The structure of Buddhism

my Buddhist structure chart

George Box: “All models are wrong. Some are useful.”

Culturally, I have the impression we’re leaving post-modernism behind and that it hasn’t worked. Anecdotally I hear expressions of confusion and lostness. It’s like we’ve come adrift from the past; we’re floating around in a sea of debris trying to make sense of it all. We’re confronted with multiple mashups without reliable tools for discerning which to engage with and which to discard. Approaching Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation can be like this. How do we know what will work and what won’t?

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Living contradictions

contradictions

Image by Nicolas Nova: flickr

The contradictions of Sutra

Practices that derive from Sutra center on liberation from Samsara, the cycle of habitual grasping to attraction, aversion and indifference that causes suffering.

The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and the cessation of Samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth, causing ‘dukkha,’ in Pali, dissatisfaction, often translated as suffering) are core Sutric teachings. Our patterned habits of attraction, aversion and indifference cause us misery. Our attachment to ego makes us self-serving. We are habitual ego-reinforcers, but we can develop detachment and equanimity through concentrated meditation which will enable us to further let go of striving and grasping. Then we will see that our desires and habits cause us unhappiness at a deep level. We can begin to erase even the most subtle traces of conditioning, perhaps even achieving states of cessation, eventually becoming an arhat or experiencing nirvana.

Different presentations may use the language of mindfulness, jhanas, stream entry, no-self, detachment, loving-kindness, compassion, emptiness. Sutra-derived worldviews have in common the theme that if we follow a correct path we can develop virtues in a self-reinforcing cycle of purity or wholesomeness. We will find it incrementally easier to detach ourselves from impurity, misdemeanour and ill-intent. We can develop a release from our grasping self to the point that we no longer experience desire. We might even achieve a state of nirodha and have all sensation cease. In Sutric systems, these experiences are highly desirable. States of intense desire, negative emotions, bad thoughts, are undesirable.

A system that advocates separation from one side of a polarity to achieve its opposite is dualist. Examples of such polarities are ‘good vs bad’, ‘pure vs. impure’, ‘right vs. wrong’. Dualism fixes the meaning of polarities and our selves in relation to them. Sutra is dualist in practice. Some versions simultaneously extol nondualism.

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Is Vajrayana hacking the West?

Come back when you finish preliminaries
“Come back when you finish preliminaries”

In my last post, I categorised justifications for the idea that Westerners are ill-suited to practice Vajrayana. Those justifications – that our values are incompatible, we can’t commit, our lifestyles do not provide conducive circumstances or that our karmic connection is lacking – are anecdotally common. Sometimes they are not stated outright but hidden in conciliatory language. My versions of these justifications are stripped down: I wanted to expose them in their most simple form, to make them easier to spot in articles and conversations.

In this post I highlight some generalisations underlying such justifications, then I examine the notion that Western culture is to blame.

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