06 July 2012

Why I am (Still) A Buddhist.

Cairn and flag to celebrate my private ordination,
June 10, 2005. (Cairn ~ 1.5m). In the hills above
the Guhyaloka Retreat Centre, Spain.
(38.620356,-0.186663 looking almost due west.)
GIVEN THE TONE of my blog over the last two years especially, and some of the responses to what I've written, I've been meaning to pause for thought and write something about why I'm still a Buddhist. Glenn Wallis of Speculative Non-Buddhism expressed his enthusiasm for such a project when I mentioned it to him. So here goes, but it might not be what you expect, because the subject is by nature personal rather than impersonal. I've tended to avoid being personal here because it's bitten me in the arse before now, but I can't avoid it today.

In the last couple of years I've been quite busy becoming disenchanted (nibbindata) with traditional Buddhism. I've been analysing and critiquing some of the central doctrines of Buddhism. I did not set out to attack Buddhism, I set out to discover Buddhism in more detail. However on closer examination I found the presentations of Buddhism wanting at every turn, and have been endeavouring to articulate the various problems as I see them.

In the process I have discovered that there are Buddhist fundamentalists who seem to see me as a kind of anti-Buddhist agent provacateur bent on destroying the True Faith. There are also a number of people who feel disappointed with Buddhism for various reasons who have sought to make common cause with me, though I don't find their self-indulgent little revolutions very attractive, and such contacts frequently turn sour when it becomes apparent that I have no intention of sacrificing Buddhism on their bonfire. Then there are the people who have either reinvented Buddhism in their own image, or developed their own special philosophy which peripherally touches on Buddhism, and who want to share it with me, mistaking my critical stance for an openness to every crackpot idea that comes along. After seven years of this I'm a bit jaded, and more likely to give up blogging than I am to give up Buddhism.

I became a Buddhist in 1994, after a bit of shopping around. I've had a more or less life-long interest in psychology and human potential thanks to my mother, Durelle Dean, a true seeker, and until recently a born-again member of a pentecostal church and a missionary working in rural Africa. (She's looking at becoming a Catholic at present!) We get on famously, btw, and I'm about to publish her memoir of her childhood. By the time I went to the Auckland Triratna Centre I was quite clear about what I was looking for. I was looking for a community to belong in. I had toyed with 12-step groups for a couple of years (I'm 20 years sober now), and I'm grateful to my old school friend Gareth Masefield for introducing me to the Steps. It was also Gareth who suggested I try meditation to help with recurrent depression, which I still experience. But why community?

Taupo, looking south.
I grew up in Taupo, New Zealand. A small town in a small country. Technically I'm a hick, as one of my English friends amusingly pointed out to me. I lived in a rough neighbourhood in that hick town, it wasn't East LA, but it was often frightening and sometimes violent. A guy in Taupo, called Geoff Henshaw, had a chemistry set (probably the only one in town) and I became fascinated by science, at which I turned out to be a prodigy, and ended up doing a degree in chemistry. But there's not much scope for being an egghead in hick town, and being good at maths and science had a negative impact on my social circle. Geoff moved on and out of my life after less than a year (and he promptly forgot me as I discovered years later). When I was twelve my family also moved to NZ's largest city, Auckland. Being a pubescent hick in the large and (from my point of view) sophisticated city was no fun, and even the city kids weren't impressed by my knowledge of science. I became more dislocated. Though I met Gareth around that time (also good at science) and had other friends, I did not feel I belonged anywhere. After about four years I found a new friend in Mary Holmes, whose family welcomed all kinds of waifs and strays. Mary's friends were my friends for a while which was both a treat and an education. I even lost my virginity to one of Mary's friends, who is now a senior civil-servant in the NZ government. Going to university to study chemistry meant a new town, and new friends. I loved the classes and labs, but I didn't identify with the science crowd and was still dislocated. I made a few friends, but started to come apart, and depression set in once again. And so it goes. I never quite fit in anywhere.

Allan, Mitch, Lee, Jaimi
Then one year my brother Allan and his wife Lee, living in Australia, decided to go on a road trip, beginning from Melbourne, north through Sydney and Brisbane, up to Darwin and Cairns, down the middle via Uluru and Alice, to Adelaide, and then back to Melbourne. There to start a family (they now have two grown-up kids Jaimi and Mitch). They set off with a caravan and six months of unscheduled time. They'd drive for a bit, find a place to park the caravan, set up their temporary home. But then, since Allan played rugby, they'd head down to the local rugby club and have a few beers with the locals. Sometimes if they were around for the weekend and the local club needed an extra player, Allan would play for them. And they did this for six months the whole way around Australia. Everywhere they went had a place to go to meet like-minded people, with whom they shared a set of values (of a sort) or at least a common interest. If you play sport in the Australia or New Zealand you need never be lonely. Needless to say I didn't play sport.

Hearing about my brother's experience I realised that there was something missing in my life. This was the late eighties and in Auckland there were lots of choices. Durelle was involved in all sorts of things, but latterly Sahaja Yoga. I was reading Robert Bly, Sam Keen, James Hillman, Jung, and chanting oṃ namaḥ śivāya with the yogis occasionally (I always did like a sing-along). I 12-stepped for a while, but didn't find the community vibe I was looking for. If the Alexander Technique people had had a community in NZ at that time I might have gotten involved in that. But they didn't and the nearest training centre was in Australia and it was very expensive! But through my Alexander Technique teacher, Peter Grunwald, I heard about a big men's gathering over a long weekend on the theme of male archetypes, so I headed off to that. We did drumming in the woods, trust games, and a sweat lodge and all that stuff. It was fantastic! And afterwards I got an invite to join a regular men's group which I attended for a while. In the end I felt it was too small scale, and did not constitute a community. It was what I did on Thursdays evenings. I'm grateful to Trevor Johnston (founder of Bean Supreme) for his inspired leadership of that group, and for making meditation sound attractive, but I moved on.

And so to the Buddhist centre to see if meditation might help with depression. It was almost immediately obvious that the Auckland Buddhist Centre was what I had been looking for. I was greeted by Guhyaprabhā, the class leader. We don't really have publicity seeking famous teachers in our movement, so in all likelihood you've never heard of Guhyaprabhā. A really beautiful woman in many ways, with a good mind, and an adept meditator. She taught me the basics of meditation, but even more she and her team showed me that I had been looking for a spiritual community, and that I had found it. Guhyaprabhā now also lives in Cambridge and remains a dear friend. After 10 weeks I was already eager for more, and immediately signed up for the next class. The leader of that course, Guhyasiddhi, also became a lifelong friend. I felt at home at the ABC. As well as finding a bunch of people to hang with, I was discovering that a lot of the New Age 'wisdom' I'd been hearing for years had been recycled from Buddhism. I felt I was getting information from source. Given that I was unhappy a lot of the time I was interested in what Buddhism had to say about this, and it did, and does make sense to me.

Those were some of the happiest times of my life. Difficulties followed as they always do with people: more depression; a broken marriage; bad advice from amateur Buddhist psychologists; and friends who betrayed me for stupid reasons. My first retreat was a mix. In the deep end I loved the long meditations and weird rituals, but it was also a time of anxiety and it was a few years before I could let go and enjoy retreating. I usually had some kind of crisis for the first dozen or so (and thereby became notorious). But almost two decades later, looking back, some of the peak moments of my life have been lived on retreat. Various pics from retreats are here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Other stand out connections: Nityajyoti in Wellington, and his seat of the pants classes with me flying alongside and making tea. Sona who came from the UK to lead two week ordination training retreats, and is so very kind and helpful, Very direct at times as well, which is rare in an Englishman. I found other mentors who offered friendship and kindness. All of them are down to earth and do not require special treatment or artificial reverence. I met my dear friend Peter Willis through Gareth initially, but then he started coming to the centre and we started playing music together, and through music found a deep friendship. I miss Peter very much. I also met Victoria Chammanee who I immediately fell in love with, which might have complicated things, but we managed to sustain a friendship with that is one of the most important relationships in both of our lives.

Jayagupta & me with our
private preceptor, Nāgabodhi (centre)
freshly ordained 13 June 2005.
And then there's Nāgabodhi. We made friends comparing insomnia experiences at a place called Ngati Awa, on the Kapiti Coast about 16 or 17 years ago. He's amazing. Always laughing, but capable of great seriousness as well. Always caring and concerned. Always encouraging, but testing to see if there's options I need to consider (I could have saved myself considerable misery by more carefully considering his questions in 1998!). When he and I did my private ordination ceremony together, and he gave me my initiation and my Buddhist name, I felt so loved and so loving. It was a time of intense joy, and a highlight of my life. The ordination courses was four months on retreat, a shitload of meditation, and making more friends. I understood things up in those mountains in Spain, late at night, pacing around in the dark under the brilliant stars, that made my whole life makes sense. For the first time I saw the 'logic' of my life. These are not the traditional insights of Buddhism, but they were the insights I needed to have. And I came back as Jayarava (Cry of Victory). I love my name. I associate it with the joy and happiness of my ordination, and a sense of spiritual rebirth I had on the ordination course. I use my birth name for legal purposes still, but it's not me any longer. I left that guy in the mountains.

I moved to Cambridge in 2002, and was ordained in 2005. I've been living with Buddhists, working with Buddhists; all my friends are Buddhists. I've been going on retreats, courses, weekends, gatherings, seminars (all paid for by my Buddhist employer as part of an innovative remuneration package).  I found friends in Satyapriya, Vidyavajra, Gambhiraḍāka, Śākyakumara, Emma, Sanghaketu, Dhīvan, Amanda (and many others). I live with Nāgavīra and Jayasiddhi, one of a dozen Buddhist communities in Cambridge. Dozens of people have passed through our semi-monastic home, from Holland, Venezuela, Portugal, Spain, Australia, Mexico, England and New Zealand. It's had its ups and downs but has been very rich, and I have few regrets. This is my life now, though I hope one day to go back to New Zealand as, like the Māori people, I feel that the landmarks of my birthplace--Tauhara, Waikato, Taupō-nui-a-tia, Aratiatia, Kaingaroa, Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe, Tongariro, Kaimanawa, Uruwera--are part of my genealogy.

Not long after ordination I went on a retreat focussed on White Tārā. I didn't know anyone there, but as we sat together, sang mantras and praises together, cooked and ate meals together, all in spirit of kindness and friendship based on shared values, a connection emerged that epitomises for me why I'm a Buddhist. Being a member of this community opens up the possibility of deep communication and friendship that I have never experienced in any other context.

I've been chronically ill for the last few years and often get a bit out of touch with my local community. When times are tough I hunker down writing, or go to the Cambridge University library, or I get sucked into the internet. But I recently went to a farewell do for a colleague, who for 15 years had dedicated himself to helping at the Cambridge Triratna Centre, doing everything from designing the website, to cleaning, and leading classes. Vajrapriya is doing some shorter retreats--a week here, a month there--before setting off to Spain for a year on retreat in 2013. The thing is that there was so much warmth and love in the room. About 70 people all wishing him well, and celebrating his positive qualities, telling anecdotes. And I felt good being part of that. Was it intellectually rigorous? Not hardly. But it was all very warmly human, and I felt at home amongst these people, and I'm happy to sort out the metaphysics later. Indeed the combination of human relationships like this, and intellectually sorting our the metaphysics is just about perfect for me.

I'm grateful for our community. I feel sorry for people who don't have what I have. Though I'm so critical, I actually find a ready audience amongst my peers. Many of us have similar concerns. Our community has its share of ideologues, but because we constitute a practice community rather than a faith community we can carry quite a lot of intellectual dissent. And we do. I see saṅgha as essential to the process of growth and change. No doubt groups have their downsides, but humans are social monkeys, and we're actually worse off alone. Parasocial relationships: soap operas, celebrities, teachers, blogs, forums, all the modern ersatz communities, are no substitute for getting into relationship with people. Ethics is really only empathetic relationships, nothing more, but nothing less. You can't practice outside of human relationships.

Of course I see that I fell in love, and my critique of falling in love applies to me as much as anyone. "Naivety demands betrayal" according to Robert Bly, though he may have been quoting James Hillman. And I have been betrayed at times. But losing naivety is not a bad thing. In being betrayed I've grown. Better to be betrayed by friends than enemies I suppose, as the long term consequences are usually less severe. I suppose my friends and enemies would be quick to point out I've done my share of betraying (I claim to be a Buddhist, not a saint). I didn't fall in love with Buddhist ideas until later. I was first and foremost a saddhānusarin. I fell in love with the reality of people living and working together with a set of shared values and common goals, and very obviously benefiting from it. Today I might grumble that we are too idealistic, but better that than too cynical. For all the iconoclasm in my blog it's actually a small part of my life.

Of course now I find myself deep in a critical inquiry into Buddhist ideas, the work of a dhammānusarin. The ground work was laid by studying Saṅgharakṣita who remains something of an enigma to me. I'm really very grateful to him, and love him; I'm inspired by his life; and find him frustrating at the same time. He's very kind and friendly in person. Unfailingly so, I believe, whatever is said about him on the internet. I am a Saṅgharakṣitarite Buddhist at heart. He encouraged me to really think about Buddhism in the first place, not to have blind faith, and our correspondence (such as it is) on my recent ideas to date has been encouraging. I don't think just any kind of Buddhism would suit me, and I've no intention of leaving the Triratna Order. I doubt many movements would put up with me slaughtering their sacred cows for long. I have no real interest in Secular Buddhism, though some secular Buddhists were interested in me for a while.

More recently I'm very grateful to Richard Gombrich who has been quite generous over the years, without ever being under any obligation to be so. His Numata Lectures in 2006-7 (that subsequently became What the Buddha Thought) caused a revolution in how I thought about and approached the practice of Buddhism. You can see the change in my blog from around that time. And that lead me to his student Sue Hamilton. I think it's fair to day that Sue is not a great writer, but the ideas she wrote about now saturate my thinking. It was Sue that woke me up to Buddhism being about experience rather than reality. She's not working in the field any more, but graciously responded when I wrote to her. I feel I've developed her ideas in my own way. Many of the scholars I've bugged with my questions have responded, usually positively. I'm grateful to Satyanandi (Fellow of Trinity College) for writing a letter of introduction for me to get a Cambridge University Library reader's card, my most precious possession.

Anyone expecting an intellectual defence of Buddhism from me might be puzzled by what I've written so far. If you only know me through my writing you might be forgiven for thinking that I am someone who has a fiercely intellectual approach to Buddhism. But really I don't. The intellectual side of things is only my pastime. Here's my definition of 'Buddhism' and 'Buddhist':
  • Buddhism is the stuff that Buddhists do, and the experiences that Buddhists have doing that stuff.
  • One is a Buddhist if one does stuff that other Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists.
Yes, they are circular, and there is a chicken & egg problem for those who like that kind of thing. I'm someone who does stuff that Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists, and therefore I consider myself a Buddhist. I'm still a Buddhist because the experience of doing that stuff is something I value more than solving intellectual problems. Belief seems to have little to do with why I'm a Buddhist, so even my own intellectual critique seems to have little effect on my feeling that I am a Buddhist. Indeed attacking views makes me feel more of a Buddhist, and my intellectual understanding of the dynamics of experience have resulted in quite strong faith in our methods.

I'm bored by intellectuals who carp from the sidelines, who are not involved in a Buddhist community and have never engaged in any Buddhist practice, but feel confident to comment on Buddhism. Like armchair sports fans, or vicarious travellers it's possible to become very knowledgeable but still to have no sense of what it feels like to kick a ball into a goal, or arrive in a new country. Intellectuals, especially the armchair variety, seem to get caught up in definitions; in what we are supposed to believe or think. They mistake the map for the territory. They are convinced that thinking is the most important thing because it's what they like doing and what they are good at. However most of the important phenomena of Buddhism are felt rather than thought. Buddhism is all about experience. Thinking about Buddhism in the absence of any experience of Buddhism is just having a wank. We all enjoy a wank, but let's not pretend it's anything more than it is. Or perhaps, if that offends, we could paraphrase Frank Zappa, and say "thinking about Buddhism is like dancing about architecture".

What people say they believe is far less important to me than what they do and how they behave, which is a far better indication of what they really value. It's also how I know I have anything important in common with them. Some of the kindest, most empathetic people I know are not great intellects (no disrespect intended). Bad philosophers can still be good human beings (and good Buddhists). They often make far better friends. It's all very well being able to have a good argument with someone, but when the chips are down I want a friend who is loyal, empathetic, kind, and practical; I want a community who'll support me. I don't give a fig for the professed beliefs of the Amish, but if my barn burned down I'd surely love it if the community showed up and made an event out of building a new one together. The fact that we generally don't behave like this seems like a malaise to me. I happen to like the vibe in my Buddhist community, and I like the experience of practising Buddhism. I've watched many people be transformed by our practices and it still gives me a buzz watching friends striving to be better people, and succeeding in whatever degree. I've also watched the internet chatter about Buddhism over many years, and come to the conclusion that it has little to offer. Text is not really suited to mediating human interactions, or communicating values. Realising this I stopped doing forums and started writing longer more considered essays instead. Comments on my blog have only reinforced my perceptions about internet interactions generally. On the whole they've not worth much. Better one hour spent talking to a real person than a 1000 hours spent online.

It is no doubt fun to exercise one's intellect. I love writing the stuff I do and spend hours doing it. But I also like solving killer sudoku puzzles. The most important thing is human relationships, which have to be lived rather than solved by logic. I suspect that it's more important to be able to have a laugh at yourself than to understand the metaphysics of Kant, or the phenomenology of Heidegger (perhaps because I can only do the first). Such things are for the intellectual elite. Certainly I admire people who can cope with that level of intellectual activity, but if I had to choose I'd rather share a good joke with someone than share a philosophical insight. Not that thinking is totally unimportant, just less important. I don't think I can be fairly accused of not thinking. Sharing ideas can be stimulating and interesting, but sharing a laugh is to experience a wordless and deeply satisfying sense of connection and empathetic resonance. And explaining the joke kills it. I discovered today that this opinion is not original.
The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians — and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe — that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent. 
Henry Menken. "Critical Note" in "Clinical Notes" in The American Mercury (January 1924), also in Prejudices, Fourth Series (1924) [My emphasis] Via Wikiquotes.

So, I still do the stuff that Buddhists do, in the company of other Buddhists, and I enjoy the experience. Which is what makes me a Buddhist. Yes, their are flaws in Buddhism and in Buddhists, but perfection is a myth. There are no perfect human communities, but at least our community is striving individually and collectively to improve itself. It's all very well being a critic, but I'll finish with the words of Jean Sibelius:
"Pay no attention to what critics say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic."

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