Call For a New Buddhism
Who and what is a Buddhist?
Siddhartha Gautama founded the organized religion we call Buddhism. The fundamental meaning of the word 'Buddha' is 'enlightened one.' We know there were many enlightened ones before Siddhartha Gautama's birth, and there have been many Buddhas after Siddhartha's death. What we call Buddhism today is an amalgamation of the true teachings of Siddhartha combined with invented myths and large amounts of culture derived from the countries in which Buddhism is practiced. Tibetan Buddhism, for example, is as much Tibetanism as Buddhism. Buddha's words were handed down for several centuries through oral tradition before a committee was formed to commit the communal heritage, not memory, of Buddha's teaching to written text. No human being who actually met the Buddha wrote any of the famous Buddhist scriptures that present-day followers take so literally and seriously.
Can we separate the essential teachings of the many enlightened ones, the many Buddhas, from mere tradition? Can we bring Buddhism up to date by keeping the essential tools of enlightenment while discarding the cultural biases that burden the path with unnecessary obstacles? I believe we can create a new Buddhism if we analyze our situation consciously as present-day seekers of truth. With this most fundamental definition of the word 'Buddhism,' anyone who seeks enlightenment can be called a Buddhist.
Is Buddhism pro-family?
Our lives have changed dramatically since the days of the historic Buddha. Technological advances such as birth control have reshaped our most basic human behavior. In Siddhartha's time, if you had sex you were always potentially creating a new child. The strict sexual disciplines of Buddhism were born in an era when sex meant children and children meant no time to meditate. Surviving with primitive farming methods was difficult, and raising a family under such severe conditions left little energy for introspection. Today, many people are able to have a full life, a family, and still have the time and energy to meditate. The average adult American watches over four hours of television a day, so most of us can easily spare forty minutes a day for meditation. You do not have to give up a full normal life and all contact with the opposite sex in order to find your existential identity.
A rich society brings with it the possibility of creating a more complete human being than Siddhartha's era could afford. What is more important for society: sex, family, and wealth creation, or meditation, solitude, and detachment? Don't we have a need for all? If you live for seventy years you can easily dedicate a few years to vigorous meditation practice and then go on to have a rich family life. Will the added experience of wife and children make you a smaller person or a bigger person? By repressing our procreative desires we are not becoming more whole and holy, but rather we are simply building a firewall inside ourselves that divides our being into two. Cut into parts we will have less energy, not more energy. I believe it is more wholesome to become a fully functioning human being rather than to retreat into the misperceived safety of half a life.
Back in 1971, when I was twenty-one years old, I had an experience I would never forget. I was walking around the large Baudhanath Stupa near Kathmandu, Nepal. There was a large group of monks walking that day, spinning prayer wheels and chanting in the brilliant morning sunlight. A middle-aged monk came up to me and asked, "What's it like to be with a woman?" I was shocked that a good-looking and healthy man in his forties' would have to ask a twenty-one-year old what sexual intercourse was like. I had decided years earlier never to become a celibate monk, and that day engraved my feelings even deeper into my brain.
The Catholic Church has made sex a taboo for priests, and the priesthood has been plagued with scandals of child abuse. Many famous gurus from the East have taught celibacy in public while seducing female disciples in private. I am not against any human being having a normal, healthy sex life. I am against lying and hypocrisy. Sex is as natural to human beings as breathing, eating, and sleeping. How can such an essential activity for the survival of the human race be thought of as "unspiritual," and why make it a big secret?
Extreme Buddhism and self-defense
Some, but not all Buddhist circles have a politically correct insistence on absolute nonviolence. Tibet had no effective army to fight off the Chinese invasion of 1950. Idealism is a form of mental opium. It may feel good for a short while, but the long term effects can be disastrous. I do not call for war mongering or aggressive behavior toward one's neighbors. I do suggest that self-defense is normal, natural, and a basic necessity of life. Every animal on this planet has some form of defense mechanism, and human beings should have many layers of defense to protect ourselves, our families, and our society. Having an army is not evil; it is just good common sense.
What is relevant in Buddhism?
Over the centuries Buddhism has collected a great deal of hocus-pocus and excess baggage. Meditation is not a very complicated affair. It takes time, patience, and commitment, but it is not intellectually difficult. Meditation is a gentle and loving step beyond the mind, not a complicated new philosophy that the mind must learn.
The cosmic consciousness we seek is the ultimate blank page. Nothing can be written on it and there is no dogma inside it. No individual can claim ownership of it and no country can pollute it with its customs and prejudices. Cosmic consciousness remains an eternally wild and pure phenomena because it is beyond all of our minds. Our methods may be organized, but the thing itself is anarchic and beyond the realm of society and culture. Some Buddhist teachers give the false impression that superconsciousness is a mapped out empire that has been conquered and controlled by the great masters. This is simply not the case, and it is an absolute impossibility.
I have met people who think that by learning to speak Tibetan, Japanese, or Sanskrit they will somehow become more spiritual. The cosmic blank page does not care about your language. The Void simply exists and is available to anyone who is open enough to perceive it. Frankly, Buddhism and all the other religions of the world have become, in large part, just nonsense. People are given the impression that if they become enlightened they will have spiritual thoughts and will be talking to deities and angels. A safer bet is that when you become enlightened you will become totally silent inside. You will be able to think or not think, turning the thinking part of your brain on and off like a radio.
As an example of the insanity of some Buddhist circles, one Taiwanese Buddhist group constructed a Godzilla Buddha. It is a steel statue of a standing Siddhartha so grotesquely monstrous in proportions that I am not sure if it is meant to scare little children or prove that my God is bigger than your God. Two even larger Buddha statues are being built, one in India (500 feet tall), and one in China (509 feet tall), in a war to see who can build the world's tallest religious superhero. Some Buddhist sects still preach that there is a "Western Paradise" where good Buddhists go to live after they die. Are they talking about Beverly Hills? Buddhism has its own carnival of nonsense, just as Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam.
Buddha's Four Noble Truths
(1) Life is suffering. Is human life essentially painful from the moment of birth to the moment of death? Ordinary life can be full of fun, adventure, friends, romance, good food, music, and art. In many ways Buddhism has become an anti-life religion that appeals to those who always see the glass half empty rather than half full. Why should we deny the fact that life can be an enjoyable adventure and not just a pitiful veil of tears?
(2) All suffering is caused by ignorance. Much suffering is caused by poverty, accidents, disease, and countless other factors that can be addressed by the positive application of science. Even the fully enlightened suffer physically if they fall down and break a leg. We have modern pain killers for physical pain, and psychological suffering can be lessened by the practice of meditation. Traditional Buddhist meditation techniques alone have proven inadequate for the Western mind. More relevant and powerful methods are available today. [See Meditation Handbook]
Many Buddhists love to debate the meaning of the word 'dukkha,' which was the word Siddhartha used for 'suffering.' A current fad in Buddhism is to claim that Siddhartha was only referring to some subtle and esoteric discontent with life, the boredom and unsatisfactory burden of having a heartbeat. I find this intellectual, analytic trend to be particularly odious as it shows a lack of compassion for all forms of suffering. If Siddhartha was a wise and compassionate man, and I believe that he was, then he must have been concerned with all forms of sorrow and pain, not just with the decadent discontent of the pampered elite. A real Buddha would never ignore the terrible anguish of a man who suffers the loss of his wife, or a mother who suffers the loss of her child. The overly analytic trend of modern Buddhism comes from the head, not from the heart or the Hara, and for me real Buddhism is from the heart and the Hara.
When Buddhists get to the point where they can only talk about life using foreign languages and cryptic and obsolete terms, then they have missed the experience of meditation itself because meditation has no pedantic element to it at all. The historic Buddha tried to use the ordinary language of his day because he wanted to help people deal with life as it existed right then and there. Nowadays, Buddhism has to some degree become a history lesson for cult snobs. Many modern Western Buddhists are incapable of speaking in terms of the here and now, and continuously rely on parroting second hand Buddhist slogans to get through any important conversation about life. For me it is pointless to debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, or the thousand and one definitions of the word 'dukkha.' Cosmic consciousness has absolutely nothing to do with becoming a myth and dogma archaeologist.
(3) Suffering can be ended by overcoming ignorance and attachment. A positive attitude is also needed to overcome suffering, and dwelling on all the potential miseries of life only amplifies our discomfort. Friendship, jokes, and high spirits alleviate pain more quickly. Love, an experience rarely mentioned in Buddhist scriptures, is such a powerful force that suffering retreats in its presence. The loveless negativism of the extreme forms of Buddhism may lead to a sickly and unloving mind, not to greater personal life energy.
(4) To suppress suffering, Buddha recommended the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right-mindedness, and right contemplation. What are right views? Is a theocracy of Buddhist priests going to dictate to the Sangha (monastic community) how to think and what to say? Intense meditation is needed by all who seek self-knowledge, but the difficulties of determining what is "right action" and "right speech" is fraught with dangers. Was it "right action" for Tibet to fail to develop an effective military with which to fight off an obvious Chinese threat? What brilliant monk dictated that "right action" to the sheep like Sangha?
I am not saying that Siddhartha's Four Noble Truths are wrong, but rather that suffering should not be the centerpiece of a meditation based religion for the West. A more positive path to enlightenment is possible that is every bit as valid as traditional Buddhism and more suited to the positive Western mind. I see this new Buddhism as an offshoot of traditional Buddhist and Hindu practice, with both the old and new schools coexisting without conflict. This new path has been gradually evolving for decades in the West, and this essay is simply meant to help codify and clarify that which is already being born.
Buddhism started in India, but the countries to which it spread modified Buddhist teachings to fit their own temperament and culture. Tibetans now practice Tibetan Buddhism, and the Japanese practice Japanese Buddhism. The original form of Indian Buddhism has become extinct. The West is far removed from Asian culture. It therefore seems obvious that a new Western Buddhism should be quite different in attitude and methodology, while retaining the ultimate goal of enlightenment.
Siddhartha tried to create an esoteric philosophy for the masses. The problem is, there is no such thing as an esoteric philosophy, because esoteric people do not need any philosophy. All doctrine is a product of the mind, and the esoteric leap beyond the mind leaves all philosophies far behind. If you create a new religion it should be with the common man in mind. Religion should be life-affirming and value honesty, family, democracy, and reasonable nonviolent behavior. Organized religion is useful to elevate the masses to the point where superconsciousness begins. That point is beyond the mind and beyond any organization, scriptures, rules, and teaching.
Is traditional Buddhist compassion hollow?
In traditional Buddhism you don't hear much talk about love, joy, and romance. That is because the essence of traditional Buddhism is to keep one's focus on suffering and death. This constant remembrance of the negative is supposed to help one become detached from life and thus attain the ultimate freedom of nirvana. The word 'compassion' is used by traditional Buddhists repetitiously and unconsciously. Buddhist monks are sometimes taught to visualize sick and starving people and then feel compassion for their suffering. Christians are taught to feed the sick, cure the ill, and love their spouses and children dearly. In this way Christianity is a superior religion to Buddhism, because Christian compassion leads to helpful positive action, and is not just a self-absorbed, self-centered pretense.
Unlike Christians, Buddhists are not known for doing great charity work, because the Buddhist focus is always on the negative. Why develop a cure for a disease if nature is just going to come up with a new disease sooner or later to take its place? Aging, decay, and death are always on the Buddhist's mind, so why bother fighting a futile battle against our inevitable physical collapse? If your religion makes suffering the centerpiece of your attention, you will not nurture life to make it better. All your effort is invested in trying to escape life, not in trying to improve the art of living. If your attitude is defeatist at its core, then why bother to try any positive effort? Tibet was in a state of physical ruin when the Chinese army simply walked into that country in October 1950. The Chinese took control with little effective resistance because Tibetans had not developed a strong and viable society.
Is attachment to guru better than attachment to money or sex?
Another great problem for Buddhism has been the excessive worship of gurus, which is an irrational contradiction for a religion that puts such a great emphasis on detachment. Intense love can be very positive, but worship and idolization quickly degrade into enslavement. Just because a human being realizes his or her own true identity does not make that person a deity. I have been with many teachers, some of whom were fully enlightened, but none of whom were perfect human beings. It is my understanding that all of the enlightened ones remain fallible human beings, with weaknesses and the potential for corruption. Self-realization is not self-perfection in any total sense. It could more accurately be described as self-expansion. You become vast inside, but not perfect and not all-knowing. Even the fully enlightened can make tremendous blunders of judgment.
Existential intelligence, the knowledge of one's self, does not automatically give you a higher IQ or a degree in science. The enlightened men I have known have all been pretty miserable at science, mathematics, and economics. They end up living in ivory towers, part created by themselves and part created by their own disciples. Spiritual teachers can even lose their basic common sense through lack of contact with the more ordinary world we live in. The last person you should go to for advice about politics, health issues, or questions of science is the guru on the mountain because he is divorced from the world that works, creates wealth, and continues the human race.
For Westerners, the East represents an imagined source of pure spiritual inspiration. Unfortunately, for many poor Asian monks and teachers, the West has meant a source of income and a new livelihood. Many in the East have long felt that only Asians could comprehend the inner art of meditation, and their focus in the West has been largely motivated by a desire to raise funds. If you are living in a hut in India or ramshackle monastery in Nepal, a journey to the West is an opportunity to increase your standard of living. Many Asians wrongly assume they own meditation as if it were a proprietary cultural commodity. Westerners must beware that the East is no more innocent than the West, and many Asian gurus are just as impure in their motivation as our own homegrown variety of spiritual opportunists.
Is traditional Buddhism pro-freedom?
The East has always had an imperial model for the teacher-student relationship. At worst this has degraded into a corrupt and authoritarian charade of spirituality. [Note - This author does not believe in spirits or spirituality, just expanded consciousness.] Tibetans still enthrone their high lamas in elaborate royal ceremonies. Are we in the West going to enthrone those Westerners among us who attain enlightenment in future years? The very idea is ridiculous and counter to our finest principles of equality and democracy. I have never met any human being who was so enlightened that he did not occasionally come up with some truly bad ideas. Likewise, it is rare to find an individual so low that on occasion they don't have a positive suggestion. The West must develop its own path based on our finest principles of dignity and respect for all.
A new path is possible
Buddha said that life exists as constant change, but many Buddhist leaders want Buddhism to remain fixed and dead like a rock. A new and more direct path to self-realization is possible that avoids trying to make Westerners look and act more like people from the East. If Westerners are to find their own true nature, they will have to look deep inside themselves and should not try to imitate the persona of others. Americans and Europeans are not the same as Tibetans and Japanese. Trying to think and act like a Tibetan will only make you a false Tibetan, never a real Tibetan, and never a real enlightened Western human being.
I love and respect many Buddhist teachers who are alive today. I just hope that a newer breed of teacher will appear that will actively encourage students of meditation to become total human beings. We need a new living Buddhism that changes with the times and the condition of the seekers traveling the path. Westerners can afford the luxury of being lovers, parents, meditators, and creators of wealth, all at the same time. Buddha gave up his wealth because he thought that was the only way to achieve enlightenment. I am saying that you can keep your wealth, your spouse, your home, and still make substantial progress in the art of meditation. Science can give us the added energy we need to have it all. It all is important, and nothing of importance should be discarded in the name of religion.
Note Opinions expressed on this page must be viewed as the ideas of an ordinary student of meditation. While I truly believe everything I say, you should not believe anything unless you see it, feel it, and know it for yourself. I make no claims of infallibility. In fact, I absolutely claim fallibility.Copyright notice: Please feel free to copy, repost, or publish Call For a New Buddhism (© 1998 Christopher Calder) for educational, noncommercial use. You may repost or publish any of my essays without cost, but you must clearly state that the essays were written by Christopher Calder. No one has been granted permission to use my writings to sell any products or services. This is a 100% free website published only for the benefit of other students of meditation.