Back to Basics

Dharma 101, this issue’s special section (p. 40), includes some very basic questions, but that doesn’t limit it to beginners. There’s nothing elementary in asking about karma, enlightenment, emptiness, or in asking, “if there is no self, who is born, who dies, who meditates?" They’re introductory questions not only because they tend to bedevil the newly engaged practitioner but also because of their capacity to introduce a practitioner to the true nature of his or her own mind. But when we hear the question, “I’ve been practicing for ten years and I'm still angry, what's the matter with me?” we can appreciate the humor of the phrase Dharma 101 and the extent to which it is a rubric of convenience.

Concepts of evolution, progress, or modernity beg for reexamination when we return to the perennial questions. Arising as they do with no glitz or glamour, with nothing special or new, their innate authenticity alone sets them apart from the fashions and perks that have accompanied so much of the popularization of Buddhism in the West.

Americans in particular cherish progress, maintaining their cultural identity by trying to stay ahead of the curve. Engaged Buddhism, meditation as therapy or for stress reduction, gender equality, internet dharma, attacking the authority of the guru with the moral imperative of the Revolutionary Army going up against King George, have all been touted as “the cutting edge of Buddhism.” The pervasive dismissal of monasticism as a retro throwback to feudalism or as a holding room for sexual irregulars is also championed as an imprimatur of spiritual progress.

I don’t question the need to investigate every aspect of Buddhist traditions, or to develop alternative modes. Yet there remains something disturbing in what feels like an attachment to, or an unqualified delight in, pursuing the tradition of the new. The Buddha said, when asked what he was up to, “I am here to teach suffering and the end of suffering.” From this perspective, a celebration of culture—from the advent of the wheel to the World Wide Web, from a Dickensian society to the ideals of democracy—remains tempered by vast suffering. Continuous suffering. Suffering with no end in sight.

Buddhism in the West first flourished with the counterculture. Perhaps this blip on the map of time accounts for the continued pursuit of what appears to be radical. Yet the radicals of the counterculture did not embody the original meaning of the word radical which means “root” (Latin radix) or “source”, thus relating to origin or foundation. Only later, when it was used for extracting the root, did it become associated with opposition.

“Buddhism without Beliefs” (p. 18), excerpts from Stephen Batchelor’s forthcoming book of the same title, returns us to the root, engaging us not only in the most basic investigations of self, life, and death, but in the spacious and fundamental non-knowingness from which these questions take shape. Yet while the teachings of the Buddha remain the wellspring for this contemporary guide to awakening, they are jerked clean from the institutionalization of the Buddhist religion. According to Batchelor, Buddhism over time “has tended to lapse into religiosity.” To help redress the airless accretions of unexamined belief systems, Batchelor advocates a profound and compassionate agnosticism. “An agnostic Buddhist,” he writes, “would not regard the dharma as a source of 'answers’ to questions of where we came from, where we are going, what happens after death. [He is]...not a 'believer’...and in this sense is not 'religious.’”

By mining the fields at the juncture of dharma and existentialism, Buddhism without Beliefs advances the debate on how much of the Asian cultural context can be discarded without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In contrast, however, to the chorus of Western voices that offer new social forms to transform, update, and modernize Buddhist institutions, Batchelor suggests the “radical” alternative of returning to basics—not just to questions, but to the very heart and mind of inquiry.

—Helen Tworkov

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