July 04, 2009

Emasculated by "Buddhism"

Bible-scholar-turned-Buddhist Neil of The New Heretics blog is sick and tired of the self-help ethos that drips into dharma talks and sangha chatter. He finds it downright emasculating, and judging from a few of the sympathetic comments that follow his post, a few women have been likewise put off.

From Neil's June 30 post:

Tonight in my Sangha marked yet another in a now long-running series of dharma talks that are really just self-help books wrapped in a bit of meditation and the occasional quote from some Buddhist text.... Books like: How Buddhism Can Help You Get Over Past Hurts. How Mindfulness Can Help You Lose Weight. How Meditation Can Heal Past Family Wounds. How Buddhism Can Heal the Wounds of Daddy Not Being There Enough. How Meditation Can Help You Get Over Not Having A Prom Date.

Tonight the topics in the discussion ranged from how someone is afraid they are fat, or another that they are not as smart as their sister or another girl, how someone is afraid they are not as good looking as the next girl…

I forgot to mention, he's pretty funny, too. Read the entire post here. He leaves us with something worth our while to consider, too.

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BlindRob's picture

Further to Ed in #15, I've noticed that whereas Buddhist leaders in traditionally Buddhist contries and cultures seem to achieve respect and popular acclaim through their basic enlightenment and general holiness of conduct, Western leaders are indeed more like hard-driven media personalities: with the notable exception of HHDL, who gets more attention here than a Buddhist movie star or a dog-and-pony-show travelling Buddhist lecturer? Me, I seem to be able to exist (altho probably not flourish) as a sanga of one (when necessary) but it must be hard on others.

Jeff Hanson's picture

What drew me to Buddhism is what I consider to be a very profound and very beautiful contemplative tradition - every bit as transformative, if not so, than meditation. Based on my experience its either meditate till your hair's on fire or don't bite the hook and be on the dot while we orchestrate crazy "wisdom" around you.

Ed's picture

Funny. But it's probably inevitable that Western Buddhism sometimes seems to express itself as a sort of glorified 12-Step program. We Westerners like making lists and ticking off each thing on the list when we're done. After all, it's one of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

And it's also probably inevitable that Western Buddhist culture unfortunately can at times tend to foster a cult of personality. Let's face it, there are teachers who have become recognized brand names. But given the pervasiveness of our celebrity culture, I suppose it would be hard to avoid some expression of that culture in our Buddhism.

Expressions of Buddhism in the West are constantly morphing. Some are healthy, some probably not so much. As the Man himself pointed out, what rings true with your own experience is the one to buy.

And as to "How to Wipe Your Ass Like the Buddha Did" -- didn't Dogen cover that a few hundred years ago in the Shobogenzo?

Adam Barron's picture

A friend asked me once if I was attracted to Buddhism because it seemed to encourage others to relinquish power and control. And I said, " Are you kidding me? Just below the surface, it's really no different than the Catholic Church. Egos slamming against each other over what is ther right way to do something or placing someone on a some box because he or she can meditate for an hour without breathing. I mean really. In the Christian church, the question is always asked when a crisis arises is " What would Jesus think if he came back to life to see what had become of his teachings? What would he do?" Well, I think if the Buddha came back to life he would laugh. He would laugh because he would see that for the most part his teachings had gone no where, even for supposed enlightened people. And if he didn't laugh, he would just turn around and walk away. Not dissapointed, but dismayed how nothing has changed since he was here. People still trying to be right and still thinking that one way is better than another. Some have figured it out. But most, dispite all that meditation, still hold on to childish view points regarding growth and change. It only makes sense that Buddhism become the modern day psychology. Thankfully, people are getting smarter and smarter regarding their own health care. To see or hear Dr. Phil or Oprah talk about it on TV as a way to get off medication, I say right on. With any luck, people will go to work and over coffee, or at the water cooler, indidviduals will be heard discussing an experience they had while in meditation. In other words, it won't be weird or odd. People are suffering needlessly. People go to retreats to hopefully end the nightmare. How would you feel if you snubbed someone at a silent retreat that came to you for help only to found out later that they offed themself when they got home? Somehow I think you might think twice when someone comes to you again for a little pschotherapy. Then again, from what I have read, maybe not.

BlindRob's picture

Western Buddhism is indeed becoming strangely, and narrowly, oriented towards western psychotherapy. One observes practices which in Japan, say, are oriented towards benefiting the 'souls' of aborted or still born children, easing them as it were into their next lives, being turned around here to concentrate on enabling the mothers to feel good about themselves. That is not a problem in itself of course but the larger picture is wiped out.

Not to say that the Japanese version of that or of anything is ideal- as Buddha pointed out, everything has its problems- but here in the west, it's getting so it's always, always, always about US. To my mind Buddhism has a wider scope than Dr Phil, etc, and it is indeed nice to see someone here point that out, especially humorously.

Jeff Hanson's picture

Dainin Katagiri say that the central question of Buddhism is "what?"

Herein lies the problem, I think, because our culture asks why, when, and how to, especially how to. Not how to be human or how to be Buddhist but what is being human, what is being Buddhist, what is my work, my relationship to her, etc.

I have to think this through but based on my experience the past 6 years I just can't help but rail - relax, its not a big deal and millions of people practice and don't think twice about it. My convenience store is run by Vietnamese Buddhists and their attitude is so far different from what we do here.

Doug Avery's picture

@Jeff - "It gravitates so quickly towards ... control .." This is an interesting point, and reflects what I've seen at and struggled with myself in practice. Practice is an invitation to relinquish control, but it's so easy to slip into the idea of practice as a tool for accomplishment. "My meditation will help me X in regard to X," I'll say before I sit, but the truth it that it simply won't (or at least, not how I expect).

This attitude locks in with what Neil is saying about his meetings, a problem-driven approach to practice with 'fixing' as the goal. How do we avoid this attitude in a world saturated with problem-solving, progression, and so many perceived wrongs and hurts to make right?

andrew's picture

Jeff, it's important to differentiate between the "crowd" and the teachings. In the case of Shambhala, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche diagnosed his Western students with problem the same as you do--spiritual materialism. It is still an oft-quoted idea across the western buddhist spectrum because it is still a salient issue.

Jeff Hanson's picture

A friend's mother grew up Buddhist in Cambodia and China. She has 2 statues in her house and every day burns incense and prays. She is not a cool and trendy Buddhist, she is not a subservient obedient controlled spiritual sycophant who sits in starry eyed wonder as gurus, rinpoches, and fame and fortune Buddhists parade before her very eyes. She does not wear it on her sleeve so everyone notices. She is a remarkably sane and ordinary human being. Upon hearing about the the crazy "wisdom" the Boulder Shambhala "Buddhist" crowd was practicing on my humanity she remarked "its utterly ridiculous." So much of Buddhism here in the west is just that - utterly ridiculous, horseshit and nonsense, pettiness and control, and yes abusive. Or a Ken Wilber said "in the name of no ego they've gone out and built even bigger egos."

Jeff Hanson's picture

The underlying point, I think, is one many intelligent critics and observers have and are making about western Buddhism - it gravitates so quickly towards pettiness and control and cool and trendy new age idiocy. The profound insights on the nature of being human and what it means to be human are being diluted down and replaced by "everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten Buddhism". I've always joked that the Tricycle daily dharma that must most certainly be coming one day is "How To Wipe Your Ass Like the Buddha Did." It can, and often does, get that ridiculous folks.

Neil Christopher's picture

Compassion is a valid point, but I always considered compassion to be giving someone what they need vs what they want. I have a friend whose brother has a fat kid. I mean... really fat. Why? Because it wants candy and cheese-puffs. So it cries and cries and out of compassion they give him more and more.

Glad you can see the humor in it all. Oh, any the biggest mentor in my life was a wonderfuly strong female. Still look up to her to this day. Wish you all the best. Thanks.

James Shaheen's picture

I understand the comments but found the post humorous. It's a relief sometimes to hear someone's thoughts without much self-conscious filtering. Any of us could be the people he describes--at least I could (as I've heard said, "If you spot it, you got it"). I imagine he has a sense of humor about himself, too, and he seems to care about the people in his sangha.

Themes may vary but it read as a funny take on narcissism to me. Most of us have been on both sides, or?

Enjoyed your comments!

Nathan's picture

I can relate, somewhat, to what the writer has described. There are times when people seem to be using the presence of other sanga members as an opportunity for a free therapy session, which I think is different from working with emotional struggles in a spirtual context. I'm all for including and exploring our emotional landscapes, as they, too, are dharma gates. And yet, there sometimes needs to be more balance in how we here in the "west" are approaching and experiencing Buddhist teachings.

And as for compassion, I have come to view it in a much more complex way than I did before I started praticing. Compassion takes many forms, depending on the context. Sometimes, it's a very soft and gentle presence. Sometimes, it's a fierce call to wake up or to stop doing what you've been doing. Sometimes, it's a long discussion that contains a request to change some deep seated habit. And sometimes, it's just silence while another blathers on and on until they have exausted all the storylines.

I really believe we have to stop viewing compassion as solely a kindly grandmother always ready to feed us milk and cookies. I think of my own great grandmother right now, who just turned 100, and how her sometimes fierce, sometimes gentle brand of compassion continues to inspire me to experiment with life, and let go of hard, fixed meanings.

Auntie Seldoen's picture

Been there too, years ago. And I spent a lot of time wondering why the teacher couldn't be a little more skillful at directing students (a couple of whom were men) away from these weekly repetitive stories of their assorted mental afflictions. Almost quit going.

And then it finally occurred to me that the real problem was me-- I was so quick to dismiss them for what I perceived as their weakness that I never considered feeling some compassion for their suffering.

Control what you can control. Learn what you can learn. And then if you need to, move on.

Rick W.'s picture

Children please settle down, and lets remember to play nice.

I thought that one of the reasons we gather together was to discuss how our practice works within our daily lives.

Alexia's picture

So this person is pissed off about there being too many females in his meditation group. He is annoyed that they speak about their own little problems, and then he writes two whole blog posts complaining about his own little problem.

Seems to me he needs to get a grip and just, you know, deal with this all in an adult manner and leave that meditation group without making such a huge fuss about it. I mean, I do totally agree with what he says, a meditation retreat should be about meditation, with as little talking as possible, and limited to a specific time frame. But then, bitching and ranting when this does not happen is not very mature.

As an aside, maybe he could use those meetings for him to work on compassion? I mean, six hours practice is really hard (I would not survive more than 30 minutes), but then, trying to identify with someone else's suffering is good practice.

Seems also this guy is quite misogynistic, going as far as calling men who don't associate with his own ideal of masculinity of being "eunuchs". He seems quite confrontational in his attitude, and does not seem to value others in his Sangha.

bryantp's picture

The sooner we can get rid of this compassion junk, the better off we'll be...right? Okay, I don't think so.

I've been a practicing Buddhist male for 35 years plus. My experience is so different. If women are being kind to each other, he should treasure the moments he got to share in that experience. It's far too rare. But, the truth does set us free. He's dead right there.