Common misconceptions about neo-Buddhism

On paper, Buddhism looks pretty good. It has a philosophical subtlety married to a stated devotion to tolerance that makes it stand out amongst the world religions as uniquely not awful. We in the 21st century have largely sensed something a bit depressing about Buddhism, but nothing more sinister than that. It is a result of viewing Buddhist belief as being a single homogeneous belief system. But if we start looking a bit closer, it is possible to discover that some versions of Buddhist belief in practice are corrupted (there have been attempts to control it via a false panchen lama as well), there is a lurking darkness there, quietly stated and eloquently crafted. This is not a single Buddhist tradition but a drift that has occurred across several different traditions. neo-Buddhists refer to these traditions collectively as QB. See if you can spot the differences.

For nine years, Dale DeBakcsy worked as a science and maths teacher at a small private Buddhist school in the United States. And it was a wonderful job working with largely wonderful people. The administration, monks, and students knew that I was an atheist and had absolutely no problem with it as long as I didn’t actively proselytize (try and find a Catholic school that would hire a moderate agnostic, let alone a fully out-of-the-closet atheist). The students were incredibly sensitive and community-conscious individuals, and are his dear friends to this day.

However, Dale had no doubt that Buddhist religious belief, as it was practiced at this particular school, did a great deal of harm. Nowhere was this more in evidence than in the ramifications of the perverting the belief in karma. At first glance, karma is a lovely idea which encourages people to be good even when nobody is watching for the sake of happiness in a future life. It’s a bit carrot-and-stickish, but so are a lot of the ways in which we get people to not routinely beat us up and take our stuff. Where it gets insidious is in the pall that it casts over our failures in this life. I remember one student who was having problems memorizing material for tests. Distraught, she went to the monks who explained to her that she was having such trouble now because, in a past life, she was a murderous dictator who burned books, and so now, in this life, she is doomed to forever be learning challenged.

Not, “Oh, let’s look at changing your study habits”, but rather, “Oh, well, that’s because you have the soul of a book-burning murderer.”

To our ears, this sounds so over the top that it is almost amusing, but to a kid who earnestly believes that these monks have hidden knowledge of the karmic cycle, it is devastating. She was convinced that her soul was polluted and irretrievably flawed, and that nothing she could do would allow her to ever learn like the people around her. And this is the dark side of karma – instead of misfortunes in life being bad things that happen to you, they are manifestations of a deep and fundamental wrongness within you. Children have a hard enough time keeping up their self-esteem as it is with every botched homework being a sign of lurking inner evil.

This conception is to assume that people have no choice about what is within themselves. If this little girl was actually Hitler in a previous life, should she live this one without any consequence? If that were to occur, then what was overcome? Why would there be any reason to be a better person or overcome hardship?

If Christianity allows anyone into heaven for repenting on their deathbed, why should anyone follow christian rules for their whole lives, when they only need to for the last 10min before they die?

Why would Buddhism allow terrible people to start a new life without any negative consequence? Karma is a result of an individuals choices, not their inner nature. Even inner nature can be changed, but only though choice. It is possible that this book-burning murderer needs to live life as one of the people they condemned to death. So that the experience becomes so ingrained that they do not do it again.

However the vast majority of karma is not a result of past lives. It is a result of your choices in this life. If you do good things in the face of adversity, that has helped not only yourself but others as well. Once it becomes a virtuous cycle then eventually there will not be any negative karma remaining. Culture of a civilization can only evolve when it goes beyond the individual level and is adopted by the society though it’s laws and traditions. The better the society the better the individual, the worse the society the worse the individual. That is karma. It’s not all about you or any individual, it is about everyone.

As crippling as the weight of one’s past lives can be, however, it is nothing compared to the horrors of the here and now. Some people belive Buddhism’s inheritance from Hinduism is the notion of existence as a painful continuous failure to negate itself. This conception only exists for those who do not understand the nature of desire. What is desire but discontent over not having something? It is a sort of hunger on the emotional level. Is hunger pain? If you think it is not, then try starving for a while. So it is for many emotions, this is not good or bad, it is just the nature of being. The only way to overcome this pain is enlightenment, and the first step on that path is contentment. Once you realize that contentment is the first step to overcoming emotional pain, you will understand both pain and the shadow of enlightenment. A hint about the 2nd step, it has to do with attachment.

The wheel of reincarnation rumbles ruthlessly over us all, forcing us to live again and again in a horrid world until we get it right and learn to coexist. Even if it takes yet another mass extinction.

Now, there are legitimate philosophical reasons for holding to this view. Viewed from a certain perspective, the destruction of everything you’ve ever cared about is inevitable, and when it’s being experienced, the pain of loss does not seem recompensed by the joy of attachment that preceded it for those who do not practice contentment. And that yawning stretch of impermanence outside, so the argument goes, is mirrored by the fundamental non-existence of the self inside.

Meditation, properly done, allows you to strip away, one by one, all of your merely personal traits and achieve insight into the basic nothingness, the attribute-less nature of your existence. Those are all interesting philosophical and psychological insights, and good can come of them. Being hyper-sensitive to suffering and injustice is a good gateway to being helpful to your fellow man and in general making the world a better place.

There are two central claims here: that our own fundamental essence is non-existence, and that the nature of the outer world is impermanence.

One way to interpret this is the idea of the void-essence of self is one arrived at through meditation, through exercises in reflection dictated by centuries of tradition. That’s enough to give us pause right there – it’s not really a process of self-discovery if you’re told the method, the steps, and the only acceptable conclusion before you’ve even begun.

This is the primary method by which Buddhism has been undermined. Increasingly strict rules and just-so methodology which are designed to morph Buddhism into something more akin to Hinduism for the purposes of justifying something akin to a caste system. Replete with a gatekeepers to enlightenment, or at least profit.

In neo-Buddhism which is a revival of ancient Indian Buddhism, meditation has no such restrictions on mediation. Neo-Buddhism is the Buddhism of the Laughing Buddha, Walking Buddha, Laying Buddha. These are references that one can meditate like the Buddha when walking, laying or even laughing. Mediation is a state of mind, not a state of body.

If the buddhism that you are taught limits the freedom of inquiry as much as it does the meditative posture. Or a rigidity of method has infected the structure of belief, ossifying potential explanations of existence into dogmatic assertions mechanically arrived at. Then sorry, you have been exposed to what neo-Buddhist call Q-Buddhism, status-quo Buddhism. It is Buddhism with Confucian characteristics.

In neo-Buddhism, the void-essence of self is a perspective of the self from outside the body, it is inherently empty because it is detached from the self but attached to everything else. This is the nature of the void-essence, which can be translated to mean spacetime. It is a sort of 3rd person perspective without the person.

The impermanence of the outer world seems solidly founded. Five billion years from now, I’m pretty sure that this novelty cup next to me is not going to exist in any sort of recognizable novelty cup form. Nothing in this room will functionally persist as long as you only admit my Use Perspective as the only relevant lens of observation. The matter and energy will both still exist, but they won’t exist in the configuration which I am accustomed to. The conclusions that Buddhism draws from an impermanence theory of the external world supposes that I cannot hold in my mind at the same time both an appreciation and attachment to an object or a person as they stand in front of me right now AND a recognition that my use of a particular configuration of matter and energy at the moment doesn’t determine how it will exist for all time.

Some people feel Buddhism’s approach to use-based impermanence attempts to force us into a false binarism where we must either be the slaves of attachment or the cold observers of transience. This is because they are viewing concepts such as contentment or detachment as occurring separately and not at the same time.
Buddhism says that desire is suffering, in the same way as unrequited love, and even if you gain your desires, the impermanence of the world ensures it will eventually be lost. Some may view this through the lens that the only way to overcome that suffering is to not be attached at all, which is wrong. Detachment is about letting go of things instead of being stuck forever in the state of unrequited love, by fully grasping the fundamental nature of impermanence instead of trying to place blame for the loss. It’s about being happy when you can be, and not getting stuck in the “trap of wanting” which is known as “Hedonic treadmill” in the west.

At the end of the day, it’s still true that Buddhism is not a single belief system, but has many traditions which are not typically incorporated into the name of the practice. Unfortunately quite a few of those traditions are being corrupted to create complacency and inaction because that supports a status quo and keeps Buddhists uninvolved in party politics. QB (Q-Buddism) has the drive to infect individuals with an inability to appreciate life except through a filter of regret and self-blame is perhaps even more dangerous for being so very much more subtle. As for Dale DeBakcsy’s experience with the student who had a learning disability, it exemplifies the difference between QB and neo-Buddhism. While in both cases it is true that she will have a learning disability for her whole life, QB tells her that it is the status quo and she has no one but herself to blame. In neo-Buddhism they would empower her with technology and techniques to work around her limitations and change study habits.

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