Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
I’m sick of practicing a restrictive Buddhism that rejects the world, that refuses to engage in culture and society as both participant and critic. I’m sick of a Buddhism that tries to escape the world by immersing itself in exotic cultures, obscure languages and obtuse philosophies, or by withdrawing into contemplative silence. I’m sick of a Buddhism that seals itself off within totalizing institutions that screen out real-world experiences, that perpetuates group think and cult behaviour. I’m sick of Buddhism as an escape from facing the complex realities of society. That kind of Buddhism is morally bankrupt.
I can no longer accept a Buddhism that has no imperative to advocate for human rights, that cannot make moral judgements about social systems that oppress huge segments of the world’s population, systems that perpetuate racism, classism and misogyny, that exploit labour and natural resources, that perpetuate war, poverty, police brutality and violence. I cannot accept a Buddhism that will not take a position on climate change and the wholesale destruction of living environments.
Buddhism is not a drug, but many people who practice Buddhism use it as a drug to anaesthetize themselves from the stress, anxiety and suffering of modern life. What’s worse, Buddhism is being taught as a drug, as a broad-based sedative to numb, calm and soothe the anxieties of the privileged classes. This kind of Buddhism shields people from feeling and reacting to both the passionate beauty and cold brutality of human life.
My experience is that contemporary western Buddhists have no sense of connection, compassion, ethical or social responsibility to other people. The only people they care about are themselves, and people exactly like themselves: rich, white, and upper class, It ignores the suffering of others as the karmic result of their own individual failure to “awaken” to Buddhist truths of impermanence and emptiness. I’ve been told by some practitioners that “compassion” in Buddhism means “teaching people the correct view of emptiness.” If I had known that this was the case, I never would have gotten involved in this religion.
Now I realize that many people in western Buddhism are incapable of making any kind of compassionate or empathic connection with anyone. Songs like “Friends are Empty Forms”, espoused as a core teaching by Nalandabodhi, make it blatantly obvious that they have no idea what it means to be a friend or a community. This dogma treats people as no more than a form of shunyata, or emptiness, under an imperative of non-attachment.
I’m sorry, folks, but no, friends are not empty forms. Friendship is sacred; it is love, and love, of which there is too little in this world, is both precious and sacred. It is the emanation of buddhanature. The problem that contemporary westerners suffer from today is not clinging and grasping in relationships, but a profound disconnection from each other (even while overly networked), isolation, alienation and depersonalization. People are not able to connect with others in a meaningful way that generates trust, warmth and intimacy. “Friends are empty forms” only exacerbates this form of sociopathology. A compassionate Buddhism treats people as people, with needs and feelings, not as a category of Buddhist dogma. I absolutely refuse to sing this song, and I will do everything in my power to dispute this hateful teaching.
These people are emotionally dangerous, because, contrary to what they preach, they are supremely self-centred; only the false self of “ego” has been replaced by yet another false self as “Buddhist.” As this false “Buddhist” self, they have no sense of empathy or ethical responsibility for their actions toward anyone; in short, they’re sociopathic.
Without ethics, without empathy, without a sense of personal responsibility for their actions, contemporary western Buddhism becomes sociopathic. This really hit me hard not just because of what happened in this particular sangha, but because I’ve discovered that it’s just a somewhat more extreme version of contemporary Buddhism as a whole. And that really hits hard, because I chose Buddhism as a religion that I thought was more ethical than most mainline Abrahamic religions (Christian, Jewish, Muslim).
I see that I was clearly mistaken, or misled by an interpretation of the dharma of compassion that many Buddhist communities don’t share. Their sense of social responsibility is derived solely from a concern for “looking like a Buddhist” toward others in their sangha, and somewhat more obliquely, within the community at large.
This is typical of the sociopath; they are masters at skillfully cultivating a public image as good, ethical, and even spiritual persons amongst their own religious group, while internally they have no sense of empathy or personal responsibility for anyone they relate to.
That’s why it’s very important how you define no self. It is the ‘self-that-feels-pain’ that is capable of feeling empathy for someone else’s pain. In terms of empathy or compassion, I do not feel your pain, I feel my pain, or I imagine the pain I would feel if I were in the position of a suffering person.
The self-without-pain is the typical ego-structure of the sociopath. He cannot feel the pain of another because his own ‘self’ does not feel that pain. He depersonalizes others as “non-entities” or “non-selves”, without feelings or worth that they should have any regard for. When he inflicts harm on another, it makes him feel good, powerful, like a superman—godlike. This is akin to the ‘deistic self’ that is the object of Vajrayana practice. Because he lacks a ‘self’ that has the capacity to feel the other’s pain, the sociopath assumes that the victim feels just as good about the abusive behaviour as he does.
Studies of sociopathy (diagnostic term: psychopathy), show that sociopaths are often highly accomplished people, supremely confident, exhibiting low stress, low anxiety, fearlessness, with a god-like sense of power and entitlement. In other words, sociopaths are the ideal Buddhists: they don’t suffer like normal people.
In order to be empathic and compassionate, you must have a well-formed self that is low in ego-centrism (not narcissistic), but capable of feeling pain, of feeling suffering, because it is only a self-that-feels-pain that is capable of feeling the pain of another.
But I don’t think its contemporary Buddhadharma alone that produces the Buddhist sociopath. It’s the Buddhist who is shielded by wealth, power and privilege who becomes the Buddhist sociopath. The wealthy Buddhist is morally and emotionally disconnected by his wealth and power from any sense of obligation to the rest of the world. He is further isolated and numbed from any sense of social responsibility by the practice of an individualistic and escapist Buddhism.
A common critique of contemporary western Buddhism is that no one teaches Buddhist ethics. I have found this to be true, thus far. With the exception of the engaged Buddhists, I have yet to hear any of the lamas or popular teachers of Buddhism in the West teach sila or Budddhist ethics. Yet in many Asian forms of Buddhism, the Buddhist path begins with sila or the study and practice of Budhdist ethics, then proceeds to samadhi, concentration-meditation, and panya, wisdom. At the very least, samadhi and panya are never taught without a thorouigh grounding in sila, Buddhist ethics.
Western Buddhism pushes meditation and individual enlightenment first, but fails to teach ethics as the responsibility that we share for others in society. We cannot even begin to develop a Buddhist view of social justice if we do not teach Buddhist ethics. Without ethics at the core of Buddhist teaching and practice, the discussion of Buddhist social justice becomes a self-congratulatory afterthought. Furthermore, without regular teachings on Buddhist ethics, a sangha cannot establish and sustain a healthy, sane and compassionate community.
I am absolutely in revolt against a Buddhism that assiduously avoids pain and suffering and that teaches others to do the same. I am in revolt against a Buddhism that uses philosophical abstractions like emptiness to avoid engagement with complex social issues and diverse human experiences. I am in revolt against a Buddhism that teaches a sociopathic detachment from other human beings as the supposed “virtue” of non-grasping.
I am in revolt against a “transcendent” and escapist Buddhism that refuses to grapple with the difficult issues of social systems, which are infinitely more complex than a conversation between two people. No, I’m sorry, but as someone who has practiced social science for thirty years, I’m here to tell you that “society” cannot be reduced to “a conversation between two people.” Social systems exhibit exponential complexity. Moreover, they are governed by social norms that must be worked out amongst diverse groups with often conflicting interests, conditions and positions within society.
Rather, I espouse the navayana of Dr. B. R. Ambekdar, who reframed contemporary Buddhism in India as engaged Buddhism, as a social movement fundamentally concerned with ethical relationships amongst human beings and with all living beings—Buddhism as the foundation of an ethical civilization. This Buddhism has at its centre, not a detached equanimity, but full engagement and equality within a diverse society, with social justice as the key practice to effect the liberty equality and fraternity of human beings. Ambedkar’s navayana is a tripartite project of liberty, equality, fraternity, which Babsaheb likened to the three-fold refuge in the Buddha, dharma and sangha.
Some lamas refer to Siddhartha Gotama as “rebel Buddha.” I propose instead a revolutionary Buddha, the navayana movement of of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. I call for passionate engagement, a revolutionary Buddhism which I have called the Dalit Buddhist Revolution.
—by the Editor, Shaun Bartone