Monday, March 22, 2010

Not a Buddhist

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.  What Makes You Not a Buddhist.  Boston: Shambala, 2007.  ISBN 1590305701.

When my testimony of Joseph Smith crumbled, I found myself in a very strange situation.  On the one hand, I felt very ambivalent toward organized religion: I had trusted church leaders, starting with Joseph Smith, and they had lied to me (from my perspective).  I was afraid of falling into the same trap again.  On the other hand, I still felt the need to participate in some kind of religious activity.  I wanted to do something to connect with the sacred mystery of life, and I definitely needed something to fill the gaping hole Mormonism had left in my heart.  At once attracted and repulsed by religion, I felt it would be best to start my quest for a new faith by coming at it from a completely different angle than the one I had had before.  Thus I found myself attending Buddhist prayers and meditating at a local temple (in the Tibetan lineage of Karma Kagyu).  While I felt really good about my participation at the temple, I resisted the temptation to "take refuge" (the Buddhist version of conversion).  Some of the credit for this wise reticence goes to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche and the book that is the subject of this essay.

What I enjoyed most about my time at the temple was the overwhelming peace I felt while chanting (in incomprehensible Tibetan) and sitting quietly in front of the altar.  My discovery of LDS church history had taken away my ability to feel that peace in Sunday School or Priesthood meetings, where the disconnect between history (as I knew it) and myth (as the church teaches it) made me really uncomfortable, almost to the point of physical pain.  The LDS temple was not a place I could visit for peace either, guarded as it was by a mandatory confession of faith that would be hypocritical (coming from me).  So I was really happy to find an outlet for my angst among the Buddhists, who expected nothing from me beyond quiet concentration on whatever ritual was at hand.  But even among the Buddhists I was not entirely at peace.  Every now and then I caught glimpses of "religious behavior" that I found vaguely disturbing (because of what I had just gone through): one that sticks out in my mind is the tendency some of the good people at the temple showed to venerate teachers like the Karmapa or the Dalai Lama.  Having just escaped the veneration of prophets, I was not ready to commit to the veneration of gurus (I saw Richard Baker and Chogyam Trungpa as modern Buddhist versions of Joseph Smith).  Nor was I eager to "take refuge" in Buddhist vows, which are dictated by the community and are entered into for life.  I wanted to be religious without committing myself sight-unseen to any shenanigans.  To be fair to the Buddhists with whom I interact, I must say they have never pressured me to do anything; in that regard they are much better missionaries than I ever was as a believing LDS.  I regard them as good friends, and, circumstances permitting, would like to continue our association.  But I digress.

Early on in my stumbling journey away from the wreck of my Mormon faith, I had the good fortune to come across Khyentse's book, which considerably eased my anxiety vis-a-vis Buddhism and religious life in general.  Peeling back the facades of myth and tradition that Buddhists cast in front of their own faith, Khyentse reduces it to four ethical truths that stand independent of any historical claim.  I include them here with my commentary:

(1) All compounded things are impermanent.  As I wondered what to make of my life (not to mention afterlife) in the wake of my lapse from Mormonism, it was comforting to find that the alternative to "permanence" (in the form of eternal life) was not "annihilation" but "evolution."  The atoms that make me up do not cease to exist when I die, anymore than they began to exist when I was born: they just experience a re-configuration, with the result that the constructed persona I call "me" appears and disappears.  That persona changes all the time: over the past 25 years it has gone from Mormon to almost Buddhist, from conservative to libertarian, from statist to anarchist, from scientist to humanist, from infant to child, from child to adult.  Within Mormonism, the doctrine of eternal progression provides a handle on which to hang this kind of thought: what sort of life does an intelligence have before it becomes a spirit or a human being?  what sort of life does a glorified, resurrected being have?  Having recognized as a believing Mormon that there are no fixed answers to these questions, I was ready to admit as a post-Mormon that the mask of my human persona might not survive my physical deathMaking this realization explicit relieved me of a great weight of fear and responsibility that I used to feel when contemplating my believing Mormon life "from an eternal perspective."  Too often, the latter exercise involved getting worked up over tiny difficulties in my life that required nothing more than a slight change to my persona--just a little shift of the mask, so to speak--but because I saw these details as inalienable parts of "me" (the imagined eternal personality) whose permanence could only be altered by abject repentance and scared obedience to divine authority, I was too afraid to do anything.  When I was disturbed by wet dreams as a teenager, I spent years (figuratively) cowering in fear of eternal damnation when what I should have done was recognize that sex, like other compound things, comes and goes.  You should not get attached to it, and you should not be afraid of it either.  It is impermanent!

In many ways, this Buddhist teaching looks like a complete reversal of LDS doctrine about eternity, and I admit this did not always sit easily with me.  Nevertheless, I had no good response to arguments like the following:
[E]ven after a devastating reminder like the tsunami, the death and devastation will soon be camouflaged and forgotten.  Luxurious resorts will be erected on the very spot where families came to identify the corpses of their loved ones.  The people of the world will continue to be caught up in compounding and fabricating reality with hopes of achieving long-lasting happiness.  Wishing for 'happily ever after' is nothing more than a desire for permanence in disguise.  Fabricating concepts such as "eternal love," "everlasting happiness," and "salvation" generates more evidence of impermanence.  Our intention and the result are at odds.  We intend to establish ourselves and our world, but we forget that corrosion begins as soon as creation ends.  What we aim for is not decay, but what we do leads directly to decay (20).  
I look at my own life, and my own quests for happiness, and I have to admit that Khyentse has a very good point.  What if the best way to create a healthy marriage is to cherish it like a blossom that might die tomorrow rather than assuming that because of priesthood power it will last forever (barring murder or adultery)?  The Buddhist perspective is more realistic when we look around and acknowledge that we are not different from other people, that relationships within the LDS church require as much effort to succeed (and are as likely to fail) as relationships outside it.
(2) All emotions are pain.  This Buddhist teaching has always resonated with me.  I recognize with most of the world that emotions like pride, jealousy, and rage are painful to those who experience them.  I also know that joy and love include suffering as a necessary component.  To experience great joy or happiness is to feel a proportionally great sense of loss when the feeling is over, as I learned when my joy in Mormonism came to an end. As for love, Anglicans marry "for better or for worse" because love includes suffering.  To love is to feel what the beloved feels, to desire the beloved more than you can express, to suffer great pain when the beloved is taken away (whether forever or even just for a relatively little while): all of these experiences necessarily entail pain.  Khyentse's last words on the essential unity of pleasure and pain are profound:
When you begin to notice the damage that emotions can do, awareness develops.  When you have awareness--for example, when you know you are on the edge of a cliff--you understand the dangers before you.  You can still go ahead and do as you were doing; walking on a cliff with awareness is not frightening anymore; in fact it is thrilling.  The real source of fear is not knowing.  Awareness doesn't prevent you from living, it makes living that much fuller.  If you are enjoying a cup of tea and you understand the bitter and the sweet of temporary things, you will really enjoy the cup of tea (54).  
When you embrace love with the knowledge that it will hurt, you are not surprised (or put off) by the pain.

(3) All things have no inherent existence.  This principle entails a renunciation of the quest for absolute perfection.  Everything beautiful is ugly from a different point of view.  Everything ugly is beautiful.  The practical application Khyentse takes from this is that we should not be too upset when our plans go awry, when our vision of beauty is marred by someone or something.  Instead of dictating to the world what is beautiful and what is ugly, we should work with the material it provides, making things as beautiful as we can without expecting others to agree or getting our panties in a bunch when they disagree.  I take great comfort in this principle, which on looking back I recognize at the root of all my successful relationships (Mormon and post-Mormon).  Inside Mormonism I have seen some people take their vision of beauty and attempt to apply it forcibly on others; this usually results in wrangling and bad feelings.  I have also known individual Mormons with a great ability to appreciate the wealth of beauty that exists outside their own narrow view of the gospel.  I aspire to join their number, and try as honestly as I can to see other people's beauty and respect it, even when it appears diametrically opposed to my own. 

(4) Nirvana is beyond concepts.  The highest expression of what it means to be human, something that Buddhists often refer to as "enlightenment," lies outside the realm of happiness and unhappiness, according to Khyentse.  It is something unique to the individual that can be experienced but not defined, since every definition ends up as nothing but somebody else's inconclusive description.  This means that no authority known to man can claim to control it through access to special knowledge or power, and there is no recipe for it beyond waiting in patience and non-expectation, following the lights of love and compassion wherever they may lead.  Khyentse is careful not to make love and compassion into concrete ends of enlightenment: they are means whose regular, intuitive exercise points the individual toward a personal revelation beyond the power of words (or institutions) to convey or contain.  This teaching resonated very strongly with me as embodying everything I found most compelling about Christianity generally and Mormonism specifically: the more I think about all that I love most about both of these faith traditions, the more I see that I value the authority of the Spirit over that of the Word, and the integrity of the individual over that of the church.  I am thus very much at home in the egalitarian Buddhist universe that Khyentse inhabits:
It is normal for religions to have a leader.  Some, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have an elaborate hierarchy, led by an all-powerful figure, to make decisions and pass judgments.  Contrary to popular belief, Buddhism does not have such a figure or institution...There is no one authority with the authority to decide who is a true Buddhist and who is not for all the forms and schools of Buddhism that exist in Tibet, Japan, Laos, China, Korea, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the West.  No one can declare who is punishable and who is not.  This lack of a central power may bring chaos, but it is also a blessing because every source of power in every human institution is corruptible (122).  
My time as a Mormon has taught me the value of establishing a religious environment where doctrine is not narrowly prescribed, where the integrity of the individual quest for personal revelation is respected and facilitated even at the expense of the authority of ecclesiastical leaders.

The sum of Khyentse's message is that the real heart of Buddhism lies outside the accidental cultural background of particular Buddhists (including the Buddha himself, if we assume he existed as a historical individual). Regardless of vows, veneration, vegetarianism, or any other "Buddhist" practice, everyone who accepts the four truths is a "practicing Buddhist," in Khyentse's formulation (124). What those four truths offer is not an answer to all problems; they merely provide an interface through which the Buddhist interacts with reality as he (or she) perceives it. In the words of Khyentse:
The Buddhist masters believe that however you choose to label yourself, unless you have faith in these truths, you will continue to live in an illusory world, believing it to be solid and real.  Althought such belief temporarily provides the bliss of ignorance, ultimately it always leads to some form of anxiety.  You then spend all your time solving problems and trying to get rid of the anxiety.  Your constant need to solve problems becomes like an addiction.  How many problems have you solved only to watch others arise?  If you are happy with this cycle, then you have no reason to complain.  But when you see that you will never come to the end of problem solving, that is the beginning of the search for truth (115).  
Embracing the four truths allows one to begin the personal quest for enlightenment.  Having accepted the four truths provisionally (until I have something better, as Khyentse says at one point) and begun that quest, I do not see the point at present of going through ceremonies or changing my daily habits drastically in an effort to become more Buddhist than I already am.  Thank you, Rinpoche!


  1. I am reading and enjoying your posts, although hoping all the while that the truth (a) really exists somewhere, and (b) is much simpler and more accessible to the masses than your reflexions seem to suggest. I suspect I shall remain in the bliss of ignorance, looking forward to the day when the demand for solving problems ends, until the impermanent part of me disintegrates. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Thanks for reading! It is good for me to get this out of my system, even better when I am not just casting words out into the void. Negotiating the boundary between simple and complex is tough. Language always introduces a level of complexity that belies the simplicity of the experiences it attempts to describe. I think the four truths are actually pretty simple, much as the basic Christian principle of love for God and one's neighbor is simple. They just get complicated when we start attaching a pile of "unnecessary" (but not therefore useless) cultural baggage to them (e.g. rituals, stories about Buddha, Christ, Joseph Smith, the family vacation) and try to make that baggage part and parcel of their essence. Does Buddha have to exist for the four truths to be true? No. Does Christ have to exist for the Christian message of love to be true? No. But we like personalizing and owning the abstract, so we invent stories that capture and convey it. There is nothing wrong with this (in my view), until we start saying that only one set of stories is "true" in some sense (often historical) and then adduce a bunch of reasons for our preference that are patently false in the particular sense we chosen (making a mockery of history). I will probably try to address this more articulately later.

  3. I have some difficulty with the first two truths, replacing them with my own Kirstian Ethic:

    (1) All love is eternal. Whether or not I make the effort to cultivate and deepen the relationships I have, I believe that "true" expressions of love do not decay. No matter how many luxury resorts are built over the graves of loved ones, those loved ones have still left an impression on the lives of those they loved.

    (2) All pain is impermanent. I will not deny that I sometimes feel very real pain, grief, fear, frustration, and other painful and (to me) negative emotions. However, the emotion that seems to "define," or at least to permeate, my life is one of joy. Pain is a necessary aspect of joy, but that does not mean that "all emotions are pain." Just that "all emotions are joy." At least to me.

    As for the rest, I can only express my astonishment at discovering that you wear panties, bunched or otherwise. Who knew?!

  4. I like the way you turn these two truths inside out, though I am still not convinced that there is an "unpainful" love that escapes what we experience here. I think the first truth is likely to be the hardest for most Christians of any kind to accept, since it runs counter to a basic Christian tendency to postulate eternal "goods" extant outside of contingent time and space. While I see some practical usefulness in postulating these goods, I am not convinced that the practical usefulness from denying them is not greater. Do we love more when we think love is eternal or when we see it being born and then dying in every instant of our lives? The answer may be that some of us love better viewing love as eternal while others love better seeing it as finite.