Buddhism without Buddhism

Ed Halliwell is a journalist and author who writes about health, psychology and Buddhism, and frequently contributes articles to the guardian.co.uk. This week he has one entitled The mindful enlightenment. I had to chuckle at a line in the second paragraph, “making it increasingly clear that we are social creatures with plastic minds.” I mean, I haven’t heard anyone use plastic for decades. I immediately thought, Frank Zappa and Absolutely Free: “Plastic people! Oh, baby, now you’re such a drag.”

I stopped chuckling a few sentences later when I read this, “to tackle the world’s most pressing problems, we don’t just need more action, we need more awareness.” Which I think is a nice way of phrasing it.

The piece is subtitled “Buddhist practices can help bring about a new kind of social enlightenment” and I’m not sure that he really got around to talking about that. It’s a short article, in which he basically says that Buddhism has been around a long time, it’s about meditation, has some religious trappings, and then he gives sort of a brief survey of some folks who are supposed to be in the vanguard of a new understanding of Buddhism or progressive Buddhism or something-Jack Kornfield, Stephen Batchelor, and Andy Puddicombe, all of whom might be summed up by tweaking Halliwell, “mindfulness taught without reference to its religious heritage.”

Now at the very end, he writes,

Traditionalists will complain about babies being thrown out with bathwater, and they may have a point – in our urge to connect with a wider audience, there is the danger of losing important, less palatable messages, honed over thousands of years. But if the Buddha’s insights are durable, then surely they can stand the creative tension that comes from attempts, Buddhist and secular, to forge new stretches on the road to enlightenment.

Well, those are the words I used yesterday: “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” That’s what I get for using cliches. I don’t, however, consider myself a traditionalist. If I have to put it in that kind of terms, I suppose I would say I’m trying to balance myself on a middle way between being a traditionalist and a progressive.

I’m all in favor of losing some of Buddhism’s dead weight, especially in regards to rituals and institutional structures, and far too many people take Buddhism’s myths literally. Certain groups looking to gain new followers and enlist them in some kind of Dharmic crusade seem to encourage that. I don’t think it helps anyone in the long run.  But, I’m not in favor of dismissing the myths altogether. We just need to do a better job of understanding the symbolism and context.

Some of the mythology is inspiring and beautiful, so it would be a shame to lose those stories. Without its core elements, Buddhism would be dry, uninspiring, and dull. There are certain things that make Buddhism different from other spiritual practices and philosophies, and that’s why I can’t help but feel that Buddhism without Beliefs is just Buddhism without Buddhism.

Now, I am aware I am taking this phrase in a very literal sense.  I read Batchelor’s book a long time ago and haven’t kept up with him too much, so I am probably glossing over some nuances. I am also mindful that I may just be suffering from attachments I’ve developed to Buddhist “stuff.”

Now, I have nothing against teachers who don’t want to teach Buddhism. But maybe they should call it something else. That’s what Eckhart Tolle did. Come up with a catchy slogan like the Power of Now and sell a million books. More power of now to ya.

To some extent, I agree with Batchelor when he says that you don’t have to believe in karma and rebirth to be a Buddhist, because Buddhism works regardless. They’re important concepts, but not the main point. The danger is when we start cherry-picking those parts we are willing to accept. Also, Buddhism should be challenging. If a spiritual path does not challenge its wayfarers, I’m not sure it’s a very good path. I’ve heard long-time practitioners and teachers tell how they struggled for years over some concepts. So I a suspicion that too often we are looking for the quick, easy and painless way to enlightenment, even if we think we are not.

I’m intrigued with the idea of going beyond Buddhism to something that just “is” without being an “ism” or brand or form or sect, not needing to be called anything, not needing to be anything in particular, just a set of simple core principles and practices. I feel that’s what the Buddha tried to do, only in the process of getting rid of stuff, he didn’t get rid of everything. He kept what he thought was the good stuff.

I suppose that’s all the sincere folks are also trying to do. Paring it down and keeping the stuff they think is crucial. However, in my experience, no matter how justified, most of the resistance to Buddhist stuff is just egoism. The fact of the matter is that the many of those who criticize or reject concepts like karma and rebirth really don’t understand them well enough to be able to render a opinion. Myself included. Yet, it’s not entirely their fault, as in some cases, teachers and organizations who water-down Buddhist teachings for mass consumption have some responsibility to share.

In the end, when it’s reduced to stress reduction or simply mind-training, self-help, psychology, and so on, there’s something missing. Maybe it’s the spiritual part. I’ve always been drawn to folks like Tagore, Krisnamurti, Lama Govinda and a few others, because they were able to cut through the fog of dogma and the dazzle of myths without losing what Durkheim called “the sense of the sacred.” A kind of reverence,  or appreciation of transcendence-not toward a higher, holier being or force, but to life as it is, to ourselves and others, a sense of joy and wonderment at being alive in a world consisting of both suffering and peace.

A Chinese Buddhist expression comes to mind: Wonderful existence, true emptiness. I think that how it goes . . .

Or, maybe something like: Mysticism without being mystical. How does that sound? Catchy?

Seriously, again I suggest that a sense of Buddhism with a small “b” might be preferable to Buddhism without Beliefs. One signifies, in my mind, being  open to possibilities, while there other seems closed, more like a line drawn in the sand. I have no direct knowledge of rebirth. Just because Buddhism teaches that concept doesn’t mean I have to accept it. I am, however open to the possibility and willing to try and grasp the underlying meaning of the teaching. I have never seen a star being born or die. But I know they do. I have never seen a black hole, and yet, I am open to the possibility that they might be portals for other universes, other parallels and existences in space and time.

I’ve never been a Buddha, but I’m open to the possibility.


4 thoughts on “Buddhism without Buddhism

  1. Man this is so funny coming from shambala where I mentioned earlier its getting more on a stress reduction vibe I guess not wanting to freak folks out with chanting….talking about death impermanance etc I was at a gelug seminar in London some guy asked the monk why meditate .the monk said with a smile two reasons one practice maybe slow you down a bit be less speedy /two and here he chuckled when u die maybe help u let go.I know this guy ed halli well used to see him at shambala all the time

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