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Experimental Buddhism

A new century calls for new approaches.John Nelson

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One of the most profound developments to emerge from the 20th century affects the lives of billions of people yet remains largely unnoticed. Alongside dramatic social and political changes, technological and scientific discoveries, and new systems of transportation and communication, historians of the future will surely recognize how the relative freedom to first interpret and then shape one’s own identity has empowered human existence. Familiar frameworks of the self formed by ethnicity, neighborhood, race, and family (to name a few) are still present but have been diminished through a variety of factors unique to the 20th century. So thoroughly have liberal democratic societies adopted an experimental self as fundamental to notions of what it means to be a person, we rarely consider how significantly this concept has altered forms of social and cultural organization. The ability to select, fashion, and then continually augment our identity in ways we hope are positive has come to dominate how we conceive of and construct our lives.

Nowhere is this freedom more evident than in our relationship with religion. Of course, there are many parts of the world—including the West—where religious institutions still have sufficient clout to arbitrate morality and ethics, legitimate authority, sanction social causes and political movements, and even validate the findings of physicians and scientists. But in societies that attempt to separate religion and politics through the rule of law, those powers have been limited. For the first time in human history, hundreds of millions of people are now able to choose for themselves which religious ideas to believe in, or whether to believe in religious propositions at all. A 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center on “Changes in Religious Affiliation in the U.S.” indicated that 44 percent of all Americans change religion at some point in their lives—which may explain how you came to be reading this article in a publication designed to accommodate diverse interests in Buddhism.

There is an impressive range of options from which to choose a spiritual or religious path, and an individual’s first encounter with the variety of Buddhist traditions can be daunting. Before an individual “becomes” Zen, Vajrayana, Pure Land, or any of the other schools now accessible globally through actual and virtual sites, most newcomers to Buddhism as well as many born into a Buddhist tradition, inhabit a loose category of what I call “experimental Buddhists.” The adjective “experimental” calls particular attention to the ways Buddhist traditions are negotiated by a variety of persons, then implemented selectively and pragmatically over time. Through trial and error, relevant concepts or methods are sought, examined, and then applied to any number of agendas, some psychological and spiritual, others social and political. This isn’t an idealized Buddhism of the monastery or popular culture, but one fully engaged with contemporary sensibilities and situations.

Here are five characteristics of experimental Buddhism that may shift your paradigms a little. They point to correspondences between our unique historical era—where unprecedented global flows of information, people, and money have become familiar—and the ways in which religions like Buddhism must accommodate these new influences. Applicable both to Buddhist institutions and practitioners (committed, casual, and other- wise), the features that follow first arose in the late twentieth century but have “gone viral” in the last decade.

First and foremost, an experimental approach to Buddhism involves positioning. Like a GPS monitoring system, we attempt to navigate social, cultural, economic, and ecological complexities to indicate where we actually are, and not where we imagine or wish ourselves to be. An experimental approach acknowledges the histories and traditions of multiple Buddhist paths, but it insists on locating individuals, teachers, practices, and institutions within “multiple modernities”—those alternate political and social orders (think of China or Singapore) that envision progress in ways resonant with—but also different from—the West. Given our dependence on global systems of transportation, finance, instantaneous communications, and environmental sustainability, it would be a world-denying stance (and hypocritical as well) to reject or shy away from our distinctive place in history. It is simply not plausible for contemporary Buddhist practices emphasizing interdependence, compassion, lovingkindness, and mindfulness to propose maps of liberation that emphasize the local without setting it within regional and global contexts.

The second characteristic of an experimental practice is the freedom to shape our own spiritual or religious biographies. “Agency” is a well-traveled term in the social sciences indicating a creative process whereby culturally conditioned individuals select, test, and then verify a plan or process that they think will improve their circumstances. In an experimental Buddhist context, this means synthesizing teachings and methods to try to form an integrated stance that can negotiate perceived problems and challenges (which may themselves be conditioned by global forces and local contingencies). Traditional authority within Buddhist denominations—based as they are upon doctrines, teachers, lineages, sacred sites, and so forth—has been slow to adjust to this historical shift. As a result, the agency of common individuals who skillfully employ the media, wield economic influence, or advance new technologies has impacted most Buddhist traditions in significant (though not always positive) ways.

Since many Westerners tend to view religious authority with some caution, a third feature is the wary negotiation that occurs before making a commitment to participate in and support a particular Buddhist tradition. We tell ourselves we won’t get fooled again by religion, and begin assessing concepts, doctrines, teachers, practices, and institutions to imagine how a specific version of the dharma will play out in the “field experiment” of our lives. This assessment is common among lay practitioners, of course, but we find it increasingly among priests, monks, and other religious specialists. In the research I’ve been doing among progressive Buddhist priests in Japan, there is great creativity (often coupled with dogged determination) in rebooting the application of ancient temples and teachings to become relevant for people living in one of the world’s most advanced consumer cultures. While the concerts, cafés, websites, symposia, and social welfare–related initiatives these priests organize and promote are not always successful, at least no one can accuse them of inaction or indifference.

A fourth attribute of experimental Buddhism is its rational and keen observance of practice grounded in everyday life. From an initial hypothesis about the utility of an idea or method to the testing we perform as the results become apparent, an experimental Buddhism returns us not to the meditation hall but to the messy conditions of contemporary social orders. While that may sound cliché, there’s one important plot twist: Those hoping to make Buddhist teachings or practices transform their lives know that a subjective judgment about their progress, even when it comes from a venerated teacher, is not enough. Society, and not the temple or monastery, is becoming the ultimate testing ground and arbiter for what constitutes the viability and effectiveness of a Buddhist practice that “works.”

Some may consider this world-affirming approach ironic and perhaps mistaken, since it seems to undermine the whole point of stepping back from social conditioning to investigate one’s mind and emotions. An occasional retreat from society may be necessary to maintain a foundation for this kind of practice, but the historical record indicates that, like the Buddha himself, monks in early sanghas were constantly on the move and interacted with all segments of society. Like the lay sage Vimalakirti chiding the monk Shariputra for “indulging” in tranquil forest meditation, experimental Buddhists know that leaving a controlled setting and venturing into everyday life situations exposes their practice to considerable uncertainty. The initial steps of learning meditation may have a great deal of what scientists call “internal validity,” whereby one’s efforts function smoothly within a structured environment. However, the same practice may lack “external validity” when the location is not a quiet room lit by candlelight but a noisy city street or an intensely busy office.

Despite an intention to remain calm and centered in the midst of stress—based on what one may have read or been taught about Buddhism, or learned vicariously through the experience of others—we really don’t know what’s going to happen when we are confronted by stimuli over which we have little control. Will a coworker’s constant yammering about his dysfunctional relatives elicit the usual feelings of annoyance? Or, because we are learning to disassociate negative emotions from the stimuli that trigger them, will we see his plight compassionately, as if his dilemma were our own? Will the feelings of helplessness associated with distant wars and human rights violations leave us dispirited and depressed, or will we draw upon teachings of interdependence and summon a resolve to become involved? Through a sort of call-and-response dynamic, whereby ideally our practice enables us to be proactive to experience (rather than simply reactive), we gain proficiency in navigating the challenges life provides.

Finally, an experimental practice embraces the continual reinvention of not just Buddhism but all religious traditions. Whether their leaders like it or not, religious organizations have entered a historical moment when conventional teachings, methods, and institutional structures have little choice but to exit traditional contexts and fashion a new significance to engage the lives of contemporary men and women. Some types of Buddhism have done this better than others, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that a number of Buddhist teachers and administrators have drawn attention to their respective approaches based on what can only be described as a more experimental approach. They position and emphasize the relevance of a 2,600-year-old tradition for diverse and resourceful audiences; they utilize global systems unique to modernity, not only to disseminate their ideas but also to conduct workshops in person or give lectures; they provide a pragmatic and rational case for the effectiveness of their teachings, verified by experience experience instead of subjective opinion; and they are able to muster the necessary financial capital to keep all of these activities moving forward.

Thinking of the “Buddhisms” we adopt and engage as experimental rather than prescriptive can help liberate practitioners from investing too heavily in the categories and expectations of various traditions. Since we find ourselves living at a time when it is the individual and not the group that is privileged and empowered, we should acknowledge that, like practitioners throughout history, we orient our Buddhisms to the realities we’ve constructed rather than the other way around. With this positioning, we also avoid pointless self-recrimination for not measuring up to ideals or archetypes from centuries past. Precedents are important, but we have to reconcile those models with the deeply internalized dispositions that incline us to act, think, and feel in ways consistent with social situations and cultural norms. We develop a competence to navigate the present without depending wholly on maps of the past. An experimental perspective on Buddhist practice renders those inspiring yet somewhat static blueprints into creative resources, ones that our everyday experience shapes into meaningful—and sometimes even profound—applications.

John Nelson is Professor of East Asian Religions and Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Francisco.

Image: Detail from "Two Circles" © 2010 Joyce Ertel Hulbert, layered silk screen prints, on paper and screen

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soulsistashakti's picture

i love this website <3

rajbodepudi's picture

"and i should add what should be most obvious to everybody here - the foundation of what we call Buddhism was laid down in the period of a single lifetime. How radical must the seminal ideas of Buddhism have seemed to the contemporaries of the Buddha?"

Sariputra was reported to have reached "stream entry" (a profound transformation), on the spot, when he heard from one of the first 5 of the essence of Buddha's teaching (a breakthrough in linking "conditioned" states to impermanence and suffering). The Noble Truths discovered by the Buddha, based on experience and insight. perforce, are timeless

avalmez's picture

and i should add what should be most obvious to everybody here - the foundation of what we call Buddhism was laid down in the period of a single lifetime. How radical must the seminal ideas of Buddhism have seemed to the contemporaries of the Buddha?

avalmez's picture

How else can evolution occur but a the rate of one lifetime at a time? For millennia westerners believed the universe was created in 7-days, 5-thousand years ago. But, in the lifetime of one person, the very notion of evolution was discovered. Today, "enlightened" people acknowledge that regardless of whether God created the heavens and the Earth, He took his sweet time creating it. The phrase "time tested" does not mean "perfected". The same Dalai Lama referred to above is fascinated by science. And, the Vatican trains some of its priests to be scientists, the ranks of which not that long ago it persecuted vigorously. One of the most divisive and harmful concepts alive today is that of exclusivity, the notion that there is one true faith. While no one here is claiming exclusivity, if you accept that exclusivity is a bad idea, then the opposite must be a good idea. Evolution, then, of religion and traditions is a not just a good idea, it is necessary, in fact.

DrJonno's picture

Where does a secular approach fit into this?

There seem to be a growing number of individuals who are probably permanent "experimental buddhists" and have no wish at all to buy into the the mainstream buddhist traditions.

jackelope65's picture

Although I agree that traditions must evolve with society, how can the wisdom of a brief lifetime compare with that of an enlightened being to pick and choose from various traditions selecting those that provide personal satisfaction. In medicine patients often pick and choose instructions that suit them only to suffer recurrence or even worse death from an illness. Whether Buddhism, health, sport, or education we are all inclined to take the easy route which ultimately prevents us from making the hard decisions that lead to progress. As the Dalai Lama has indicated, choose one tradition then stick with it. Choose a teacher. Spend years if necessary selecting the right teacher, but then work with that teacher to discern how those teachings apply specifically to you.

paddy's picture

Hi John, your words make a lot of sense to me. I work as a Buddhist Chaplain one day a week in a maximum security prison have done it for 6 yrs now. It provides a unique and highly varied constantly changing set of circumstances within which to ply my trade as a Buddhist Chaplain????????????? do what. It is for me experimental Buddhism, haven't had those words to use before. I did a focus group (qualitative research group) among inmates, to try and understand what their experience of chaplaincy was and then Buddhist chaplaincy. There were lots of words, but one statement, well supported, has never left me. It was simply this if there is love and kindness practised and felt from the chaplain, then it worked, if not then it didn't. So the results of my experimental Buddhism, are for me:
# lots of love and kindness
# skillfull means
# heaps of creativity
# honesty, absolutely no bullshit
# lots of story telling
# always be there
I work with some Indigenous inmates and do relaxation and trance work guided journeys to places of ancient ones and totems plus lots of dream interpretation. Works well,my Buddhist practice has allowed me to create this. Would I call it Buddhism? It is possibly what the Tibetan Buddhists ended up with a hybrid of Bon animism and Buddhism. Thanks for the essay John it has helped me. Love Paddy

wms1110's picture

All too often, social "consciousness" becomes an excuse for attempting to fit religious doctrine to the worldly preferences of popular culture. It's one thing for a religious organization to adapt to cultural change, but doctrinal "adaptation" is a slippery proposition. The basic tenets of Buddhism include virtue, mindfulness, and wisdom, and it should be remembered that neither mindfulness nor wisdom is possible without virtue. In an age dominated by immorality, greed, and mass deception in the name of free enterprise, hopefully the Buddhist community will continue to promote the "old way" of doing things. The Noble Eightfold Path exists as a model for those who wish to improve, not for the sake of allowing those of us who are less than enlighted to feel justified in our unskillful behavior. There is a point at which a culture should adapt to a religion, not the other way around.

mlvvogel's picture

OK for sure ... very american. So embrace it ... no need to be embarrassed by it or think it takes something away from traditional buddhist practices. Nelson makes many good points from a very american perspective. Look at them for what they are and what they contribute to our understanding of very living, growing buddhist traditions in the americas and europe, which in turn most would agree are affecting things in asia to also grow and develop anew. Where today a lay practitioner like Vimalakirti, who wandered the messy everyday world like most of us, stressed a sort of engaged buddhism more than a monastic practice, now a balance of the two is helping to create a better balance -- middle way -- in our lives. Nelson is on to something here when he describes such teachers as reaching out to the non monastic practitioners and addressing their needs in light of a world that is no longer so far apart in time and culture. We are now in a world where we can hardly keep from bumping into one another. We need a practice that is designed for the world we engage each day ... and where the bumps that increase with inevitable frequency may, hopefully, become more points of contact than conflict. Loving kindness rather than blind aggression ... we can't all live in monasteries. Thanks for those teachers who practice such an experimental buddhism -- one that brings them to me in remote wyoming as well as populous places like san fran and beyond.
much metta

pancho's picture

"For the first time in human history, hundreds of millions of people are now able to choose for themselves which religious ideas to believe in, or whether to believe in religious propositions at all" is an unbelievably a-historical proposition to base the rest of the argument on, suggesting that earlier people, en masse, accepted and believed in, the various state theologies. It also seems to look at the world, from an extremely narrow lense (a thoroughly American habit) i.e. the very small buddhist sangha in North America, and small parts of Europe, and projects this reality out.

If after only about fifty-sixty years of the dharma being in the usa, we are ready to advocate for "new approaches", i can only suggest a new reading of Trungpa's Spiritual Materialism.

in gassho

Fionnuala's picture

One of the wisest, to me, Buddhist sayings is :I am paraphrasing, The dharma is the finger, the moon is enlightenment, do not mistake the finger for the moon.In my experience often the ritual becomes the focus and the end is subject to obeying lots of rules and accepting practices such as not consuming alcohol, as being absolutely necessary for aspiring Boddhsatvas.
Fionnuala Brennan