Buddhist? Buddhish? Non-Buddhist?

Monday July 26, 2010

Today I visited the Yuelu Buddhist temple, here in Changsha, China (a place that proudly flies both the Chinese flag and the international Buddhist flag – a curious juxtaposition) and as I sat in the courtyard, I found myself reflecting on the question – once again – of my relationship to Buddhism. What started me thinking was how curious it was that my most immediate response to finding myself in the quiet courtyard was to want to pull up a cushion and sit down and meditate. If I didn’t do so, because something about this act would have seemed ostentatious – it seems that this isn’t really the done thing. Instead I sat quietly, just taking in the peaceful atmosphere, enjoying the cool of the shade. and reflecting

As long-term readers will know, in the five years since this blog was started (five years – can it really be that long?), I have tended to identify myself less and less as a Buddhist. My scepticism about many of the claims that are made within Buddhism, and my unease with the cultural worlds of Western (and Eastern) Buddhism have grown. But at the same time, my intellectual interest in the various worlds of Buddhism has tended to decrease as well. I don’t find myself turning to Candrakīrti, for example, or to Dōgen, for stimulation or for invigorating thoughts. This is not an argument against either of these thinkers, it is just that they don’t seem particularly urgent to me at the moment. I am having too much fun reading and thinking about Zhuangzi. Or reading about brain science. Or reading a hundred other things that are seem to be currently proving fruitful.

So… Buddhist, Buddhish, not-Buddhist…? (Here I’m tempted to play the Buddhist logic game, once again, but I’ll resist the temptation.) Which of these? I don’t really know. But perhaps what has changed most over the past five years is that I no longer really care that much. Back in the day, it mattered to me, and it mattered profoundly, that I was a Buddhist. These days, it doesn’t. When it comes to the elaboration of Buddhist ideas, the grand schemes, the subtle philosophical positions, I suspect that I simply haven’t the energy to engage with these ideas; similarly when it comes to the more rigorous practices, I can’t quite summon up the appropriate level of interest. Both philosophically or in terms of practice, I don’t really have the taste for extreme-sports Buddhism, and seeing those that do, I am not entirely convinced that it is the path to a form of life that I find particularly appealing.

Nevertheless, when I look more deeply, and when I look at thoughts that are, in a sense, more homely and everyday, there is a kind of ineradicable Buddhishness to the way I see the world, and for this I am grateful. I am grateful to be rid of the idea of the self as an enduring entity that must be protected and shored up; I am grateful for the knowledge that the world is supple, that it changes moment by moment; and I am grateful to be rid of the idea that it might be possible to transform the world so that it is entirely to my liking. Not only this, but I am grateful for the various practices that continue to allow me to poke and prod at my habitual assumptions about what I am, about what it means to perceive the world.

As I have come closer to the five year mark, I have sometimes thought about the name of this blog and whether it is still appropriate. One thing I have wondered is whether the name of the blog has itself tended to limit the kinds of things I talk about. I am listed in various places as a Buddhist blogger, but is this even accurate? In the end, it all depends on what you mean, although perhaps it might be good – from the point of view of that practice of writing this blog – to free myself a little from the sense of obligation to be “Buddhist” or even “Buddhish”, and to simply get on with the business of thinking out loud and writing.

And also, of course, much depends on what happens next, and that is something that one really can’t second-guess. This blog, like everything else, is changeable and without self-nature. Onwards. Let’s see what happens!

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#1 · Jayarava

27 July 2010

Hi Will

What about the possibility of radical transformation – bodhi or whatever you want to call it?


#2 · Anreal Perception

27 July 2010

Lets never forget that the word “buddha” actually means “awake” … in that sense the development of an individual would start with..
1. Learning the buddhist view, which is really just a science of the mind.
2. Tasting this state of the mind and then constantly living it…

At this point, any identification with the ‘self’ as any one label quite simply falls away …. so in my opinion, a REAL buddhist, has no need to do buddhist things, because you’re already awake … yet in the same way, that would make you (dare i say) more buddha-ish then buddhish. To me the distinction always is, are you still practicing, or living…
i believe once it becomes living, you’re no longer practicing.
and that is GOOD! that’s the goal right … the path without a goal!

#3 · Bill

28 July 2010

I know exactly what you mean. Over time, the message has been internalized and is lived more, thought about less. I think that’s good, but I try not to think too much. It is.

If people ask, I still say that I try to follow the path, but mainly because it makes for interesting conversations sometimes. Mostly, I just sit and don’t think about why.

Another good one. Thanks.


#4 · Shandy

28 July 2010

Considering that the Buddha himself wasn’t all THAT worried with the idea of “being a Buddhist” and, in fact, counseled against both passive and aggressive identification with any system, I think what you’re describing is “being,” and it’s a pretty active version. And if one were to have a goal, wouldn’t that be it?

I appreciate the pull of identifying with or as something, and so can similarly appreciate the struggle or questioning involved when deciding that maybe you’re not that identity after all. Worse still, however, is explaining to other people who identify you by that label why their image isn’t so valid anymore, but that’s the changing nature of things. They can either go over the crest of the hill with you or not.

I don’t know you, but with these meager glimpses into your thinking, I’d say you “ThinkBuddha” more than quite a few Buddhists I know. I enjoy your musings.

#5 · Robert Ellis

19 August 2010

Since ceasing to be a Buddhist (but continuing with the Middle Way) I have never quite managed to take on your helpful term ‘Buddhish’, Will, but recently I thought of an alternative: perhaps I’m a ‘Buddhised Westernist’. This seems to be a more accurate way of describing Western Buddhists in general, actually, as Western ways of thinking (things like individualism, the primacy of rational investigation, and human rights) are far more deeply entrenched in Western Buddhists than traditional Buddhism ever could be. They, and I, may be more or less Buddhised on the surface, but are much more substantially conditioned by Westernism.

I like the idea of Westernism as a way of reflecting my aspirations, as well, because it challenges fashionable pessimism about Western civilisation. I would argue, on the whole, that Western civilisation has got closer to the Middle Way than traditional Buddhism has – not because it hasn’t made many mistakes, but because it really is capable of learning from those mistakes. I would rather be identified first and foremost with that capacity to learn from mistakes with which Western scientific rationality has, very broadly, been associated, than with the appeal to the authority of the enlightened which is the foremost association with ‘Buddhism’ as it has come down to us.

#6 · Kamalashila

24 September 2010

I like your blog and the way it’s come into being. And the fact that I feel I should expect a renaming fairly shortly. On this post about the flagging intellectual interest in traditional Buddhism, surely this is to be expected in someone who has explored it a fair amount and come to a pretty rounded understanding of its ideas. You’re grounded in it, it seems, to a degree that you find yourself operating Buddhishly while being able to move on from there intellectually. But shouldn’t one at least take from Buddhism (and elsewhere) the fact that ideas can only take anyone so far and that to expect them always to be interesting and inspiring is just another kind of dukkha – to be overcome through the kind of transformation that the words are trying to point at?

#7 · Curt

27 September 2010

I loved the last sentence of your post. It was very very good.

#8 · Robert Ellis

27 September 2010

Kamalashila wrote: “But shouldn’t one at least take from Buddhism (and elsewhere) the fact that ideas can only take anyone so far and that to expect them always to be interesting and inspiring is just another kind of dukkha – to be overcome through the kind of transformation that the words are trying to point at?”

I agree with you Kamalashila, and this is indeed one of the insights that Buddhism offers to the world. I don’t expect ideas to always be inspiring. However, in the Buddhist tradition in my experience your point is usually followed up by an appeal to the trancendental and the need for going for refuge (I don’t want to put these words in your mouth, but they do often do follow your point in Buddhist contexts)- as thought these further ideas were any more proof against change than any others!

Whatever their origins, ideas are more likely to remain interesting and inspiring if they actually lead to transformation. They are more likely to lead to transformation if they come from a genuinely (not just negatively) critical perspective, rather than one that explicitly or implicitly appeals to tradition.

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