Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why I Bother

So I finished reading Rebel Buddha, and liked it generally. The call to wake up is a welcome one at this point in the game. I've been a sleepwalker often enough to know that's not where I want to be. And so Dzogchen Ponlop's insights into getting to know one's mind, embracing neurosis, allowing the rebel buddha in us all to cut through the bullshit, are all well received. I also appreciate his effort at separating what's essential in Buddhist philosophy from what is cultural. Meditate outside rather than on a cushion in front of a statue? Right on! I'm all for it.
"If we look like Buddhists and talk like Buddhists and sit on a cushion like all other Buddhists, then we think we are automatically followers of the Buddha's teachings. But all of these concepts are cutting us off from the utter simplicity of the Buddha's example and message. We do what we do simply to wake up, simply to be free. Any form we use is only a support for accomplishing that purpose. "
I only run into one difficulty with his perspective and it is this: Without using the word faith, he does advocate this concept in an assertion that we need to have confidence in our Buddha nature and in believing we can become realized beings. In the chapter "A Lineage of Awakening," he states he wonders why some American Buddhists are still at their practices:
"I see so little confidence in the possibility of waking up now. Maybe you think you can wake up 50 percent, just enough to get beyond the 'crazy' stage but not all the way to 'wisdom.' However, it's not the message of the Buddha or the intention of Buddhism to provide a partial recovery from confusion. The message of the Buddha is that you're awake now and that you can, if you apply yourself, realize it."
Even as I type this quote it occurs to me that I may be misreading. He goes on to iterate that the only requirement when meditating is that one be open to the possibility. I can't argue with that, but there is talk of "the power of the Buddha way" that sounds a little like trying to ossify a form and establish a faith in it.  I suppose my true doubt goes to the idea of lineages in the first place. I see the value in handing down wisdom from teacher to student on the one hand, but consider that the Buddha himself had no such teacher per se on the other.  I can imagine myself taking up a meditation practice open to the possibility of waking up, but I only have a vague idea of what this waking up might look like. I find it hard to believe that my hope in some kind of grand enlightenment would be energy well-placed. Which begs the question: Why bother?

Here's my rough answer to that question: free will. There's so much talk, especially in this country, about our freedom. We tend to act as though we have free will, but when I take a closer look at myself and my motivations, I wonder just how much free will I have. I, and I believe I'm not alone in this, go through my days "making choices" based on my upbringing, my cultural patterns, and my unacknowledged urges and prejudices. I see mostly reaction on my part and in other people around me. Where's the freedom? I know the experience of being stuck in patterns of behavior--to quote T-Bone Burnett, I do the very things I hate to do. It's suffering, and stupid suffering at that.  As long as we're at the mercy of our inner neediness or impulses, we're stuck, and life seems kind of silly lived out that way. Now, I lean a bit toward the existentialist end of the spectrum and agree that we create our own meaning. (Question is, do we blindly buy a meaning we are sold from someone else because it's comforting and seemingly concrete, or do we trust our own experience?) I do not want to live a silly, pointless life, repeatedly getting stuck in these traps I'm already oh-so-familiar with. I want out of the suffering. From where I sit, I see the possibility of free will--of consciously taking action based on intelligent (and I must add compassionate) choice rather than merely responding and reacting to external stimuli.  If this is a bit Quixotic, so be it. I'll tilt at this windmill until a better idea presents itself. And maybe I do agree with Dzogchen Ponlop after all--at least with remaining open to the possibility that I can wake up and smell the coffee.

This week, with these thoughts in mind, I started looking for more secular perspectives on Buddhism and on waking up. A decade or more ago I read Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Belief, so I started there. I have two more of his books on order from Amazon:

And I did a blog search for folks who might share my concerns and perhaps could shed some light on them. I added a few of these to my list of links here. One blog I quite like is "Triangulations." I have no idea who the person is behind it, except that he goes by the name of Sabio Lantz. I hope he doesn't mind being referenced here. Anyhoo, he has a post titled "The Will to Say No." Check it out. It made sense to me in a way that is immediately graspable and relevant to my interest in awareness and waking up. In short, he writes that the only will we genuinely have is to say no to the myriad options our brain throws at us, allowing us to choose only the best of them. You should read his post, though. Seriously. Go! Now!

No, wait, first let me finish, then check it out. I was glad to find a number of other blogs out there with people sharing these kinds of thoughts. First, because I feel mighty lonesome sometimes inside my own skull. Second, I sometimes don't want to write or say what I think or feel outa fear, mostly fear of experiencing social repercussions, and that's no way to live either.  I reserve the right to be wrong! I'm simply exploring ideas, trying to put the puzzle together. Before I go, I need to reiterate that in my personal quest for freedom, compassion is central. Otherwise, life ends up a sort of dog-eat-dog, Ayn-Randian kind of wasteland that looks just as unattractive to me as does any kind of opposite my imagination can conjure up. I think all I'm saying is that clear sight, alert presence, and compassion for all these other sentient beings who find themselves in the same stew sounds like a good idea. How's that for a hodge-podgy mess of a final paragraph?


  1. Sabio Lantz, if helpful. Couldn't find the one you mentioned but read some others of his and enjoyed them very much. Thank you for your work.

  2. Thanks for the tip. I'll edit now. If you search "free will" on his site I think you'll find the one I'm talking about. But he does have quite a few other good posts. Thanks, Ariane.

  3. Hey, thank for the mention -- both of you.
    Ya know, it took me time to find that post too. :-)
    But now I tucked it safely in my Table of Contents under "To Buddhists ...":

    The Will to say "No" : Meditation nurtures real free will, perhaps.

    Suggestion to Jen, you might want to try using more hyperlinks in your posts so people can go to books and other posts more easily. Also, bloggers see folks coming in with those links and then come and visit you -- thus, lots of new conversations will blossom.

    Thanks for adding me to your blogroll. I will add thee to mine. Smile. Hope you are not as snowed in as we are !

  4. Pleased to meet you!

    Good advice on the hyperlinks. Just figgering out this blog stuff. Never hurts to have good conversations blossom.

  5. And Sabio, Tamler Sommers' A Very Bad Wizard arrived in the mail today. First section of interviews on the very subject of free will. I'm delighted to investigate and perhaps be persuaded of the illusion of free will after all. Have you read this?

  6. Hey Jen!
    Now that is irony! See, you could have linked "A Very Bad Wizard" for me, for example. Some readers will not bother to cut and paste, but they may be drawn-into/suckered/convinced to click a link (silly humans). :-)

    No, I had never heard of Sommers' book. I LOVE the cover! (see how superficial I am *turns-red). It looks like a fun book. Thank you for the introduction. Do you know how to write the HTML that makes linking possible?

  7. Nope--but I just checked out a tutorial. Lemme give it a try. Here's a book I read two summers ago--or should probably say misread.

  8. Cool! Thanks. I'll be hyperlinking my way to nirvana now for sure!

  9. I just actually did a post just for you !

    Careful, to much HTML can lead to satori burn-out.

  10. OK, I tried to post some comments on your blog, but they don't show up. Say what?? Thanks again.

  11. Fixed -- somehow, there is something about your my spam filter did not like. But I chastised it!

  12. Hi - as Sabio said, I found you because I saw incoming traffic from here. I am glad we found each other!