Those Self-Absorbed Buddhists

pdficonA few months ago I gave a talk to some seminary students who wanted to learn about Buddhism. After the talk, after the Q&A that followed, and as we were adjourning, one of the students approached and confided in me that he had in his younger days as a spiritual explorer visited a number of the Buddhist sitting and discussion groups that are common in the West, but that he was disappointed with what he found there. He said,

“People seemed so self-absorbed.”

Well, this was awkward. Although I had never belonged to another faith before taking refuge some twenty years ago, I have come to recognize that most people of faith, across many religious traditions, have a characteristic sense of humility that differs markedly from that found in secular contexts. Moreover, Buddhism is the only tradition that carries the virtue of humility as far as teaching anatta (non-self) and then systematically de-constructing the sense of being a self. In Buddhism, humility is the most reliable indicator of spiritual progress and renouncing personal neediness the most effective means of making it. So, how could it be that this result was not apparent in this seminarian’s experience?

Within a brief moment, I had to admit that he was right! I recognized his observation from my own early frequent and more recent occasional experience in such sitting and discussion groups, and I told him so. Although I pointed out that this does not generalize to all Buddhist communities, and certainly not to ethnically Asian communities, as a Buddhist teacher I could see that this young man was providing a valuable perspective on what was a serious deficit in the Western Sasana. I think my off-the-cuff explanation – for I had to say something positive after having conceded his point – involved the novelty of Western sitting and discussion groups in contrast with established churches attended by generations of family members.

I am myself a monk in a primarily Burmese monastery in Austin, Texas. The evening before I wrote the first draft of this post, as we had finished our routine evening recitation, two unexpected guests arrived: a Sri Lankan monk – the abbot of a local temple and known to us – and a Sri Lankan lay companion. All of our local monks stood up out of respect as the visiting senior monk entered and our own abbot gave up his own seat at the front and center, for our abbot was the junior of the two. All of our monks prostrated three times to our monastic guest, while his lay companion prostrated once to each of our monks in turn. This has been the way of Buddhist communities for 2500 years, each person aware of his seniority based entirely on ordination date, and no one wishes it otherwise, for this is the way established by the Buddha himself. In this simple rite, personal pride finds no place and humility finds its natural expression. Our Sri Lankan visitor at the front of the seniority is himself a gentle and kind individual who accepted the honor shown him without the slightest hint of pride, for he had lived as a monk for many decades. This would have been day and night from the seminarian’s experience.

So, how could I account for the future minister’s experience with Western sitting groups? I daresay I once brought my quota of self-centeredness into such sitting and discussion groups, so I had a degree of experience to draw on as I began to ponder this important question. I have been pondering since then on how I could best have answered my interlocutor on this fateful day:

I could have mentioned the across-the-board hyper-individualism[i] and hyper-consumerism[ii] that plague American culture that has contributed to a kind of spiritual marketplace which people enter quite easily with self-centered attitudes. Individualism is a part of the human pathology that Buddhism attempts to cure. Although this condition represents an serious assault on religious engagement and on spiritual development in modern culture (and increasingly in Asia), these influences apply across American culture and across other religious traditions alongside Buddhism. So individualism and consummerism cannot be the whole story.

I could have pointed out that the demographics of Buddhist sitting and discussion groups is quite distinct. These are for the most part highly educated and financially well-off people,[iii] and maybe this in itself brings a degree of hubris. They are also, for the most part, people who have become disenchanted with the religion of their upbringing and therefore experience a kind of wariness about religious engagement in general. From personal experience I know that many of these people also take the unconventional step of coming to Buddhism as an act of desperation, in great personal pain, often in the midst of a personal crisis, sometimes as a last resort, as a cry for help. Under these circumstances enhanced personal concern, at least during a period of healing, is quite understandable.

I should also have explained that Western Buddhist sitting and discussion groups are a new, untried kind of institution, as far as I know with little precedent in any ancient Buddhist tradition, but largely based on the model of secular meet-ups, in which like-minded people get together, with little ceremony, either to discuss stamp collecting, to practice salsa dancing, to meet other middle-aged singles or to talk shop with regard to some vocation or another, like knocking out Java code. Absent from this kind of structure is the Sangha, virtually always the core around which Buddhist communities have traditionally coalesced. On the other hand, there are larger Western Buddhist “centers” that provide more elements of the traditional Buddhist community context, such as many Zen centers and Shambhala centers, and these do seem to attract or produce more modest members.

I could have made the point that much of what is understood as Buddhist teachings among those with little adept knowledge has, in fact, more to do with the paradigm of European Romanticism and pop psychology[iv] than with Buddhism, and that these often seem to encourage a degree of self-absorption rather than to dispel it. European romanticism asks of me to be true to my inner self, to break through social convention in order to express my creative and spiritual core. Not only is this paradigm far too metaphysical to accord with the Buddha’s way of thinking, but it seems to highlight rather than to de-construct the self.

Finally, it would have been important to mention the role of meditation generally as the centerpiece of a sitting and discussion group, sometimes to the complete exclusion of traditional practices such as generosity, ethics, living harmoniously in community, refuge and developing purity of intention.[v] Buddhist meditation is an advanced practice, necessary for awakening or for complete de-construction of the self (which is the same thing), but it only succeeds with the development of a large range of prerequisite practices, including most of these more mundane practice just mentioned.[vi] As a consequence, there is a danger in practicing Buddhist meditation in the absence of these prerequisites: Since meditation is a practice that aims at individual attainment, it easily leads to conceit, in particular to the urge to compare self to others, which is particularly encouraged in open discussion contexts. As a result, a meet-up for Buddhist meditators might not be much more effective as a vehicle for developing humility than a meet-up for body-builders or for video game enthusiasts.

So, what do we do to correct the errors of the modern Sasana? We suffer some serious handicaps in western society that we need to put aside, including the above-mentioned individualism and also the Protestant attitude of the “spiritual but not religious.” This has led to a disregard for the importance of community in Buddhism, for the critical role of the Sangha in community and for the opportunities community affords in developing a range of practices that contribute to our spiritual development and provide the prerequisites for successful meditation.[vii] We have abundant precedents for overcoming the deficits in the western Sasana, in the teachings of the Buddha and in traditional Buddhist communities that have been living more-or-less according to those teachings for one hundred generations.

 

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i. See Robert Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life for more on individualism and spirituality in American life.
ii. See Richard King and Jeremy Carrette, Selling Spirituality: the silent takeover of religion for more on this.
iii. See James William Coleman, The New Buddhism : The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition for interesting demographic data of this type.
iv. See Thanissaro, “Romancing the Buddha,” available on-line, and David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism for more on modern influences on, and presentations of, Buddhism.
v. Berkeley scholar Robert Sharf writes particularly clearly about the danger of reducing Buddhism to a single practice and his concern for what gets lost. See, for instance, “Losing Our Religion,” in Tricycle Summer 2007.
vi. Right Concentration depends critically on the proper practice of each of the preceding factors of the noble eightfold path (S 45.28), that is, on right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort and right mindfulness. Buddha’s gradual instruction (for instance, Udana 5.3) tells us that undertaking the noble eightfold path presupposes significant development of generosity, virtue, purity of mind and refuge.
vii. I did not start writing this essay with the intention of plugging my introductory book Buddhist Life/Buddhist Path: foundations of Buddhism based on earliest sources, but it was conceived around the idea of providing a more organic overview of the Buddha’s teaching, in which ideally all prerequisites to the various aspects of practice are clearly articulated, than is generally presented in introductory texts.

8 Responses to “Those Self-Absorbed Buddhists”

  1. Kevin Klauber Says:

    We in the West are Self Absorbed because that is what we are taught from early on. We are directed to take care of ourselves first and then one can work on providing for family, community ,etc.To a certain extent this is true. If one is not taking care of oneself, then one cannot share the experiences that shaped the person doing the helping. I never wanted to be part of ANY group until I got sober and later on started to see the light of the Buddha’s teaching. Of course I was self absorbed, what else did I have ? This again brings up why Buddhist teachings are so appealing to the Western mind ? Too much time , guilt , anger, having too much, and yes being Self-Absorbed . I miss seeing you and I want to come out soon. Once again, thank you for your devotion and teachings.

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  2. dsgordon Says:

    Interesting perspective .

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  3. dsgordon Says:

    Interesting perspective

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  4. dhammadhatu Says:

    Bhikkhu Cintita. In my opinion, there is not much that can be done to allay your concerns. Western Buddhism began from the adventures of liberal Westerners in Asia, such as Kornfield, Goldstein, Titmuss, etc, plus the decadence of the Mahayana tradition, such as Trungpa & Japanese Zen. For me, what makes people self-absorbed is sex and these Western adventurers were never taught Asian sexual morals by their Asia gurus nor by the Mahayana imports. The Asian gurus were interested in attracting as many hippies to their mass-market meditation retreats as possible rather than scaring away liberal Westerners with preachings about sexual morality. Many of these Western teachers have a Casanova trail of sexual adventuring as self-proclaimed gurus; declaring to be part of the lineage of so & so Ajahn while sexually seducing their so-called students & co-teachers. Further, the current Western monastic Sangha continues to preach sexual liberalism as something acceptable in Buddhism. When people don’t have clear sexual boundaries, it is not easy to be humble & non-self-absorbed due to the continued spinning around in the samsara of sexual craving, need & dukkha of cycles of failed relationships. In short, Western Buddhism is largely a Freudian psychotherapy business that is financially dependent upon the continuation rather than appeasement of suffering. Sexual liberalism results in no Brahmacharya thus no loss of self-absorption. Instead of teaching gods & humans, Western Buddhism mostly has hungry ghosts & hell beings as is followers. Kind regards.

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  5. bhikkhucintita Says:

    We are doubtlessly challenged in the West on the Buddhist path, but that is exactly why Buddhism is so important for us. We are individualistic, obsessed with sensual pleasures and devoted to shopping and consumption.

    Kevin,

    Thanks for sharing your experience in encountering the Dhamma. People with addictive behaviors are often the first to gain insight into the value of Buddhism because they experience the downside of our obsessive consummer culture so directly.

    dhammadhatu,

    I often feel discouraged that Buddhism the West is far beyond the reach of Buddhism. Obsession with sex is certainly a large part of the difficulties Westerners must overcome. Not only is this strongly tied in with our consummer culture, but it is also supported doctrinally by the paradigm of European Reommanticism and psychology I refer to. Look at Freud, who was squarely in this tradition, for whom human psychosis results significantly from suppressing sexual impulses. I also agree with what you say about Buddhism and psychotherapy. Freud said, “The aim of psychoanalysis is to relieve people of their neurotic unhappiness so that they can be normally unhappy.” I think the role of Buddhism is to take normally unhappy people and make them extraordinary.

    One of the main reasons Zen spread as successfully as it has in the USA is doubtlessly that it developed an ordained and trained priesthood, but this was only possible because in the Japanese tradition priests did not have to be celibate. Ironically, we are at the same time a very judgmental culture and our judgment can be particularly sharp concerning the sexual behavior of others. I think that scandal in Western Buddhism communities are all the more shocking because people expect teachers and priests to have the purity of monks, and often think they are monks.

    I am surprised, though, what you write about the Western Sangha. Sexual liberalism is certainly not something they exemplify in their lives. I know of only one sexual scandal involving an American monk, and only indirectly; my experience is that Western monastics are very careful about their precepts in this regard. Monastics are almost the only teachers who talk about, or even use the word, renunciation, or talk about sense restraint as a practice.

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  6. dhammadhatu Says:

    Thank you. I was not referring to the Western Theravada Monastic Sangha engaging in sexual misconduct but to the Western Monastic Sangha preaching to laypeople a very liberal view of sexual ethics.

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  7. bhikkhucintita Says:

    By the way, I started a thread at Dhamma Wheel about this essay:
    https://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=36&t=30765&p=448544#p448544

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  8. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Dhammadhatu,

    My experience is that the Western Mahayana and Tibetan Sanghas are much like the Theravada. They all follow the Vinaya, albeit in slightly different ways. And Westerners tend to observe more strictly than their Asian counterparts, I suppose because we want to get it right.

    Where sexual boundaries get fuzzy is primarily among non-Vinaya clergy, which includes almost the entire Japanese clergy and much of the Korean, and (as far as I can see) much of the Tibetan, along with their Western counterparts. These therefore are not technically Sangha. Otherwise, Vinaya monastics are pretty much universal in Buddhist Asia as far as I know.

    I don’t understand the Tibetan case very well, but alongside Vinaya monks (like the Dalai Lama), there are non-monastics who are regarded as lamas. I think this is partly because of the tulku system, whereby one can be a rebirth of a renowned teacher but choose not to live as a monk. Also the geshe system, whereby one can qualify as a Buddhist scholar as a monk, then disrobe and retain one’s geshe status. I think Trungpa may have been both a tulku and a geshe.

    The Vinaya monastics have very clear boundaries: if one engages in sexual intercourse, one has disrobed on the spot. Of course even this is sometimes overlooked in some times and places.

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