Recently seen on Facebook, a self-described Buddhist (New Mexico version of a Shaolin monk, but married, if you can figure that out), who chooses to believe that “we are all eternally spiritually connected beings as the universe in the process of manifesting love, health and compassion”.
Compassion, as a poster mentioned, is of course a good thing, but generally this is the downright opposite of everything conventional Buddhists are taught to understand.
The universe we live in is on fire – this is one of the first teachings that the Buddha gave. It’s a slaughterhouse. The earth we walk is a graveyard. War, murder, torture, plague, famine, cruelty, failure, disappointment. These are the threads of which our lives are woven. It’s a mad merry-go-round, a fairground waltzer, driven by the engine of hatred, grasping and stupidity. According to the Buddha we can get off, but otherwise it’s round and round, up and down from time without beginning until time without end.
Anyone can see most of that for themselves. Getting off is the Buddhist bit.
It would be lovely if everything was getting better and better, nicer and nicer, healthier and healthier all the time on an upward spiral to the eternal sunshine of God’s heaven, which is somehow supposed to make up for all the shit that it comes from. But the evidence is against it.
Before now I have said that there is no such thing as American Buddhism. It has in part been fun to annoy people who think that there is. Arguing the point is – obviously, I think – foolish.
One the one hand it is clear that there is lots of Buddhism in America, and has been for many decades – since about the time of the goldrush, it would seem. And the variety is huge.
On the other hand, it is equally clear that there is no one school or organisation that could claim to speak for even a high proportion of American Buddhists, let alone all of them.
I have never been to America, so I cannot speak from first hand experience, but for reasons that don’t concern this post I did sign up to watch some of the “Tricycle / BuddhaFest Online International Buddhist Film Festival”. It had a quite unique flavour, reflecting as it does the trend that has sometimes been given, or even claimed, the title “American Buddhism”. For detail, of course, you can look at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_the_United_States.
First, I want to acknowledge the positive: some of the films contained beautiful images, and some were both interesting and informative. Most, however, were films for their respective enthusiasts: “Zen and the West”, “Bon and the West”, “Precious Guru” for the Nyingma-leaning Tibetophiles (like me), “Music Monks” depicting the struggle to reconstitute and re-establish musical tradition in a Chinese Monastery, “The Geshema is Born” telling of the struggle to get a proper, high-level Buddhist intellectual training for nuns. And more.
But – and here anyone is welcome to argue that this is just a sign of what a negative person I am – I felt that I was essentially eating white bread, with little smears of margarine or jam. I offer you, without any criticism of the content at all, the titles of some of what are advertised as “wisdom talks”: “Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World”, “Evolving Compassion in Times of Crisis”, “The Art of Solitude”, “Finding Calm and Contentment in Turbulent Times”. All very nice, all very worthy, generally given by people who have been “on the scene” for many years and who may very well be much more informed than I am.
I am not, I hope it is clear, for a moment suggesting that it would not be a good idea to be more mindful, more compassionate, more able to accept ourselves and find contentment. The world would probably be much better if those attitudes were more highly valued and more widely cultivated.
So what is my problem? It’s probably better expressed by the spoof-spiritual videos of people like JP Sears than by words of mine. https://youtu.be/9FEOFB3m2m8
This happens most mornings. He waits for me outside the lhakhang, then generally bumps and rolls around during the prostrations. When I move on from that he settles down, either more-or-less on top of my feet, or just next to my thigh for the less active parts of the practice.
Not only within the Buddhist context (but certainly in that context) there is a tension – sometimes a conflict – between what are called “gradualist” approaches and “subitist” (sudden) approaches.
But the opposite of “gradual” is not “sudden”, at least not in this context. It is, rather obviously, “non-gradual”.
Those who practice Mahamudra or Dzogchen don’t get sudden enlightenment with no work, no preparation, no effort, no good fortune. Generally they do similar foundation practices, purification practices, practices to increase merit at those who see themselves on a gradual path. But these things are done in a different light, as expressions of the underlying, inalienable presence of the enlightened mind, not as the pedestrian performance of a strict, sequential recipe.
The difference is quite subtle, and it’s easy to mistake the one for the other.
Early last century my grandfather was something of a whizz in brass, and contributed help develop extrusion processes for that metal. Being lucky enough myself to hail from Birmingham, I have enormous respect for people who can do things with metal. So I was very impressed by the sheer engineering involved in making this huge statue of Guru Rinpoche in Bhutan. I’d seen a few pictures before, and this video is a few years old, but I only stumbled across it the other day.
You can watch the video at Youtube – it’s not quite 12 minutes long, or read a little bit more at Bhutan Travel and elsewhere.
This is not the first time HHDL has spoken about this, but it has received a fair bit of media attention following on from a talk he gave recently to university students in India, so perhaps a “shout-out” is appropriate here.
“In seeking to balance preserving tradition and modern development, His Holiness suggested that the custom of recognising reincarnate lamas may have had its day. He remarked that no such custom existed in India. There is no reincarnation of the Buddha or Nagarjuna. He wondered what place this institution has in a democratic society.”