Monday, 12 November 2007

Obstacles to Practice & Progressive Buddhism?

My apologies for the lengthy disappearance. I had to retreat a bit in order to keep various commitments and obligations, and to keep a modicum of peace and stability in the midst of recent professional turmoil.

I recently sat down to list (ostensibly for the mindfulness group I’ve been developing on campus) what kind of obstacles we can experience in our practice. As I was putting these down it quickly became apparent that these are nothing but my own challenges to practice. All of them. Persistently. Hence, the list became an inventory of obstacles to my own practice, and a good way to look deeply at the same.

I thought they also made sense as obstacles to a progressive Buddhism, or as I prefer, to a “zen humanism.” I offer them here as an initial foray for us to contemplate and expand, and repost.

Basic Obstacles/Challenges to Practice

  1. Either/Or Thinking: This kind of polarization is particularly unhelpful as I often come across folks who repeat things like, “a good practice HAS to be like this,” or who make claims about “Buddhism” or what being “Buddhist” is or is not. In any case, a practice marked by either/or thinking would seem to be pretty limiting for exploring the self and for transforming suffering. A progressive engaged Buddhism might also conceive of this as a need to be explicitly self-conscious about its own assumptions.

  2. Fear of Truth: This refers to the fear of facing the insight that emerges from deep looking. Often this fear becomes so intense that the insight from practice is distorted in order to make it fit with one’s own cherished assumptions. Discomfort with what we face about ourselves is unavoidable. A progressive Buddhism must welcome bracing insight about its own assumptions, beliefs, and claims.

  3. Seeing Only What We Expect or Have Learned to See: The tyranny of assumptions and expectations that are unacknowledged, or that we have been conditioned to expect, is enormous. A progressive Buddhism must look deeply to challenge attachments to “the old country,” or this or that master, or particular practice.

  4. Intolerance for Change, Not Knowing, and Uncertainty: Nothing kills a practice like holding on with a death grip to long-held assumptions, not being willing to say “I don’t know,” or needing to be certain about everything. A progressive Buddhism needs to exemplify skillful harmony between affirmation and epistemic agnosticism.

  5. Overclassification, Categorization: Attempting to fit everything into boxes and easy categorization systems as a way to make sense of them. This is the way human beings work, but we ought to consider that easy categorization does not wisdom render and immediately imposes a narrowing of circumference. When we engage in simple categorization we stand to engage in two fallacies: the fallacy of composition (taking the part for the whole), and the fallacy of division (taking the whole for the part).

  6. Seeking Control, Being Dominant: Some folks and groups need to be dominant, to control, and to assert themselves or their beliefs. Seen from another perspective this translates into inability to be receptive and non-controlling. A progressive Buddhism need not be “top dog” neither in cultural wars nor among other “Buddhist” groups, even as it shares its understanding and/or insight.

  7. Need to Conform: The counterpart of seeking control, the need to conform translates often into playing it safe, and not challenging ourselves or the information we encounter. A progressive Buddhism ought to blaze new paths and not be afraid to confront challenges.

  8. Over-Respect for Authority: For individuals this refers to being too much of a follower, and unwillingness to question “authority.” The balance that must be struck is between reification of the self on one hand, and being too compliant and submissive on the other. We must remain open to wisdom and insight from various sources, while seeking to ground wisdom in light of our own practice. A progressive Buddhism can find wisdom in venerated masters, but must also carefully look broadly at other sources of wisdom and challenge “authority.”

  9. Need to Challenge Authority: The counterpart to over-respect for authority, the need to confront and fight authority or the knowledge of others can be quite a detriment because it usually means a reduced circle of wisdom sources, and a “too healthy” belief in ourselves. A progressive Buddhism must challenge authority but not just for fighting authority’s sake.

  10. Eschewing Tradition: This refers to the easy dismissal of tradition and the seeking of thrills or the “new.” In short, we must be careful not to fall for the “latest and greatest” craze as it might signal fetishization and faddishness rather than open-ness to new ways of being. A progressive Buddhism needs a connection to tradition(s) as a way to form and solidify fellowship, while remaining unfettered by over-respect for the authority of the “traditional.”



  1. A great list. I would certainly say the ten items are core challenges/obstacles to my practice.

    Also, I think these are the bumps in the road progressive Buddhism is confronted with more centrally than the better-established Buddhist traditions.

    Ideas here correspond to integral theory, which doesn't surprize me. At its best [or, perhaps I should say when it is rightly applied], integral theory is objective, accepting beyond tolerance, and freely enabled to see others' points of view.

    At the same time, however, I would say [and this, too, is a part of integral theory], there needs to be an acceptance that there are such things as rankings. Some things are certainly better than others; some things are good, others are bad. But we mustn't be intractable at holding on to our assessments; we must maintain a sense of skepticism and uncertainty. And be able to recognize and embrace any wisdom that might come flying at us from unexpected sources.

  2. Thanks Nacho,

    To me this seems like a well-balanced list of potential problems.



  3. What I'd like to know is how you specifically propose that a Buddhist, or anyone really, observe 9 and 10. I'm not skeptical of them either. I think there is a bigger stake in the Buddha's teachings in how we understand and observe 10 specifically than your placing it at the bottom of this list suggests.

    What does the "traditional" even mean if we do not observe it with its traditional authority? How are we to take the Buddha's teachings seriously, but not too seriously, when their seriousness is precisely what makes them register for us?

    I think that we must avoid dualistic thinking even here, when the question is between what is traditional and what is not, or even what's "too traditional" and what is not.

    Perhaps Buddha's teachings take us most emphatically here, because it is the recognition of authority (not merely in the sense of a person of authority, like a king or a police-officer or a monk, but in the abstract sense of reality or experience as authority) in such a way that avoids or even makes impossible clinging that we are at task to figure out.

  4. I am a Western Zen Buddhist (if I must use labels) and I am really liking your blog.

    This list is wonderful. You put so much realism into them and I think that is important if one really wants to investigate what Buddhism means to the individual.

    I think that a big foundation for many Western Buddhists is found in the Kalama Sutra. It is a big part of what and why I believe and follow upon the middle path of Buddhism.

    I have run into some elitism within Asian Buddhism and those who claim that a Western Buddhism couldn't be "real" Buddhism. Many say this because American culture is so different from Asian culture.

    To this I say, the Asian cultures have put their own twist upon the Buddha's teachings so why wouldn't it be the same in the west? How can one culture's influence be any better or worse than a different cultures?

    I find that the beauty within Buddhism is it's fluid nature. That ability to adapt to new cultures while maintaining the foundation of taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha. As well as practicing the Eight Fold Path and taking refuge in the Four Noble Truths.

    These things are agreed upon by all Buddhists. That is what unites us and I hate to see the older Buddhist cultures trying to force other cultures into how they see Buddhism.