Saturday, January 08, 2011

On the other hand, why the heck not adopt Eastern things?

Via Reverend Fisher's blog I came across this piece in the Guardian announcing that you don't need the "right" kind of zafu to be a Buddhist.  That in turn lead to Fisher's interview with one Miles Neale on "McMindfulness."  The author of the Guardian piece writes:

Unlike many western Buddhists, I don't feel a strong connection with the East. I've never been to India or Tibet, don't get excited about Japanese tea ceremonies, and am usually filled with irritation and embarrassment when fellow westerners greet me by saying "Namaste" or in some other way acting as if they're from Bodhgaya rather than Brent Cross or Bangor. While deeply grateful to the lineages through which Buddhist practices are taking root in the west, my attraction to them is primarily their clear and direct transmission of insights and instructions that speak to me practically, ethically and spiritually. The fact that they came from Asia seems unimportant.
So reading Dzogchen Ponlop's new book Rebel Buddha gave me heart. Ponlop is a well-respected Tibetan teacher, steeped in the cultural heritage of his tradition, and yet his central premise is that western Buddhists risk making fools of themselves if their practice is based on attachment to foreign rituals that were adopted wholesale by spiritual seekers in the 60s. "If the Buddha's teaching is to remain relevant," says Ponlop, "we can't hold on to our hippie-era presentation of it... it is senseless to hang on to the forms of a traditional, Asian Buddhist culture and pretend we can fully inhabit that experience in a meaningful way."
Ponlop notes wryly that he has encountered students who think they can't meditate properly unless they're sitting on precisely the "right" kind of zafu – they moan if asked to go out into the fresh air and practise sitting on a park bench, as if that experience wasn't enlightened enough. If the cause of suffering is fixation, as the second noble truth declares, then that must apply to fixation on Buddhism as much as anything else. It seems the human psyche, with its habitual patterns of grasping, avoidance and delusion, is highly skilled at turning gold into manure...

Ponlop isn't saying that the traditions themselves should be jettisoned, or that westerners can just go ahead and create their own version of Buddhism according to what suits – the danger there is the creation of a hollow shell that reflects spiritual immaturity rather than real understanding (see the recent discussion here on Hinduism and yoga, and the trend towards what Miles Neale has smartly called McMindfulness. Instead Ponlop is pointing us to the use of the meditative method as a way to forge a fresh embodiment of genuine wisdom for our culture and age.

Neale says:

Meditation is undergoing a similar surge of interest, albeit twenty years younger then the yoga boom. Everyone seems to want to learn and practice mindfulness. There are mindfulness workshops everywhere, mindfulness techniques for this condition and mindfulness for that condition, every other book is on mindfulness, and every third therapist wants to study mindfulness and use it with their patients. And like I’ve already said, that’s great—the more mindfulness the better—I stand by it and want to encourage it.
But I also see a kind of compartmentalized, secularized, watered-down version of mindfulness being offered, which I call “McMindfulness” in a forthcoming article of mine. Meditation for the masses, drive-through style, stripped of its essential ingredients, prepackaged and neatly stocked on the shelves of the commercial self-help supermarkets. From my perspective, McMindfulness lacks the integrity of the tradition and lineage from which it originates. My fear is that in wanting to procure meditation from Buddhism and the postures (asana) from yoga, we may be throwing the baby out with the bath water.
You see the Buddha didn’t just teach mindfulness, and Patanjali didn’t just teach postures. These great, enlightened sages taught the power tools within a psychological context, sandwiched neatly like the cream of an Oreo between ethics and wisdom. You can just have the cream—it’s lovely—but its more delicious as a cookie. People teaching and studying mindfulness these days typically focus exclusively on awareness training—you know, calming down, focusing on the breath, relating to thoughts and emotions with impartiality. This is incredible, and, as the research indicates, it does help to reduce symptoms and offer relief. But what happens when the high of the yoga class ends and the calm of the meditation session is over? You have to go back to the ordinary suffering of your life. Its like leaving your house a mess when you leave for a vacation—sitting on the beach for seven days is great, you feel rejuvenated, but you have to come home to the mess.

Neale is right in that there's more to Buddhism than meditation - much more, and the folks from the East taught that.   He's spot on that "McMindfulness" lacks the integrity of the tradition and lineage from which mindfulness originates.   On the other hand, it's not bad to point out that the tradition evolved as it passed from India to China by way of contact with Taoism.  But I say his point's right in another way: the integrity of the tradition and lineage through which this stuff passed suffers most in the watering down of skill required to put the ethics and other aspects of Buddhism into practice off the cushion.
Then there's the issue of, for want of a better term, globalization, which might, in this case, be the flip side of Orientalism.  There are folks like me that stand between (or among?) West(s) and Easts(s): my wife is Chinese;  many of my colleagues are from Asia; I'm conversant in Japanese (except to the Yakuza).  I train with Eastern and Western folk, both professionally and in the Zendo.  It was through a Japanese master calligrapher that fired my interest in the subject. (This was admittedly, long after exposure to the art at Mount Tremper, where someone asked that I suspend my judgments about whether I could do such things.)

In the course of my very short, very unskilled  practice of 書道 I learned many things can make something go wrong: the orientation of the paper, the layout of the tools for doing the writing, the amount of ink on the brush; in short, there's many variables that have to come together just so in order to have any kind of skilled work result.   If I was to dismiss this whole practice as "too Eastern" for a Long Island kid of Eastern European descent, there's mountains of things I could never begin to learn.
Practice is where you find it.  Maybe some of those folks who buy into "McMindfulness" will find the real deal, just as some of those kids who saw Bruce Lee movies were inspired to train with real martial arts masters.  If my son gets an inkling of the value of disciplined practice from a Jackie Chan movie, I won't complain.  Attachment is a two way street.

I do find it slightly ironic though that Shambhala Sun Space, of all places, is discussing "McMindfulness." If "McMindfulness" will come from anywhere, it might come from "mainstream" "Western Buddhist" media, which to this guy standing in the middle, looks a tad Orientalist to me.

Then again, I was like that once myself.  Japan was the place from where my father went on his business trips.  It was special in the 1960s. So people grow and evolve and change.


Ed Rowe said...

I love reading your blog even though - perhaps because - sometimes I have no idea what you are talking about, but I still enjoy it. There's always something to latch on to. I'd be interested to hear more of your thoughts on 'the ethics ... off the cushion':

'his point's right in another way: the integrity of the tradition and lineage through which this stuff passed suffers most in the watering down of skill required to put the ethics and other aspects of Buddhism into practice off the cushion.'

Mumon said...

Just saw the comment here; I should read more of my own blog myself I suppose.

Anyway, I'll try to write simpler in the future.