Flying Free

FreefallIt’s strange how Gotama’s path to freedom became an organized religion—but then, Buddhism is a treasury of paradoxes.

It’s also a cradle of iconoclasts. How many owe a debt of gratitude to the very foundations they’ve smashed. For twenty-six hundred years the institutions of Buddhism preserved the history and pickled the words. Siddhattha’s human story was turned into trite formulas—noble truths, folds of a path, heaps of consciousness—untouchable arrangements of words that as easily bog you down in dogma as unleash your imagination. Yes, the paradoxes abound.

To be more specific, we owe a debt of gratitude to those Buddhists who work in the uneasy shadow of paradox, wrenching fresh meaning from dry words and usurping the local establishment.

It’s always local. There’s no monolithic Buddhism, just a thousand regional interpretations and communities, each sprouting its own its left and right wings. It comes down to the tension between the conservatives and the progressives, one claiming to own the original and the other claiming it can’t be owned. Gotama himself cut off his beautiful long hair and abandoned his family, driving a knife deep into the hearts of his loved ones. If he were around today he’d be trashed in the tabloids and trolled on social media.

Liberation must be wrenched from dogma

Liberation cannot be guaranteed. It must be wrenched from dogma, puzzled over like a cryptic equation until the simplicity is unlocked and you feel, “Yes! Surely, this is what he felt.” Somehow, it must explain his audacious claim.” Perfect enlightenment indeed.

One thing’s for sure. Breakthrough takes special courage—an outrageous leap of faith in oneself, one that cannot coexist with the certainties of any ancient and venerable tradition.

I’m Back

Change. Sometimes we choose it; sometimes it’s thrust upon us.

Caroline and I have just gone through a series of changes—chaotic and nerve-wracking, but on the whole, good. The result is that we’re in a new house, and I have a new office. In the midst of a world gone mad, all is calm here.

During that upheaval my work also moved to a new footing. has become a portal for daily meditation and a pragmatic online presence. I’ll be offering videos, streaming audio, webinars and online courses. Yes, mindfulness for the masses, I’m on the bandwagon now, but it’s more a widening of scope than a change of direction. It’s about getting to work.

The Naked Monk has continued to attract visitors in my absence, whom I welcome. My newsletter subscribers have for the most part remained. Hi there. It’s good to be back.

This website is more specifically about Buddhism: the theory, the politics, the scholasticism and the happenings. I’ll maintain my stance as a critic from a short distance. Every religion has its cast of players: conservatives like the Dalai Lama, critics from within like Stephen Batchelor and critics from the outside like The Naked Monk. I’m not any old outsider though. I’m an apostate. For eight years I strove to conform, rise through the ranks and become enlightened. You can question my motives, my approach and my goals, but I was just trying to do what everyone else seemed to be doing.

What counts is not what you believe but what you experience

Over time that didn’t sit well with me. I figured the Buddha would have done things differently, so one day I decided the best way for me to figure that out was on my own, away from the believers and the followers. By stepping away I honored the instinct that brought me to Buddhism in the first place: that what counts is not what you believe but what you experience—and how you respond.

The Naked Monk simply attempts to place Buddhism within the frame of the Buddha’s teachings. It’s a great exercise, for it makes you constantly wonder what the Buddha had in mind; you don’t get bogged down in one interpretation or another. Each Buddhist establishment has its own spin, which is fair enough, but the main job of every establishment is to defend its ground, and that’s not practice; it’s politics. Only those with no particular Buddhism to call home are really free to question.

That said, it’s scary to stand on shifting ground and good to know there are others of like mind. This blog has attracted such people, and for all of you I’m grateful. Please write and let me know your thoughts, your questions and especially your concerns. Let’s explore them together.

After Buddhism

After BuddhismFor the most part, traditional Buddhists nervously paint Stephen Batchelor as the bad boy of modern Buddhism, a half-baked misinterpreter who throws the baby out with the bathwater.

Unfortunately for them, he’s a highly articulate and creative thinker whose scholarship speaks for itself.

His new book After Buddhism takes after Gianni Vattimo’s After Christianity. Both books seek to interpret (some would say invent) their respective religion in ways that are sensible to modern readers. That means, quite simply, that neither author expects us to put aside our common sense.

Modern Buddhists especially need a Buddha who bleeds, weeps, ages and suffers like the rest of us, who is not a grotesque parody of saintly perfection. If the Buddha really exhibited the 32 major bodily signs described by tradition, says Batchelor, “he would be a monster.”

In this book, Batchelor explores his plainly relatable Buddha by highlighting the man’s conversations with lesser known contemporaries: bit-players who are almost entirely ignored by traditional scholars. The most educated among them, Doctor Jivaka, is very helpful to the Buddha’s community but doesn’t seem the least bit interested in his Dharma. Another, Mahāli the Licchavi nobleman, asks the Buddha to confirm that, “life is suffering.” This phrase is common shorthand today for so-called Buddhist philosophy and is recited by rote in ‘authoritative’ books. Significantly, the Buddha dismisses Mahāli’s simplistic notion, countering that life is “also pleasurable.”

After Buddhism is written for a modern world with no divine beings, that views metaphysics with suspicion and has little doubt that humankind is destined for oblivion

Batchelor upsets the apple cart of tradition and piques one’s suspicion that the doctrines of Buddhism are an institutional afterthought, a construct derived from, but not respectful of, what the Buddha taught. It’s no wonder the religious authorities try to dismiss him; and yet his influence grows.

In fact, Batchelor’s main thesis is even more revolutionary and mundane. He is of the opinion that the Buddha didn’t teach any doctrine at all; merely a way to let go of reactivity—though that’s hardly trivial. Reactivity is our animal mode; to transcend it may be the most pragmatic enlightenment possible.

Reading about the Buddha’s encounters with his contemporaries, one gets the distinct impression that Buddhism was invented after the Buddha’s death, just as was Christianity after Christ’s death.

Out of the unlikely hat of a 26-century old religion, Batchelor pulls a compelling and very relevant white rabbit

Batchelor is not just trying to stir things up. This book is far-reaching and constructive. It serves a deep need that’s rarely addressed: a historical evaluation of Buddhism; what he calls, “rethinking the dharma from the ground up.” It is written for a modern world with no divine beings, that views metaphysics with suspicion and has little doubt that humankind is destined for oblivion. Out of the unlikely hat of a 26-century old religion, Batchelor pulls a compelling and very relevant white rabbit.

After Buddhism is both a work of art and a demonstration of the Buddha’s artistry. By condemning Batchelor’s creativity, diehard defenders of Buddhist faith yet again make themselves look small and timid. By contrast, spiritual explorers with nothing to defend are buoyed by his insight and lack of pretense.

If you have any interest in the divergent stories of Buddha and Buddhism, this book provides a plethora of new perspectives. Like the Buddha’s metaphorical elephant, you can inspect them from many sides and get a  better sense of his life and times.

Will that be a complete, infallible rendering of precisely what the Buddha meant? Think again. No self-respecting Buddhist would invest in such illusory certainties.

Buddhism, or dharma?

Last week, at the Garrison Institute in upstate New York, on the banks of the Hudson River, I was reunited with an old friend. It was very good to see him, and also a poignant reminder of the passage of time.

Forty years have passed since we met in the rural hamlet of Schwendi in Switzerland. A handful of houses lay at the end of the road, which gave onto a small farm and a dense forest. Before one doorway, a group of shaven-headed, red-robed Westerners half-heartedly imitated Tibetan monks at debate, clapping hands and reciting definitions. My approach interrupted their exercise, and a bored-looking Stephen Batchelor jumped to his feet with obvious relief.

The mandate of that tiny community was to produce a cadre of teachers for Tibetan Buddhism’s spread to the West. I was joining them.

The cultural transition we grandiosely prepared for ended up being more nuanced and ambiguous than any of us expected. As I was to learn over the next few years, debate was hardly the right word for the Tibetan practice of mtshan nyid (definitions). It was a powerful learning tool and could certainly be disputatious, but it was quite the reverse of the free thinking that plunged our forefathers into the paroxysms of the Enlightenment. We were after a different sort of Enlightenment, and our attempt to replicate the medieval Asian mindset triggered a whole new set of paroxysms. Some of us acknowledged the fact. Others hung on to their timorous certainties, the prime one being the sacred status of all things Tibetan.

Stephen became one of the only people with whom I could freely express my doubts. On long walks through the Schwendi forest, and later on perambulations around Mont Pèlerin, we came to the same tacit conclusion: much of what we were being encouraged to do there was a waste of time.

Buddhism is embodied in books, rituals and institutions, whereas dharma grows in the heart.

This was blasphemy. We spoke cautiously of it to others, if at all. It was undermining my reasons for being there so, to be absolutely sure, I moved into the den of the lion: Sera Monastic University in South India. I’ve always had a reckless streak, and this time I truly lost my footing. My suspicions were confirmed and my desolation was complete. Just like other monks and nuns, just like scientists and politicians, Tibetan monastics may be driven by good intentions, but also by ambition, passion, rivalry and intrigue. They’re just human beings. I went to Sri Lanka and found the same thing, though I had fewer expectations, and so was less disappointed.

But I couldn’t let it go. It was catastrophic for my monk’s vocation, and I had to move on. That was thirty years ago.

Shunning organized Buddhism was a disastrous career move, but my integrity was at stake and I saw no alternative. I had to find a language, a voice and a vantage of my own, outside of any Asian tradition.

Buddhism is embodied in books, rituals and institutions, whereas dharma grows in the heart. My mission was to see through Buddhism. Could I really divorce the two or was I tilting at windmills? I knew what I’d learned, now I had to see what it was worth. If I could capture the imagination of a non-Buddhist audience, I’d be on track. The question was, how to express it?

Early Buddhist teachings helped. They were less structured and more colloquial than the later Tibetan scriptures. I read beyond that, though. Evolutionary psychology, biology and history turned out to be useful. Scientific studies of Buddhist brains, not so much. How do you measure meditation anyway? What I needed was to examine what the Buddha talked about without resorting to the stilted language of arcane Buddhism.

Some of my peers escaped into university, but that wasn’t for me. Academia makes perfectly intelligent people write very badly.

I went through a long spiritual vagabondage, and realized what I was seeking only when I found it: someone of like mind. Her name was Caroline and she was no Buddhist, but she understood dharma and she understood me. Validation is everything. Within months I was teaching, and my memoir was taking shape. We’ve been partners ever since.

In 2011 I eerily received an invitation to the Buddhist Teachers Council at the Garrison Institute. I have no idea how I appeared on their radar, but I went. My peers were welcoming, but I still didn’t fit in. It’s weird. I totally relate to what the Buddha taught, but can’t relate at all to traditional Buddhists.

It’s not what you believe that counts; it’s what you do

On the other hand, it’s always a pleasure to see Stephen again. He’s like a brother, and although we took very different paths we’re still of very like mind. Still, he somehow managed to dispense with orthodoxy without ever leaving the fold, and eloquently too. For that, I tip my hat to him.

I am no guru. I live a worldly life and am as conflicted about myself as my students are. That’s important. It’s a credential. What matters is not that I’ve reached some level of perfection but that I have an ongoing relationship with my imperfections. My demons aren’t gone. Rather, I’ve befriended them.

I teach by putting what people already know in a new light. It connects me with others and I love it. If life has a purpose, this is it.

My next book is about the Buddha’s eightfold path, and it’ll steer clear of Buddhism. It’s about dharma, not doctrine or philosophy. I’m borrowing freely from a new language devised by Stephen, which he calls “Rebuilding Buddhism from the ground up.” It’s audacious.

Just as he and I gave up Tibetan debate years ago, we also gave up praying to invisible demons and expecting to be free of suffering. Awakening is not a shattering breakthrough; it’s a modest acceptance of any moment in life, preferably every one. Also, it’s not what you believe that counts; it’s what you do. That alone determines your experience of life. You can’t follow in someone else’s footsteps; they’ll never fit.

I guide workshops and one-on-one, by Skype and in person. My old teachers wouldn’t approve of what I teach. They wouldn’t recognize it. Still, this is my respectful homage to them—for by hook or by crook I learned, and I thank them.

All of this swirls in my mind as I drive home from Garrison, north on Highway 87, where three lanes give way to two, and the traffic thins towards frozen Canada. I’ve lived here half my life and yet, just as in the land of my birth, I feel I’m entering a foreign country. That’s sort of how I feel about Buddhism. I’ve heard that this is the predilection of many writers — and I thought writing would help me find my way home….

I’ve learned to let go of who I think I should be, to savor life, to accept the woe and the joy in whatever measure they befall me. The freedom I’m after must be able to encompass them both. Else, what use could it be?


Why Believe?

To trust the Buddha simply means to trust in your own experience and to find your own way

It’s time to stop treating the Buddhist scriptures as sacred truths and start judging them based on what they actually do. It’s unconscionable to keep believing in the Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path just because the Buddha said so. He also said we should judge his teachings by looking at their results, not their promises. It shouldn’t even matter that he said it. It’s just common sense.

Buddhism is growing in popularity among educated people while other religions decline because it’s known as scientific, rational and democratic—but that’s not really true. You’ll never be able to put the doctrines of karma and reincarnation under the microscope. Also, you can’t possibly measure meditation, notwithstanding all the ‘scientific studies’ on it. The contemplative life and scientific method are utterly different things.

And so what? It doesn’t matter. Why does anybody think it does?

Many converts to Buddhism have turned their backs on the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an, but still believe that Truth is embedded in scripture, that it needs to be defended and, most absurd of all, that it must be dialectically consistent. This religious notion of truth is as fragile as it is deluded. To trust the Buddha simply means to trust in your own experience and to find your own way.

The man may have left a rich legacy of teaching, but make no mistake: it’s been manhandled by generations of pious marauders who’ve used every trick in the book to make it look sacred. Meanwhile, truth is in the eye of the beholder.

We awaken to the only miracle that counts: being conscious of ourselves and of one another

That’s not to say that it’s all relative, but that we’ll only find it by following the evidence of our senses: the eye, ear, nose, tongue and touch. Sensory input and human intelligence may not have the stamp of divine authority—they’re shaky ground indeed—but they’re all we’ve got to go on. Starting from immediate experience, we who dare can rebuild our notions of what we feel, what we think and how we live. Understanding that, we awaken to the only miracle that counts: being conscious of ourselves and of one another.

When you’re awake like that, past lives, telepathy and mind over matter simply don’t matter. Age-old and new-age preoccupations with spiritual transcendence and saintly perfection are as much an obstacle to awakening as crass materialism; perhaps even more so because they’re mere vanities posing as spiritual goals. Consumerism at least knows that it’s superficial and soulless.

Human sensitivity: anyone can cultivate it; few do

Buddhist philosophers revel in their paradoxes and words of wisdom, but listening carefully to ordinary people in ordinary lives reveals that they too gain insight into temporality, contingency and love. Not everyone gets it, but neither do all Buddhists. It’s got nothing to do with what beliefs you subscribe to. It’s a matter of human sensitivity. Anyone can cultivate it; few do.

The Buddha’s path is an ancient one, something he claimed not to have invented but to have rediscovered. It didn’t end with him. We each have the opportunity to rediscover it anew. Whether it will finally put an end to human misery seems unlikely; at best, it’s a matter of conjecture. However, it’s worth exploring. What else are you going to do with your life? Why not something daring and grand?


The Seductions of Scholarship

Dharma, karma, samsara and nirvana may have been absorbed into the English language, but if you become a Buddhist you’ll learn their real meaning. To fully grasp them you also need to understand dukkha, anatta, tanya and several thousand other terms. It’s difficult for a beginner, but to the extent that you get it, whether in an Asian or a European language, the more comfortable you’ll feel.

The question is whether that comfort is actually a good thing. After all, to grasp dharma is to grasp the matter of life itself, not just esoteric theory. Sadly, the study of Buddhism can seriously distract you from dharma. Worse still, it can leave you with a false sense of accomplishment.

This paradox leads some Buddhists to be reject all scholarship, and decide that the only thing that counts is sitting in strenuous meditation. They’re stuck in the opposite extreme. As my old teacher Gen Rabten used to say, if you don’t study, what are you going to meditate on?

Scholars sometimes forget that dharma is just the practice of being.

But he was a Gelugpa, from the Tibetan sect that makes a whole lifestyle of out of scholarship. Like medieval Christian monks, dusty old rabbis and bookish mullahs, Buddhist scholars too sometimes become obsessed with the minutiae of the scriptures and the grandness of their metaphysics. Not infrequently, they forget that dharma is just the practice of being. It’s frighteningly simple.

Simplicity scares those who revel in their intellect and desperately need to understand. ‘Living simply’ basically means seeing and thinking clearly. It’s not easy. What is easy is letting opinions and defensiveness clutter the mind and obscure its natural clarity.

Scholarship easily becomes a matter of self-satisfaction. That’s okay if you can let go, but those things in which we invest the most time and effort are precisely the ones we cling to most determinedly. The point of dharma is to cultivate a new way of being that’s light on opinion and is distinctly undefensive.

Buddhist scholars can be intellectual engineers, so comfortable in the mastery of their subject that they derive their entire emotional satisfaction from its exercise. That’s not so great. Engineers often flee the emotional uncertainty of intimacy by securing themselves with the nuts and bolts of their trade. Buddhists who’ve mastered the scriptures, or even the lonely technology of meditative states (jhānas), may well be on the run from people. Then, those skills count for very little.

When you feel that others don’t get the dharma and you do, take a moment to look at how you are, not just at the ideas and logic that keep you safely at arm’s length. Perhaps your words put you at odds with each other even when your understanding doesn’t. If you read or hear someone misusing the words dharma or nirvana, bear in mind that that’s not really understanding — it’s just an opinion — and ask yourself what’s important.

Isn’t it all about the startling mystery of being alive and conscious, here and now, for absolutely no particular reason? And isn’t it even sweeter when you can share that insight in the silence that falls where words fail?