Knowing what matters most, matters most.
I had no real intention to study Buddhism and become a Buddhist when I first went to Sri Lanka in 2002. But, immersed in Buddhist culture, I basically couldn’t help myself. I was on a volunteer mission to start up English language learning centers working out of the Buddhist temples surrounding my village. The following summer I resided at a monastery and taught English in their “international college” for 3-8 year olds and the young un-ordained monks, and I played most afternoons with a passel of little orphans. I also served as press agent for the monastery, as they were piloting a project to ordain retired men.
I knew nothing about Buddhism before I went there. I learned dhamma (Dharma) and meditation the way the monks did, all the way back to the time of the Buddha—at the feet of my teachers.
I learned “primitive” Buddhism in a “primitive” setting. I learned Theravada Buddhism, based on the Pali canon, the Buddha’s actual words. There was no mystery to this, no mention of spirituality, or karma, or rebirth. There was only the smell of incense and the Four Noble Truths. Theravada is the mother church of Buddhism. This form of Buddhism is practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos.
The message goes something like this: You want to live in this lousy world? Civilized people have rules to live by. Peace of mind requires mental and emotional strength, developed through meditation. The cessation of your suffering comes through mental and emotional strength, that is, through the cessation of bitching and griping. This leads not to happiness, but rather sanity.
A common praise of Buddhism is how over the years it has adapted to different cultures. See, I think that’s where the problem lies.
My Buddhist beliefs are traditional and very conservative, even if I do identify as a secular practitioner. Consequently, whenever I encounter false doctrine, religion and cultism (there’s a lot of that going around) on Facebook, I can be a merciless troll. That is why Buddhist writer, Brent Oliver, labeled me a “Buddhist Super-villain” on Facebook last week.
Mahayana Buddhism developed, supposedly, over a rift about who can and cannot achieve nibbana (Nirvana), which is about as stupid a reason to part ways as the reason why there are Shiite and Sunni Muslims: an argument over the successor of Muhammad. There are 1500 Mahayana sects. Buddhism traveled to China, where its message was bent to the will of the royalty and aristocracy. Zen emerged—which was a good thing—and also Pure Land Buddhism, the sect most Buddhists ascribe to. It’s basically Buddhism with a heaven in it, which is something quite alien to true believers.
Chinese Buddhists brought their version of Buddhism to Japan and Korea, who did their own revising of (i.e. “adapting”) the Buddha’s message even further. In Japan there was Buddhist support for Imperialism, and sects that base their beliefs on “Sutras,” supposedly dictated by the Buddha at the end of his life, saying that the primitive dhamma doesn’t count anymore, but if you repeat the chant “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” enough you can find your true love, job promotions, and wealth.
Then the Tibetans adopted Buddhism and melded it with local religious beliefs until even modern Vajrayana pray to hideous demigods and revere Tibetan priests that have been dead for 700 years. Rebirth is huge in Tibetan beliefs. Two of secular Buddhism’s great writers, Stephen Batchelor and Stephen Schettini, were Tibetan monks for years, but after after they took vacations to Sri Lanka and hung out with Theravada monks, they never went back to Dharmasala.
Take the notion of lineage, popular in Mahayana Buddhism. The notion of lineage implies a cult of personality, as there are generally “originators” of this school or that school. Devotees can be harshly intolerant of followers who stray from the “Master’s” message. Tibetan monks can be notorious womanizers, drunks, and abusers. In the West some of the more famous ones used their authoritative power to basically stick it to any pretty white women they could coerce.
Yes, I am a troll, a Buddhist super-villain, and occasionally the nastiest writer under the Buddho-dome. I am a very nice man, except when I’m not. Why should I be tolerant of other people’s beliefs? I’m a Buddhist super-villain! When I sense bullshit, I am going to call it out. When I see meditation used for anything other than mental development, I am going to call it out. When I see Buddhism equated to pacifism, I’m going to call it out. When I am invited to a $1000 a plate dinner of cold quiche, throat singing, and parading around in funny hats, I am going to call you out for the money-grubbers that you are.
No one should be asked to cough up thousands of dollars for courses leading to a certificate to teach somebody’s bullshit. No one should have to pay five hundred dollars for a weekend retreat. Buddhism is not about money, it’s supposed to be about dhana. I guaran-fucking-tee you that the more expensive the offering, the more bullshit it is. American Buddhists flounder around not knowing what to believe, when the point is to abandon beliefs altogether. If it’s not the Mother Church, it’s either Buddhism lite or Buddhism lies.
For a $2000 round-trip plane ticket you can reside for free in any temple in Theravada-land, and you get to eat the monks’ leftovers (you’re on your own for dinner, as Theravada monks don’t eat after the noonday meal) for months if you want to. Use whatever skills you have, even if it’s only conversational English, to help the temple out. Try pulling that off in Dharmasala. Puja is at 7 p.m.
There is a lot of garbage Buddhism out there, and if you give them money, it only encourages them.
If you really want peace of mind, truth and courage, you’re not going to find it in a book or learn it from some yuppie or geshe who can’t speak English. Being Buddhist in a Buddhist culture, you’ll see smiles on the faces of people so poor most Americans cannot imagine. You’ll feel welcome like you’ve never felt welcome before. I was in Sri Lanka for a day and a half, and burst into tears. I felt like I was around my own people for the first time in my life.
Most people assume that a couple of months in a Buddhist temple would be dreary and boring. Nothing is further from the truth. In the heat of the afternoon, that’s the time to sit around on verandas and discuss dhamma. There’s plenty of fun in a big temple, especially if you like lively conversation. There are lots of kids around, all tripping over each other to do you and the monks favors, the most common of which is to make tea. At sundown there is a beautiful little worship service with an oil lamp parade and chanting. You quit wearing shoes. You give your watch to some kid who admires it. Your life changes, and what you bring back from such an experience is worth the time and the effort, for you and for your loved ones.
Buddhism doesn’t come to you. You have to go to Buddhism.
Many people could do it if they really wanted to allow Buddhism to change their lives. But only a handful of people ever do. You can even get your head shaved and run around in orange robes if you want, but a simple sarong and a polo shirt does nicely.
There you will absorb the dhamma through your skin, and your lungs, and the soles of your feet. There is hardly any crime there. You can’t walk from one end of the village to the other without being asked for tea by the poorest people; you might end up sitting on a dirt floor, or the ground, or a concrete block, but never say no to the tea. They asked you in because they’re friendly and hospitable, but it also means 20 minutes of precious conversation with a native English speaker. They like it when you correct them.
Also, you can go to the beach any time you want.
(To check out volunteer opportunities in Sri Lanka, go to altruist.org)