max said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
BK Max said...

I agree, mea culpa, -have been the target of a lot of negativity in regards to my beginner's practice making me feel a little defensive.
Sorry 'bout that

Algernon said...

ABP, yes yes. We used to call it the "Buddhist persona" around PZC, but it's the same thing.

Was Once said...

Do you in one way you are judging others(not to say I never do that)? Plus you never really know people's stories, and what motivates them do so, thus elevating you above them. Just fuel for thought and not accusatory. I do not mean to offend, but I look at what motivates me to pick topics...hence lately I have posted less.

Brikoleur said...

I think a great deal depends on what kind of set you happen to fall into. I've been struck by how different the behavioral norms are between different Buddhist groups I've come across. Uku's set is exuberant, in-your-face, and "punky;" the local Triratna chapter hugs and smiles benignly at everybody, the local Thich Nath Hanh folks bow and wear benign half-smiles and are very deferential and quiet-like, and so on.

We're social primates, and are very quick to adapt to these kinds of norms (or, if they fail to fit, leave and find another band). To some extent it's unavoidable, I'm sure, but it sure does get irritating if it gets laid on too thick, or gives a feeling of trying too hard.

Anonymous said...


Almost left you a novel here, but took that mess away. Thanks for the great start this morning.

I just wanted to say something about the Brahma Viharas, their near enemies, and annoying altruistic minds. Perfect souls- we've all strived to be them and we've all wanted to behead them too.

Nathan said...

BD - I actually think the ABP takes some time to develop. From my experience, newcomers aren't able to hold up a fake image because they're still trying to get some sense of the basics. I remember that feeling, and since I don't do retreat practice very often, I'm still treading water with forms when I do a retreat.

Was Once - honestly, I've noticed a small return of this in myself around a couple of debates/discussions in my sangha. I've done ok just being with what's come up, but have found that I have held back a few times to protect the image people seem to have of me there.

And I see how this calm, kind, reverent, and non-messy persona can get reinforced quickly with people who want to keep the peace, and are afraid disagreements might lead to huge rifts in the sangha.

Sometimes, opinions and judgments need to be laid out straight so that stagnant waters are stirred back to life.

Petteri "We're social primates, and are very quick to adapt to these kinds of norms (or, if they fail to fit, leave and find another band). To some extent it's unavoidable, I'm sure, but it sure does get irritating if it gets laid on too thick, or gives a feeling of trying too hard."

No doubt. The mirroring that goes on in communities is going to go on. And you're right to point out the tenor of each group is going to be different.

I think given the history of my sangha, as well as other groups I have been a part of, I've become keenly aware of group dynamics, and have a deep interest in supporting mirroring that is beneficial, or at least not destructive. Perhaps I have been fortunate enough to have experienced some of both ends of that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,
An excellent and insightful post! As you have correctly pointed out, it is not just Buddhists, but seekers across all faiths and paths who try to "confirm" to a particular kind of behaviour. I suppose that there are two broad reasons people do this. The first is to be recognized and accepted as a member of that faith or path (belonging). The second is to actually imbibe new virtues and by one's own wisdom try to avoid undesirable behaviour. The key difference here is that the motivation of the first kind of person is based on impressing other people and is hence entrenched in self interest, whereas the motivation of the second type is his/her own spiritual progress. Would it be fair to conclude that the second type of motivation is still fine?

Nathan said...

"Would it be fair to conclude that the second type of motivation is still fine?" Intention is important. And I think everyone goes through some of this "trying on the clothes" of the path in order to see how it might work. It just seems that when we get into groups, it's easier to just go along, and play a role, than to pay attention to what's motivating your thoughts and actions.

Anonymous said...

hi good article. it is very dangerous to act in a way that you think a Buddhist should act. it is no different from acting like a teacher or professor or artist etc etc. the important thingIs to drop the Buddhism- and to see the delusional factors in your mind which create constant everyday strife and unease. which is caused by the same mechanism which attempts to portray a Buddhist image to the world