Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Western Buddhism has become neo-liberal Buddhism for profit, Retail Buddhism.
Can money buy happiness? It’s an age-old question that researchers recently have become eager to answer. A 2016 study by Case Western Reserve University found that making more money reduced negative emotions for people earning less than $80,000, but the benefits disappeared after the $200,000 threshold was reached. That may help explain why businessman Khajak Keledjian “felt an emptiness” when he sold a minority stake in his retail company, Intermix, to a private-equity firm in 2007, a transaction that’s typically considered a victory. “The world that I was in—this very driven New York world—didn’t have a pause button,” he said. “I needed something that gave me balance.”
A close friend, Quest Partners founder Nigol Koulajian, urged him to look beyond the visible and the material. “At that time I actually didn’t know what he meant by that,” said Keledjian, raising his eyebrows in mock disbelief. And yet he was intrigued and restless enough to embark on a personal quest that led him to kundalini yoga, which incorporates challenging breathing techniques; vipassana, one of India’s ancient forms of meditation; and Burning Man, a free-spirited art and music festival in Nevada. Keledjian, a 2008 Crain’s 40 Under 40 honoree, sold Intermix to Gap for $130 million in 2012. He eventually started his own meditation company, Inscape.
As I said in my recent post, “The New Brahmins and the Buddhist Precariat“, Buddhism is replete with deeply embedded class interests. This Buddhism-as-business-venture is another glaring example of that.
Buddhism in the West has become so engorged with upper class tastes and politics that I refuse to say that I practice Buddhism anymore. I practice Ambedkarism, the Buddhism of the poor, the working class, the preariat, the outcaste—literally outcaste, as it is the Buddhism of the former Untouchables in India. Amedkarism is Buddhism centered around a practice of political engagement for caste/class advancement. Revolutionary Buddhism.
[Written in response to the latest Imperfect Buddha podcast at Post-Traditional Buddhism. Thanks to Matt and Stuart who keep putting out this challenging work.]
It’s been hard to follow this podcast as a whole since I’m not familiar with Jordon Peterson’s or Sam Harris’ work. But what it sparked for me was the question: “what is the point or value of your Buddhist practice?” It’s more than therapeutic, making me feel more calm or happier, although that’s helpful.
It’s no longer about ‘achieving or arriving’ at enlightenment, as a static, absolute state of mind or being beyond ‘suffering’. It’s now about shifting consciousness into an ongoing process that yields new insights into self/other, consciousness, reality, world, society, life, evolution, etc. both intellectually and experientially. It’s a process of ongoing shifts of consciousness that yields new insights into one’s own condition and the condition of humanity. But that can’t be done by meditation alone. It is provoked by an interaction of practices: meditation, observation of life, and reflection.
It’s not about arriving at some absolute or ‘correct’ truth (politically correct or otherwise) but encountering startling new insights and perspectives that challenge what you thought was true, that shifts you into new perspectives that might be true that you hadn’t seen before. Meditation is the process of ‘clearing the decks’ of habitual mental and emotional states and preconcieved notions so that you can experience something new.
The primary method is “inquiry”, questioning all experience, including Buddhist teachings. I see Buddhism as ‘wisdom that comes from radical doubt’: everything can be tested, probed, deconstructed, investigated, viewed from different perspectives.
It’s about developing new capacities to experience life in an intense and transformative way. It’s also about seeing and experiencing new connections between things that you had not noticed before.
It’s seeing dharma as a method of inquiry rather than as “truth”. the investigation of self or non-self as process, world as process, interdependence as process, impermanence and emptiness as process, etc, as practices of inquiry and critique rather than static “truth.” In such a process, one never arrives at an absolute ‘truth’, but engages in an ongoing process of discovering new ways of perceiving life.
And heres what it’s not: it’s not about eliminating all suffering, all pain, all imperfection, but becoming familiar with it, drawing closer to it, without being crippled or destroyed by it. It’s not about adding pain or making things worse, but about accepting that life is pain. It’s about loving the beauty and tragedy of life with all its joys and sorrows. Life is never whole or perfectly ordered; it is always in the process of evolution and transformation. Life never arrives at any perfected state because it is always on its way to becoming something else.
I spent too much of my life chasing an end to my personal suffering, in sobriety programs and therapy, then in Buddhism. Once I learned to meditate and watch my own mind, that pretty much solved most of my personal suffering. The rest is just life, and life sucks sometimes. People suffer, animals suffer, we all suffer. But can you learn to love life the way it is?
I used to expect that the world should be a perfect and ideal place, a utopia. But the Buddha’s teaching on suffering shows that there is no ideal state, because optimal states don’t last. To expect that your blissful mental state, won through years of meditation, is going to become a permanent condition, i.e. niibbana, is not only absurd, it’s precisely what Buddha called the root of suffering: optimal states don’t last, everything changes. Attainable nibbana is becoming comfortable with uncertainty and change. So don’t expect a utopia; utopias don’t last. I learned to have respect for the process of change, evolution, transformation, which is never-ending, Life is always creating and adapting to new situations. Science shows us that evolution is provoked by environmental stress, and pressure. It transforms these pressures into new adaptations, new beautiful and diverse structures and amazing functions. I stopped expecting utopia and learned to love the process of evolution.