Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Buddhism is a dead religion. That is, if you practice it as a religion. If you don’t practice it as a religion, but as a journey to explore the infinite complexity of self and the universe, then it’s vibrantly alive. The dharma is nothing more, and nothing less, than a set of instructions that empowers one to unveil and observe the universe in the process of its unfolding. It’s a map, a book of clues to treasures that are hidden in the cosmos. Which would you rather have—the clue or the treasure it points to? It’s a code that points you to other places in the world. Buddhism rarely points to itself. It is always pointing to something else beyond itself. If you don’t learn to go beyond Buddhism, you get stuck performing a stock character in a play called the Dead Buddhist Society.
Credit: The Red Plastic Buddha band, “Sunflower Sessions” album.
The Buddha called himself “Tathagata”, which means, “thus being, one who has gone beyond.” The Buddha went way beyond. He went beyond even his own teachings and practice to a level of reality that we don’t see unless we’re awakened. To fully realize the teachings of Buddhism, you must go beyond Buddhism, far beyond. Buddhism is only the jumping off point into the vastness of the universe; the trajectory is cosmic reality.
Om gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi swaha:
“Going, going, going on beyond, always going on beyond, always becoming Buddha.”
To fully realize Buddhism, you must go beyond the Abbhidharma, with its rules and practices. These are meant to alleviate suffering, but you must go beyond the problem of suffering. You must go beyond doctrine. The dharma only points to another level of reality, another way to perceive reality. What Buddhism does is change your perception of reality, to see an alternate reality, multiple alternate realities. That is the “awakening” one is supposed to experience. In order to know what it means, to experience it, you must let go of the dharma, let go of practice, let go of “being a Buddhist”, whatever that means to you. You must go beyond the dharma, gone, gone, gone beyond.
It’s a magical way of perceiving reality, but it’s not “magic.” There is no need to conduct rituals or cast spells. It’s simply a more complex way of perceiving reality, without being limited by labels and concepts. Labels and concepts are very useful for an instrumental perception of reality. There’s nothing wrong with labels, except that they aren’t sophisticated enough to describe complex reality. A label pins down an object to this one thing, but any object is more than just one thing; it’s countless interrelated things.
What makes magic dharma different from other kinds of “magic” is that while you experience the same kind of enveloping bliss and magical perceptions, you are also completely rational and logical at the same time. You never lose your sense of reality, your good judgement, ethical behaviour, gentleness, compassion, love. You never got lost in a self-deluded mind. There is no fear of becoming psychotic. You are still totally reality-based. That’s what I experience now that’s different from using psychedelics or pagan magic. Buddha figured out how to do this without losing a sharp perception of reality.
What I’m referring to here is not what is commonly called “direct perception”, seeing ordinary reality without the hindrances of labels or concepts. Rather, what I experience as a result of meditation is an altered reality, an altered perceptions of reality. Moreover, the point is not to use science to prove the truth of Buddhist dharma, often called scientific materialism, but to use the dharma as a map to a Greater Reality.
As I proceed, I’m less interested in studying Buddhism as a religion per se than in what Buddhism points to. I’m interested in finding phenomena and concepts in the natural world, in science, literature and art that resonate with Buddhism. I’m interested in scholarly and artistic work that is influenced by Buddhism. A good example of this is the work of physicist David Bohm. He was deeply influenced by Buddhist and Vedic philosophy in his work on physical cosmology. Likewise, ecologist Fritjof Capra was deeply interested in Buddhism and eastern philosophy, and wrote The Web of Life and The Tao of Physics from that perspective. Chemist Francisco Varella who pioneered Systems Theory was deeply influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. Composer John Cage had a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism, although he never meditated. He read books on Zen Buddhism and the iChing used those ideas to shape his approach to music. One of my favourite Cage works, The Ten Thousand Things, was influenced by the Tao Te Ching. James Pritchet wrote of Cage’s composition: “The Ten Thousand Things” is a common phrase found in Taoist and Buddhist writings to connote the material diversity of the universe.” Dogen wrote:
To study the Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.
Joanna Macy, who was Fritjof Capra’s doctoral student at the time that he wrote The Web of Life, then wrote Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory as her doctoral dissertation; in turn, a book which I read for my doctoral dissertation. It was Macy’s book that taught me both systems theory and the deeper meaning of pratityasamutpada, the core of the Buddha’s awakening; it was her book that led to my awakening to the dharma. It was through Macy’s work that I awakened to the truth of the inter-connectedness of all beings, all reality, impermanence as process, the continuous and infinite unfolding of phenomena, “the ten thousand things.”
What these artists, scientists and thinkers have in common is that they go beyond Buddhist dharma to the phenomena that it points to. The dharma allows them to develop a different perception of that reality, often leading to paradigm shifts, radical disruptions of accepted scientific theory and aesthetics. The dharma is the jumping off point that launches one into a completely open state of consciousness, that yields altered perceptions and generates new concepts, new ways of thinking about the world. Buddhism pushes the practitioner to question one’s socially conditioned reactions and opinions, and to think of “self” and “world” in ways that are counter-intuitive.
Much of traditional dharma teaches you to seek the experience of emptiness. Well, if you really want emptiness and you keep striving for emptiness, that’s what you’ll get—emptiness. So go ahead, live a life that is nothing but emptiness: empty of human warmth, empty of love, empty of nature and creativity, empty of human society, empty of anything meaningful or worthwhile. Sit in meditation halls for weeks and months on end, wondering when “it” is finally going to happen.
Or let go of Buddhism and go beyond. Let the dharma launch you into a vast space that is not void of phenomena, but filled with an infinite array of phenomena that can be experienced in surprising and fantastic ways. Let go of traditional doctrine and let the dharma show you how to experience life as the process of creation in its moment-by-moment unfolding. Let go of Buddhism altogether and learn to fly with the Buddhas, gone, gone, gone beyond.
Meanwhile, if you’re bored sitting in the meditation hall, steal away, put on your headphones and listen to my new favourite band, the Red Plastic Buddha, from Chicago. This is their first release, “Sunflower Sessions.” This and subsequent releases, “All Out Revolution” and “Songs for Mara” are available on Bandcamp and iTunes.