The idea that life can be explained and mastered is a superstition. So’s the idea that it’s possible to live without doubt, or that existence is meant to be joyful, that someone or something out there is watching out for us. Do you hope to be enlightened by your Buddhist practice, or saved by your God? Okay. Why?
You’ll probably never fully answer this question, but that’s no reason to stop asking it. We need to be reminded that we can’t know, not just intellectually but viscerally. To abandon mystery is to lose our potential for change. Worse, to think we can manage that change is to be lost in superstition.
the cycle of branding, marketing and consumption
mirrors our instinctive attempts to buy into happiness
In one sense the Roman Catholicism and Tibetan Buddhism in which I was immersed for my first thirty years were more superstitious than the plain life I lead now, but in another sense, I’m more tempted than ever to believe in impossible things. I watch TV and find myself thinking that fame and fortune would make me happy. I browse the Internet and hope that a new app will solve my poor time management. I read about the Dalai Lama’s latest trip and feel pangs of regret for leaving Tibetan Buddhism and my illustrious friends.
You might consider the Tibetan belief in invisible demons a superstition. So literally are they taken that Ganden monastery in South India is divided by a wall, separating those who believe that Dolgyal is a good demon from those who believe he’s an evil one. There’s no place for those who don’t believe in him at all.
One day I woke up and realized I’d been consuming
Buddhism as greedily as a box of tasty chocolates
By contrast, the Tibetan teacher Thubten Yeshe’s favourite example of superstition was: supermarkets. A maverick lama, he was fascinated by consumerism and used comedy to break through our defenses and deliver subversive truths. He was right though: the cycle of branding, marketing and consumption mirrors our instinctive attempts to buy into happiness.
Beguiled by his great style, I barely glimpsed the explosive potential of the seeds he was planting. In time they completely undermined the cozy niche I thought I’d established in the Tibetan community. One day I woke up and realized I’d been consuming Buddhism as greedily as a box of tasty chocolates. Madhyamaka philosophy was elegant; tantric ritual was cool; Enlightenment was like a hazelnut swirl, my favorite.
Buddhism is just another product — contingent,
malleable and repeatedly misrepresented
Trying to align ourselves to a set of tenets, rather than exploring them, turns us into extremists and the tenets into superstitions. Dogma is belief abused; superstition is its bastard offspring. The problem begins when beliefs take on a life of their own, as if they’re separate from how we see them. Dharma is not a set of teachings and rituals. It’s something you do, and everyone does it differently. We need to tear down our perceptions of it again and again until it becomes our own, based on experience, able to absorb all doubt and challenge. To effect change it must become flexible. Without a spirit of open enquiry, we’ll never reject old interpretations in favor of new insights; they’ll never help us move along.
To embrace Buddhism sincerely means to recognize it as just another product — contingent, malleable and repeatedly misrepresented by people who think they know best. It nourishes us only when we have no illusions about it.
How easily those illusions take root, though. We can all use the guidance and support of a good mentor, but are easily lulled into the superstition that the relationship itself will save us — especially if the mentor is renowned. We can practice mindfulness of the breath hoping it will transform us, but without mindfulness of our motives it won’t, and that’s a tricky, never-ending meditation.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, superstition is unreasoning awe or fear of something unknown, mysterious, or imaginary. Living realistically then is to no longer be awed or frightened by the unknown, the mysterious and the imaginary. You will experience happiness, and you’ll sometimes feel secure, but you’ll never manage either one. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
The most dangerous superstition of all is that if we stop trying to make everything right, we’ll have no reason to live, love or prosper. The great leap of faith is to let it be.