Thursday, 24 May 2012

Asking Tough Questions

It seems that a key aspect of Progressive Buddhism should be asking tough questions about Buddhism and its place in the world today. For each of us, those questions may be a bit different. I, for example, don't see the necessity of as much ritual as is found in much Buddhism. A bit is great, but beyond that I don't get much from it. Others, however, will find great benefit in elaborate rituals, from the Anglicised puja ceremony of the Triratna Buddhist Community to chanting in Tibetan or Pali (etc) with monks, lamas, rinpoches etc.

Some people like all of the titles and 'levels' of discipleship. Others find them fundamentally incompatible with Western, Progressive notions of equality and democracy.

Some people take on the belief system, wholeheartedly; while others strip down or eliminate doctrines that don't fit with their worldview.

What are the tough questions today? How can we, using this site as a potential forum, discuss these in a way that avoids both dogmatism and merely arguing to be argumentative?


For my part, I would like to continue to see posts and discussions focusing on what is good, helpful, and useful in our lives and what we come to know through our experience. I was moved, for instance, by this from Will Simpson:

I just finished Stephen Batchelor's "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist" and am impressed by his writing style. Flipping back and forth between his life experience and the writings of the Pali Cannon, he presents a compelling narrative. I, like him, am compelled to acknowledge that I am certain about nothing. Really anything. My world view is dependent on my circumstances, the conditions that have already arisen. Given different circumstances, I would have a different world view. This is ennobling. I enjoyed the book and recommend it.


  1. This is fantastic, exactly the same sort of things I'm trying to tackle in my blog.

    Getting caught up in theology and obsessive chants is no different than being bound to a bible from any sort of religion.
    However the most meaningful truths are those of philosophic nature.
    I'll be following your site.
    In case you're interested, the blog I've recently started is

  2. Thank you for posting this Justin. When I started this blog 5 years ago, it was my hope that it would become a place where people could openly discuss Buddhism, modern evidence-based understanding and Western culture.

    My own journey took me from being a curious outsider to a practitioner, student of Buddhist philosophy (self-taught mainly), to being involved in a Western Soto Zen tradition (which I was attracted to as it seemed relatively free of metaphysical beliefs which I found unconvincing), to Rinzai Zen, to secular mindfulness, which I now teach on an occasional basis.

    I've always been quite a rational person, who finds evidence more compelling than religious imperatives for the need for faith, for example. While the Soto tradition I was with was not very religious in terms of metaphysical belief (not overtly at least), and while I could see some value in a certain amount of ritual and very clear value for meditation for many people, I came eventually to see much of it as a religious ideology, a cult (in the broader sense) of Shikantaza/Samadhi/zazen/'egoless' states. I found encouragement to neglect family in favour of spending long periods sitting on a cushion 'for the benefit of all beings' to be particularly galling ('saving the world by sitting on your arse' I call it).

    While most Buddhists I've heard express an opinion about it tend to dismiss it as a lesser, incomplete or desire/ego-driven practice, I found 'secular' mindfulness practice to be less ideological, less judgmental, more accepting, less hierarchical, more humble, more relevant and easier to integrate into everyday life than the Buddhist practice I'd been involved in.

    I also realised that those critics I had read and dismissed early on who said that Buddhism was pessimistic (for emphasising removal of suffering over the creation of pleasure, happiness and fulfillment) and that it was 'anti-worldly', were, in my experience, often correct.

    I realised too that while it is a life-transforming thing for many, as a naturally calm and mostly happy person, meditation is often not the most important thing for me to prioritise for a happy life. Especially when I have a baby to care for. (hence my absence)

    Having said that Buddhism has given and still gives much of great value.

  3. So here is a question that I ponder now and then: When is Buddhism no longer Buddhism? To answer, of course, one must first define what Buddhism is. Or would it be better—just as the Buddha himself did in many cases—define it in terms of what it is not?

    I don't have an answer here, only a question.

  4. Hi Paul,

    "When is Buddhism no longer Buddhism? "

    It's sometimes seen as poor form to answer a question with a question, but why does it matter? Surely the important question is 'what leads to greater lasting happiness and what does not?'. (The answer to your question would presumably depend on which definition of Buddhism one is using, it's a semantic point)

  5. "why does it matter?"

    Yes - in some way rituals, titles, doctrines, world views etc seems to be talking about "means" rather than "ends".. i guess we could discuss whether the means are appropriate, skillful etc but perhaps an emphasis on ends might make for a different discussion?

    Meditator/non meditator, traditionalist/modernist, these distinctions might not be relevant when we address other questions like those posed by Jack Kornfield:

    “In the end, just three things matter:

    How well we have lived
    How well we have loved
    How well we have learned to let go”

    1. I like some of the rituals from my root teacher because I have always viewed them as learning aids and aids to experience. From the simple act of bowing at certain times to chanting, it really helped me adopt and remain a student, rather than the ephemeral expert that newcomers view you as just because you have been practicing longer than they have. I have nothing more to offer than the last three lines of your post. Thanks for the post. I will carry that one with me.

  6. This may seem contradictory but in addition to the questions Jack Kornfield poses, this is the other relevant question for me - "As Buddhists and dhamma practitioners, I would love to see us having more conversations about what compassion and social change actually look like: locally, on the ground, in practice." ?


    How can/do we aspire, engage and make effort for social change yet not cling and grasp? How do we make a significant effort - perhaps devoting much of our life's energy to it and not get stuck in positions, views etc? How do we remain compassionate in the midst of so much injustice and suffering?

  7. Doctrine? Ritual? But these are the ideas and dances of puppets. If that's your thing, cool. Not for me. For me is this moment I exist in now. Let's not think too much. Let's quiet that inner monkey and taste, feel, breathe, dream . . . and let the universe bestow its magic into our hearts. Because it's always there, just usually out of reach, unless we are awake and quiet. Anyway, that's my two or three cents.

    I have a novel called This Moment Is My Home. You can learn more about it and me at

  8. Thanks for posting this .. I always prefer that traditions of Buddhism always emphasize the rituals, chantings and prayers than devout to the core teachings of Buddha. Those forms of puja and prayer are introduced into the Buddhism to fight with Hinduism in those olden days .. But in this modern world we don't need to concentrate much on pujas and prayers, rather we can make it simple Buddhism, practising the core teachings of Buddha.

  9. Glad to see you're still around Justin (Shonin). I think your experience is similar to that of many people navigating Buddhism in the West. I find that while my own practice is similarly very secular and/or stripped down, my interest in 'Buddhism' as big amorphous human enterprise is somewhat more conservative.

    Paul, it does raise the question for me as well: When is it (?) no longer Buddhist? This can be important on two fronts, I think. First, 'Buddhist' is a label we (?) choose to attach to ourselves. If we do so, why? Similarly, if we do lots of 'Buddhisty' stuff and choose not to identify as Buddhists, why not? Even if you somehow operate on the magically enlightened nondualist level, you still have to communicate with us unenlightened beings; and unless we're on the verge of our own awakening, you can't just hold up flowers and shit and expect us to 'get it'. You need to use words (categories, labels, etc) that we'll understand. And you need to use them in a coherent way.

    Second, it's important to know our history. Buddhism has always been infludence by non-Buddhist ideas and practices. Some have been rejected, some have been transformed, others adopted wholesale over the years and through different traditions. It's important that we can understand that things like karma and rebirth are not Buddhist inventions, but that they are ideas that the Buddha adopted and transformed to his own (our own?) unique understanding. 'Getting wealthy leads to Nirvana,' is an idea that the Buddha seems to have opposed and traditions have basically opposed it too. If contemporary Buddhist teachers, cough, cough, Geshe Michael Roach, seem to be suggesting this, we have a responsibility to question them.