Monday, 20 September 2010

What is the Essential Meaning of Buddhism?

(Cross Posted at The Reformed Buddhist)

A monk asked, "What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?" Mazu said, "What is the meaning of this moment?"
One of the greatest dangers I see as an emerging trend regarding Buddhist practice is this notion that Buddhism is the means to obtain an end beyond that of overcoming dukkha. Whether it be a pursuit of happiness, or metaphysical attainments, or political goals, or social justice or even racial parity, these kinds of expansions on Buddhist teachings are misguided and very much beside the point. True, I as well as many others acknowledge that Buddhist practice has made for a happier, healthier disposition; but happiness as a goal in itself is just like many of these other strivings, just more attachment and more delusion.
Barbara O'Brien talked a little bit about this pursuit of happiness in a recent post she made:
"Here in the West, happiness -- or an appearance of happiness, anyway -- is such a strong cultural expectation that to admit one is not happy is admitting to a kind of personal failure. So people wrap themselves in whatever they think is supposed to bring happiness and then suppress the little voice telling them it's not working."
Indeed, Mumon discusses some of these same types of issues in a post he made critiquing a recent article by Ethan Nichtern on the Huffington Post that analyzes the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek take on the expectations of a Buddhist practice:
"To Žižek, it is the rapacious "capitalist game" that's the bête noire of human existence and Buddhism is yet another opiate, a palliative, that does nothing to remedy the fundamental issue. This is horse feces as far as this Buddhist is concerned; because regardless of whether or not the capitalist game continues, regardless of whether or not the revolution comes, regardless of whether or not Richard Gere saves Tibet (and wins valuable prizes in doing so), suffering will continue. And dammit, it's incumbent to do something, and if you're not paying attention, you can't do squat. Political battles must be fought. Yeah, capitalism is inherently unstable. But I think Žižek, like many people like him, is so alienated from himself that he doesn't recognize there's a plethora of human functions besides economic and political ones. I have that impression of Žižek's alienation because he posits a straw-man "Western Buddhism" as a foil for his Marxist Critique."
As Mumon later points out, even Nichtern, who I have great respect for with his ID project, posits Buddhist practice as some sort of game changer, something meant to bring about radical social change, or at least the great desire to do so. Nichtern writes:
"Practical transformation is what Buddhist practice is all about. It's also about changing the world. To practice meditation consistently is to push back hard against the tidal wave of materialism that is quite literally killing the planet.
Personally, I haven't met many people who report having realized the radical state of self-acceptance. The ones who have are powerful agents of global change. Does the kind of self-acceptance which Buddhist meditation techniques systematically cultivate in the individual really change the world? Well, no, not alone. Zizek is right about that, as well as the danger of thinking that acceptance is the end of journey and believing in any way that we are "in it but not of it."
I understand and share his concern about keeping people interested, but I'm sorry Mr. Nichtern, "It's also about changing the world" is both subjective speculation and quite 'putting the cart before the horse.' The world will change whether we want it to or not. Furthermore, this "tidal wave of materialism" is only one of millions of other difficulties humans have had to face. I totally agree with Mumon's assessment of Nichtern here when he writes, "He wants to keep 'em once he's gotten 'em in the door. In other words, this Buddhist teacher is applying a goal, a gaining idea to his practice as teacher."

I don't want this to come across as yet another rant against politics or social justice, as these are all fine undertakings, just as much as opening a soup kitchen, teaching a child to ride a bike or making dinner for the family. But when we attempt to justify these endeavors as the purpose or goal of Buddhist teachings, then the practice becomes something other than Buddhism. They are at best, distractions from our practice and are just more squirrel mind running ramped. And at worst, they are delusional additions to Buddhist teachings in order to create an artificial goal of happiness, or social change or whatever the extra desires may be. At the end of the day, this is no better than the gadgets that beep enlightenment into your ears, or that rather disturbing "law of attraction" bullshit or a $50,000 dollar Dokusan to buy expedient enlightenment.
I haven't been big on quotes lately, but I thought of two that fit here rather well.
My daily activities are not unusual,
I'm just naturally in harmony with them.
Grasping nothing, discarding nothing...
Supernatural power and marvelous activity -
Drawing water and carrying firewood. ~Layman Pang
Love yourself and watch -
Today, tomorrow, always.
First establish yourself in the way,
Then teach,
And so defeat sorrow.
To straighten the crooked
You must first do a harder thing -
Straighten yourself.
You are your only master.
Who else? ~ The Buddha from the Dhammapada


  1. "But when we attempt to justify these endeavors as the purpose or goal of Buddhist teachings, then the practice becomes something other than Buddhism."

    I agree. But they can be an outcome of Buddhist teachings. As stated Buddhism becomes a rationalization. As outcome Buddhism is a foundation. Big difference and one that few seem to notice.

  2. I respect you enormously, O Mighty Kyle, but I think I must dissent. Teaching a child to ride a bike if done NOT as an act of practice, but as an act of teaching a child to ride a bike IS an act of practice.

    That is, if doing the thing is doing the thing, then it is an act of practice, and only then.

    And thus "A monk asked, 'What is the essential meaning of Buddhism?' Mazu said, 'What is the meaning of this moment?'" is profoundly true, only if you're in the moment and not overly much, then, noticing when it's profoundly true.

    But I could be wrong.

    I'm not keen on the 'love yourself and watch' thing, either, but then I don't have your beard.

    But, yeah. Watch, sure. Pay attention. Attention, attention, attention.

    But people can fix the world, too. Indeed, that's the only way it will get fixed. But, indeed, let us not attach Buddhism to that. Yeah. Put me in NellaLou's camp on this.

  3. Good post Kyle. There are a couple of points I'd like to raise though.

    Overcoming dukkha and attaining happiness are the same thing. It's not the same sort of conditional happiness one gets by being given a Porsche. It's a happiness arising from freedom from conditions. Yes 'the pursuit of happiness' can be an attachment, however with the possible exception of Soto Zen, a provisional attachment to a goal (ie. awakening) is usually considered pragmatic. But, yes, any attachment can become an obstacle if it's too strong or handled unskillfully.

    As for social change, I think that most Buddhists see this not as the goal of Buddhism but as a manifestation of the compassion that arises with practice. When they become tangled into a 'Buddhist Ideology' then this may be a problem.

    As for Žižek, yes he misses the point, but what do we expect from such a strident idealist?

  4. @Nella - I agree, and you are right, they many times are the outcome.

    @Tom - Thanks. I miss your blog posts dude!

    @Justin - Perhaps the happiness I am refering to being more akin to temporary happiness as gained by pleasure, as opposite from saddness, is not the same happiness, from liberation of mind that you are referring too.

  5. Well put, Kyle. I agree. And thanks for the interesting links.

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