Sunday, January 17, 2010

Is Buddhism in the West Narcissistic?

Mark Vernon, writing in the Guardian/Observer seems to think so.

The retreat was led by two teachers. They topped and tailed the sitting sessions with a few helpful words, and were also on hand lest any participants develop problems, an important safeguard as prolonged silence can be unsettling. One of them also gave a talk on the second evening, and she explained the central Buddhist doctrine that meditation is designed to address: the reality of suffering.

Suffering here is meant in a broad sense, everything from the faintest feeling that something is wrong, to the profound injuries that human beings inflict on themselves and each other. It's a worldview that is humanistic and tragic. The first of the Buddha's noble truths is that life is suffering. It's called a "noble" truth since that realisation is also the first step towards an ennobled life, namely one in which the suffering can cease.

That's where meditation comes in. It's a technique designed to develop mindfulness, the awareness and acceptance of suffering existence. Meditation itself needn't always be painful. It might be pleasant, even elating. But the aim is neither to cling to experience, nor to reject it, but rather to know it as it is. Hence, the "insight" in insight meditation. "To understand all is to forgive all," the proverb says, and the Buddhist version would be, "To understand all is to let go of all". It just takes practice...

The raison d'être of Gaia House is the wellbeing of the those who come to stay in it. That seems like a pretty good raison d'être, and it is. However, it comes with risk. Meditation-as-therapy flirts with narcissism when it is devoted to observing yourself, for that can lead to self-absorption and self-obsession. It's a danger inherent in any community devoted to a particular task, though perhaps more so in one that lacks a reference point beyond the individuals taking part.

Religious houses in a Christian tradition would be different, in theory at least. Ultimately, they don't exist for the wellbeing of the occupants, but for the glory of God...

In some ways, columns like this are more insidious than Brit Hume's remarks, because they seem to paint an accurate picture of what Buddhists on meditation retreats actually do.

It seems, from the guy's other columns, that he is at best a dilettante in the practice of Buddhism, and so apparently hasn't got to the point - after you do the meditation "to feel better for a while" - where you get the awareness that there's no "you" apart from the 10,000 things.

And finally, by painting Western Buddhism as all about meditation as therapy, Vernon is taking a stone and calling it "Buddhism" while not paying attention to the mountain from which it came.


Kyle Lovett said...

"by painting Western Buddhism as all about meditation as therapy, Vernon is taking a stone and calling it "Buddhism" while not paying attention to the mountain from which it came."

I think this is a common conception that those outside of the Buddhist practice have of Buddhism in general, that its all about the meditation. It's unfortunate that the massive volumes of teachings, let alone the other 7 paths seem so distant and vague to the outside world. In my latest round of finding Christians bashing Buddhists, invertiably, they come back to this tainted view of a person meditating his/her problems away, as if thats all there is to Buddhism. It's quite a sad shame.

Mumon said...

Yeah, they don't know more than a tiny piece of it...and never mentioned is that you can actually use what you do on the cushion to actually make a difference for the better for all. In fact, doing it for all is the only way.

Petteri Sulonen said...

How well do most people understand any spiritual tradition or religion that's not their own? I would wager that most people who aren't actually practitioners of the tradition in question believe that:

* Islam is about banging your head on a rug pointed at Mecca, growing a beard/wearing a headscarf, and wanting to convert and/or kill everybody who isn't one so you can go to Paradise to bang 72 virgins,
* Judaism is about not eating pig, having a bit of your weenie snipped off, wearing a funny little hat, and making acerbic remarks about stuff (plus, often, any amount of racist bullshit on top),
* Hinduism is about wearing towels and dancing at airports while banging a drum and going "Hare Hare Rama Rama Om,"
* Christianity is about not having sex, worshipping some guy nailed to a tree, and oppressing countries with brown people,
* What was Taoism again?

Buddhism is a complex religion, and most of its teaching makes no sense at all if you're not actually practicing it. The stuff isn't 'Lectures on Metaphysics' -- it's a set of things that instruct how to do something, and how to make sense of stuff that happens when you do it. If you're not interested in it and not actually doing it, it makes about as much sense as a bodybuilding manual for someone who's not interested in bodybuilding.

IOW, I'm a (relatively) happy panda as long as the prevalent misunderstandings are relatively benign. Outside virulently fundamentalist circles (which are pretty much nailed shut anyway) Buddhists are seen as slightly weird but generally harmless folks who mostly just want to be peaceful and nice to people while staring at a wall and ringing a gong from time time to time (and kung fu, which is almost, but not quite, as cool as ninjas). That makes us way better off than about any other major religion. If we can keep it that way, that's already awesome.

Which doesn't mean that poisonous bullshit like "Buddhists want to be their own gods" shouldn't be countered. But "Buddhism as therapy" isn't half bad. That's more or less the angle that finally got me to start sitting, as a matter of fact, and I'm sure that it applies to a lot of others. After you've been sitting for a while, you will realize that there's more to it than just that, but it's a bit unreasonable to expect everyone to get it from the get-go.

Anonymous said...


Mumon said...


Yeah, but "Buddhism as narcissism" is the secular equivalent of "Buddhists want to be their own gods." Moreover, having known at least a couple or three diagnosable pathological narcissists, I'd say I have a more visceral reaction to this picture of Buddhism.

I'd also agree with the Buddhism as therapy thing; I came to the practice seriously because I had notice that a sitting practice had changed my attitude in on a daily basis, and when I'd met Buddhists at a temple, they seemed to have it together better than anyone else.


I'm not fluent in written Chinese, so I'll assume babelfish is correct with a slight mod or two from me:

If you criticize other people, you do not have the time to give love.

It's important to say how things are, and to try to help without attacking people, personally. But if someone is calling medicine poison or vice versa, we should speak rightly.

Petteri Sulonen said...

Re Buddhism as narcissism: true, true. I think it's also a real, potential pitfall there -- if you're staring at your own navel, as it were, there is a risk that you start taking the idea that you're the center of the universe a bit too literally. That's one area where the teacher comes in, I think.

(BTW, I'm pretty sure that 完蛋 is a spambot -- there's a whole string of links in the line of dots at the end of the post.)

Mumon said...


Thanks. If that's a spam-bot, well it's an interesting challenge then to keep it on-topic.