Thursday, December 31, 2009

Craven Westerners: Buddhism For Bozos Part II

The last post, "Buddhism For Bozos", focused on the central teaching of Buddhism: that all suffering is the result of craving, and that the elimination of suffering requires the eradication of craving. Much of modern Buddhism in the west tends to sidestep this teaching and focuses instead on what people actually crave: a better, less stressful life, a more peaceful mind, some practical wisdom on how to live more intelligently, meditation practices that make us feel better, more compassionate, healthier, and happier. Rather than directly confront our cravings, modern western Buddhism tends to cultivate cravings that are  less crude than our normal appetites would have us indulge. This is, comparatively speaking, a positive thing. Buddhism does not approach the matter of craving by making the perfect the enemy of the good. It tries at every level to reduce cravings where it is not possible to eliminate them, to discipline craving where they tend to run wild, even to condone craving that is not recognized by us as such.

The principle of "Good Conduct" in the Middle Way Eightfold Path is not idealistic. Buddhism does not expect people to realize nirvana in an instant. Therefore, it recognizes that people have to gradually reduce their cravings by cultivating conduct which does not support craving, and even conduct which deliberating undermines and discourages craving. This is particularly important to westerners, since western culture has historically always tended towards craven desire, and modern western culture seems to have elevated craven desiring to some kind of pinnacle of human achievement. It's what we are all expected to pursue, with as much vigor and enthusiasm as we can, and not give in to the "weakness" which would have us settle for less than the best in everything.

"Carpe Diem!" (Seize the day!) is the call to arms for the westerner, whereas for the eastern Buddhist the battle of life is conceived quite differently. The original Buddhist was called not to make the most of this life by pursuing his cravings to the utmost, but instead the opposite: to fight desire, to fight his cravings, and not to give into his craven nature. As mentioned in the previous post, Buddhism took a novel approach to this battle, which has been central to most religions since ancient times. Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita is also seen as an advisor to the warrior Arjuna, telling him to fight the Asuras (desires) through sacred combat. Eastern religion's approach to desire has been one that might be called "the diversion of attention". Instead of dwelling on desire and its fulfillment, one is advised to meditate on God, and to allow God to direct one's life and fulfill one's needs. Surrender to God is the call of the ancient Hindu, therefore. And the ancient Hindu method was one of surrendering one's desires, rather than fulfilling them. The central rite of ancient Hinduism was the sacrificial fire, into which one poured one's offerings, allowing God to burn up one's desires.

Gotama did not find this method to be productive. He tried the life of an ascetic, and found that it did not actually burn up his desires. Instead, it merely inflamed them. He reasoned that the entire viewpoint of traditional Hinduism itself actually inflamed one's desires rather than bring them to an end. It's belief in an eternal soul and Gods and Goddesses created a cosmological system that guaranteed endless cravings, if not for material goods and sensual pleasure, then for metaphysical salvation, peace, and heavenly bliss. His solution was to inspect all these matters directly, and see that they were all merely "concepts", meaning empty thoughts and impulses, without any substance in reality. By seeing that all things were impermament, changing, shifting, dying, and being reborn over and over again, he became convinced that there was nothing to crave in any of them. Hence, his cravings collapsed through the strength of his insight, and the radical view this insight produced in him.

Modern western Buddhist tends to be afraid to directly address this insight into craving. There is a fair amount of talk in western Buddhism about insight, about the "Void", about clarity, peace, and happiness, about "emptiness", about states of mind that are powerfully easeful and blissful, but not much talk about the cessation of craving. You might hardly even be aware that Gotama ever taught such a thing, much less that it was the central focus of his teaching and path. When Buddhist talk about "emptiness", they tend to be very careful to make it clear that they aren't talking about the world, they are merely talking about their own minds, about "concepts", etc. But that was not Gotama's original use of the idea. He was talking very specifically about all the phenomenal objects of one's seeking, from the most ordinary to the most metaphysical. He was not talking only about metaphysical craving, however, he was talking about all of it, including the desire to have a happy, fulfilled life or ordinary pleasure and achievements. To Gotama, the entire world of sensual pleasures and ordinary desire was itself "empty", and thus all its cravings pointless and without substance.

Seeing that the world is empty produces a radical shift in perspective: it undermines the whole purpose of craving. If we see that what we have been pursuing is a mirage, and cannot be held or attained, not because it's really difficult, but because it isn't even real, we have to give up the craving, or we are destined to endless suffering and misery. But westerners tend to reject the notion that the world isn't real. We are very convinced that the world is indeed, real. We just notice that it tends to be very frustrating, and that we need to learn a better way to relate to it. So westerners initially become attracted to Buddhism because they notice that Buddhist tend to be more at peace than craven westerners, and they'd like some of that action. They start to take up Buddhist practices and meditations and conduct, and feel better just from that. This isn't a bad thing, mind you. It's a movement in the right direction, to be sure. But it evades the central teachings of Buddhism in the search for peripheral effects that can benefit it's ongoing dedication to craving itself. The beginning western Buddhist isn't trying to reduce his cravings, per se, he's just trying to be more intelligent in his pursuit of craving. At a certain point, however, he begins to find conflict in himself, and in Buddhism itself, because the deeper practices of Buddhism are not designed to support the life of "higher craving", they are designed to undermine it.

Westerners, we have to recall, really, really like their cravings. The original western religions, generally called "paganism", were rooted in shamanistic practices aimed at getting the goods of life: better harvests, more children, more goats and camels, protection from bad things, including bad weather and demonic spirits, all for the purpose of having a more enjoyable life. Some of their rituals were sacrificial, as in the east, but many were also hedonistic. The primary celebration was the feast, in which people enjoyed as much food, drink, dance, music, and other entertainments as they could afford for as long as they could. Intoxication was a regular feature of these feasts, and sensual enjoyment was their purpose. It was thought that the Gods wishes us to enjoy ourselves, that they took pleasure in our pleasures, and even occasionally joined in them. The Greek Gods were always getting drunk and bedding mortal women as part of these festivities, and they themselves had no desire to discipline their own cravings. The whole point of being a God seemed to be to indulge one's cravings as much as one could.

It's important to recognize that the Abrahamaic religious tradition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are not primarily western religions, they are Middle-Eastern in origin. They are influenced heavily by the eastern ethic which sees desire as un-Godly, and which wishes to control, discipline, and even eliminate it. One can even see a progression from early Judaism to Christianity to Islam of increasingly severe taboos against sensual desire and craving. The dominance of the latter two religions over much of the western world for the last 1500 years kept the craven desiring of the western personality in check, often through a highly repressive regime of near-totalitarian mind-control. In the last century or two this has been increasingly rejected by westerners, who have reverted for the most part to the pagan attitude towards desire and the pursuit of happiness: the more, the better. In many respects this has actually been a healthy thing, since repression of desire often produces even worse results than its indulgence.

Into this world comes eastern Buddhism, and the clash is strangely receptive, at least on the margins. The mainstream world of the west finds Buddhism rather charming and innocuous, in part because they only see the superficial aspect of its message: the robes, the chants, the peaceful attitudes, the compassionate caring for others, the non-violent attitudes, etc. At a deeper level, however, it's hard to see two attitudes which are more opposite. Buddhism sees the core western values of pursuing happiness through worldly and sensual pleasure and fulfillment to be thoroughly empty and delusional. It doesn't pick a fight with the west, but it's core teachings undermine the very concept and purpose of life that westerners consider "common sense" and cannot conceive of not pursuing in one form or another. Therefore, western Buddhists tend to be those who are already something of "dissidents" who are have found the western value system to be so seriously broken that an entirely new system needs to be instituted - in their own life at least, but over time, they hope, the west itself will change its ways.

The problem of course is that those who are disenchanted with the west, and come to Buddhism seeking an alternative, are still largely wedded to the western viewpoint, especially in regards to craving. They don't like the outcome or style of crass western craving, but they haven't come to the point of appreciating just how radical the Buddhist approach is. They certainly seldom embark on the practices of Buddhism with the explicit purpose of putting an end to their own cravings. Instead, they see Buddhism as a way to make their cravings manageable, intelligent, less frustrating and disturbed, so that they can continue the western project of perfecting the world all the better. To them, Buddhism is an essential part of the project of creating a more perfect world, not a way to end the craving for a more perfect world. And so they tend to inwardly oppose the very religion they have adopted.

This problem is not new. Gotama himself noticed it early on in those who came to him, and it was one of his most strenuous and difficult challenges: to find a way to help Buddhists see the futilty of craving even Buddhist temporal values and goals. For this reason, he insisted in pointing out that even all dharmas were "empty", were merely concepts, which it was futile to crave the fulfillment of. The cultivation of "right view" undermined the ability of Buddhists to use Buddhism to seek a better life. The life which resulted was merely a simple, uncomplicated life, not a "better" one.

Of course, merely eliminating gross cravings does make life better for most people. As much as we like to think of desire as a way to get a better life with more enjoyment to it, the result seldom matches the idea. A better life generally results from fewer desires and fewer attachments and their consequent frustrations. So even a cursory application of Buddhist principle does indeed result in a better life, which is all most people want to begin with. The result is that the general population of western Buddhists is mostly oriented towards the reduction of craving to the level at which they can enjoy a better, saner life. The problem is, the means they generally use to achieve this sidesteps the core Buddhist methods, and uses instead methods and ideas that are actually peripheral to Buddhism, such as living a simple life, disciplined life, meditating in various ways that promote peace of mind, and ordering one's life in a "middle class" rather than a "middle way" manner.

When western Buddhas do acheive some kind of success in their practice of Buddhism, they therefore tend to attribute it to something they did, something magical in the practices, the teacher, the methods, the discipline, etc., rather than in the simple absence of craving. Westerners are accustomed to think of life as a series of causes and effects. Therefore, if there is a good effect, a good cause must be the reason. But what "works" in Buddhism is not causes and effects, but the absence of these. The cause of suffering is craving, and by eliminating craving, suffering is removed. But the western Buddhist can't accept that things are this simple. Merely removing craving can't be enough, in there view, there must be a cause for any happiness or relaxation or pleasure that comes from Buddhist practice. So they focus on the practices themselves, the meditations, the chants, the teachings, the abstractions of thought, anything but the simple elimiantion of craving. They imagine that a certain kind of meditation "works" for them, because they see positive results. They have a hard time imagining that meditation doesn't produce any results at all, other than the elimination of craving. In part, this is because they don't meditate for the purpose of eliminating craving in the first place, so they don't attribute any result to this. They meditate to produce positive effects, and when they do certain Buddhist practices, they notice that postive effects do accrue. What they don't understand is how this works. If their practice has been correct, they "effect" is merely the elimination of craving, and it is this that produces a sane life.

But many Buddhist don't even do practices aimed at the elimination of craving, but instead practice things which increase their cravings, and the positive results they notice aren't actually positive at all, in the Buddhist sense. They are merely an increase in one's appetite. Westerners in particular equate an increased "appetite for life" with happiness. Westerners are most happy when they are in pursuit of a goal, not when they achieve the goal. The desire for enjoyment is often more enjoyable than the enjoyment itself. So many westerners adopt Buddhism as part of their exciting pursuit of happiness, and they are thrilled to be a part of something so exotically productive of happiness, which in their case is the happiness of the search, not the happiness of attainment. They are not genuinely aware that their misery is a result of craving, they merely think it is a result of craving sensual pleasures rather than enlightenment. They are engaged in a process of re-directing their cravings, rather than eliminating craving altogether. They substitute higher cravings for lower cravings, generally, although even this is not necessarily the case. If they join some of the tantric Buddhist paths, they may end up pursuing good old sensual pleasure with the idea that it will transmute into spiritual transcendence at a certain point, if their intentions are genuine.

The results are mixed. The general outcome, however, is a relatively mundane form of Buddhism, which often gets exalted by reverse-elitism into an exaltation of the ordinary, as if what Buddhism is really about is making the ordinary moments of life something "special". Again, to the degree that this occurs in any genuine way, it is merely a result of living a life that has eliminated gross cravings. But this is not to be made into something that is itself exalted into a goal of our cravings. The real insight to be gained from this is that eliminating craving eliminate misery. One is not to focus on "the ordinary" as if there's something special hidden in the ordinary. There isn't. The ordinary is also empty. Doing ordinary things is empty, it's not fulfilling at all. The point of Buddhist practice is to notice this, and to cease craving something from it. This frees us to live in an ordinary way without complicating things by craving anything from it, because there's no "there" there. Seeing the emptiness of ordinary life is precisely what frees the Buddhist to simply be happy in the midst of ordinary life. His happiness does not come from "being in the moment" or from appreciating the simple pleasures of lfie. It comes from not craving things which are empty and unreal.

So many Buddhists miss the point of Buddhist practice, and the result is a fairly superficial practice, and a fairly superficial understanding. The positive results that come from Buddhism are attributed to some "thing" that Buddhism has going for it, rather than the absence of anything remotely like that. People not only want results, they want causes that they can control and repeat to obtain those results. Buddhism has certain practices that can do that, but none of them are actually what Buddhism is really about. Those practices are meant to be simple aids to reduce and eliminate our craving, not ways to fulfill some higher spiritual craving. The only real motivating insight in Buddhism is the insight which tells us that craving itself is what we suffer, and this motivates the Buddhist to eliminate craving, by eliminating anything in his life which tends to promote craving, and adding things to his life which replace craving.

The real problem with western Buddhism is the lack of deep and serious practice that brings about genuine nirvanic liberation from craving. That kind of practice requires that people consciously understand the basic Buddhist teaching about craving, and to actively enjoin in a concerted effort to eliminate craving on every level. It's almost unheard of to find a westerner who is even interested in such a thing. You find many westerners who want enlightenment, they want to experience sunyata, kensho, emptiness, satori, etc. And they do experience things like this sometimes. The problem is, they don't go from there to the systematic elimination of craving. Instead, the tend to leave their cravings pretty much intact, even while developing these "higher" practices. But even these higher practices are really nothing more than ways of eliminating craving, not ways of encouraging craving. If they do not result in the elimination of craving, they are essentially useless. And all too often we see examples of Buddhists in the west - not just westerners, but many easterners who have come to teach in the west - who demonstrate all kinds of cravings even while teaching and practicing these so-called higher methods. What exactly is the point, one might ask?

If Buddhism is to genuinely succeed in the west, it will require that at least some westerners actually devote themselves to the eradication of craving, and thereby achieve genuine nirvanic freedom from the miseries of craving. This may of course take time. Many westerners practicing Buddhism in the manner I've described will go on in that way for a very long time before beginning to see the emptiness of it. And many will see that emptiness, and return to a more standard western method of craving. A few, however, will begin to see the real point of Buddhist teaching, and seriously apply themselves to the elimination of craving, and not to any secondary effect of Buddhist practice. That will be a marvelous time for western Buddhism. I hope it may come soon.


Glenn said...

In my honest "Bozo" opinion these last 2 blog entries are spot on. The first, "Buddhism For Bozos" is very clear and stands as a great introduction to the actual precepts of Buddhist practice.
The second "Craven Westerners: Buddhism For Bozos Part II" reveals a part of myself that contains a blind spot. And as a westerner (and a Bozo) it's easy to see why true insight into the nature of craving meets with such resistance. It is hard for me to get beyond the feeling of "coldness" when I consider such practice without expecting positive results. I can convince myself that this is an intermediate stage, but even doing that produces another set of expectations. I must examine this apparent impasse more closely.

Elias said...

Nice stuff, Sri BY. It is worth noting that 'craving' is part and parcel of human psychology.

That's why, imho, every good modern Buddhist should begin with Freud and Jung, and go on from there.

I know you envision a very pure 'self-inspection' that goes directly to the Atman. Personally I don't think such a thing is really possible, in any lasting way, until ordinary psychological self-knowledge is well along.

Happy 10's,