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Why are Buddhists such assholes?

July 29, 2013 49 comments

I had some particularly troubling experiences surrounding Buddhists growing up in Boulder, Colorado. I had trouble avoiding contact with Buddhists, as many of the most interesting cultural events in town were put on by the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University), and they sometimes got involved in the wildlife community. I remember hearing that Buddhism was about kindness, compassion and suffering, but got confused when I encountered a lot of seemingly rude, cruel and disrespectful behavior on the part of these “Buddhists.” I also (wrongly) thought Buddhism was about giving up material possessions and so was very confused by all the gold, Volvos and nice suits I saw on people from Naropa. I mean really, nobody in Boulder wears a suit outside of city government (and not most people in it, even then).

English: Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

English: Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The question kept coming up: why are Buddhists such assholes? I’m not the only one to ask this question: Stephen T. Asma, author of Why I am a Buddhist writes that a lot of Buddhists he’s met are grumpy “brown rice eaters who wake up and say ‘no’ to life.” This clearly was not the Buddha‘s intention when he taught the Dhamma.

I want to be clear about a couple of things: the problem I’m talking about addresses why I didn’t give Buddhism a fair shake when I was growing up, around those people. Hopefully things are different in Boulder now for people who are interested in Buddhism. I don’t know what your experiences are, but I hope they have been better than mine. I also want to be clear that I’m talking about “convert Buddhists” here. Convert Buddhist is code for “white Buddhist,” but a more proper definition would be someone who didn’t learn Buddhism from his parents, i.e. not an Asian (I know plenty of Black Buddhists). I have a reason to expect your experiences might be different as a “cultural Buddhist” (code for “Asian”) under my primary hypotheses, but please let me know. What I do know is that the reflective process inspired by the Buddha’s teachings is particularly tough for people brought up with Judeo-Christian backgrounds because the first thing we tend to associate with self-reflection is guilt. I’ve been told this is even true for some Westerners whose parents were converts. Last point to clarify: what I mean by “asshole” is someone who is deliberately cruel. I do not mean someone who is unintelligent, forgetful or unfashionable (only assholes use those definitions).

The Symptoms

Let me give you an example of what can happen to people when they try to take up the path of self-reflection. When my next-oldest brother Michael turned eighteen and was a senior in high school, he started dating a girl who lived in downtown Boulder, went to a different high school from he and myself, and came from a family of convert Naropa Buddhists. Unbeknownst to our Christian family my brother was meditating and taking part in some other Buddhistic stuff. Well known to our family at this time was he acted like a complete asshole. He would scream and yell at my dad, who had the annoying habit of getting up and getting things after we’d sat down for dinner; suddenly I was a horrible person for using paper towels; he insisted that the words “Buddha” and “Buddhism” were pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with “wood.” His girlfriend was totally arrogant too, lecturing me on everything from how to conduct conversations to my relationship with my girlfriend. What the hell was going on? Why had hanging out with Buddhists turned my brother into an asshole?

A less personal example of assholiness I encountered was self-identification: (three seconds into conversation): “I’m a Buddhist, so…” Most often I came away feeling like people were saying “You better not piss me off.” It’s presumptuous to think that I know enough about your choices in life that I would know well enough how not to piss you off. I’ve even seen self-identification on cars: recently (not in Boulder, in Durham) I saw a car whose back side was completely covered with self-identifying stickers: “Metta,” “Kindness is my religion,” etc. Every slogan I’ve ever heard was stuck to the back of that car. Mission accomplished: I knew that I had something in common with the driver right away. The problem I have is what if you accidentally cut somebody off? The next time the driver of the car behind sees or hears “Kindness is my religion,” they’re going to have a hard time buying it. I would hope that the driver that got cut off was also “into kindness” and would mindfully recognize that it was just an accident, but I’m going to be realistic about his or her attitude in such a frightening situation. I worry that if you put “I’m kind” on the back of your car, the results could be enabling (encouraging?) cynicism for the people behind you.

Buddhists attack other Buddhists. The most common attack is that whatever form of Buddhism one person practices is The Real Thing, and everyone else’s form is a terrible bastardization. People fond of Theravada Buddhism will often charge Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism of being corrupt, power-structure-inviting perversions of the Buddha’s message. Mahayana Buddhists will say that Theravadins are following the “Hinayana path” and the Pali Canon was deliberately dumbed down by the Buddha out of pity. Vajrayana practitioners, I won’t mention any names, but someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, will claim that their form of meditation is superior to others; I’ve heard other Vajrayana monks and nuns say things like “mindfulness isn’t everything; you need mindfulness to stab somebody.”

Dalai Lama

So what the hell’s going on here? Why would people who supposedly value kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity be so good at turning people off? Why would people who are trying to let go of the defilement of anger seem so angry? Why is it that when people hear “kindness is my religion,” they just don’t buy it? If Buddhism is about compassion and generosity, then why do some Buddhists seem so damn snooty and self-indulgent?

The Problem

If you’ve suffered any assholic behavior from self-identified Buddhists, then allow me to let you in on a few little discoveries I’ve made. My first hypothesis has to do with what Buddhism itself entails, and the devastating personality effects this can have for people who grow up in a guilt-focused culture. The basic instruction of the Buddha is that if you want to find the root of your suffering, look inward. This is tough. When many people look inward, they don’t like what they see. I think we in America are taught to be movers and shakers, and if we’re not, its our own damn fault. So self-reflection to a lot of people just means guilt. Many people report that after they start meditating they get pissed off because they see how angry and self-deceptive they are. Then they’re pissed off because they’ve been told that meditation makes everything “better.”

There’s another aspect of this: after you’ve seen that things actually do feel better when you have performed some self-reflection, you start seeing unmindful behavior not only in yourself but in others. I used to really not be able to sit still. If I was sitting still I was worried about what was happening because I was sitting still. This keeps some people from starting meditation. But after you really sit down and get used to it on a daily basis, you start to notice that it’s really nice to just sit down. Just to sit down and enjoy things, or really focus on what you’re doing, is a joy. At the same time, seeing people not doing this can be maddening! Going back to the story of my brother, I am pretty sure that what had happened was that he just wanted to mindfully sit down and enjoy dinner, and seeing my dad get up to get the salt and pepper, sit down, and then get up to get the parsley, sit down, and then get up to get himself a drink was probably even more annoying than it had been before. One of the benefits of practicing mindfulness is that you will eventually remember to bring the salt and pepper to the table. In the meantime, however, it’s hard to put up with normal “deluded” human behavior. This is, in fact, the Buddha’s First Noble Truth: the way we all do things does drive us mad and to behaving like assholes.

Seated Buddha with flower

Seated Buddha with flower (Photo credit: BaboMike)

My second potential explanation is that perhaps the chain of causation is reversed: maybe people are Buddhists because they are assholes, not assholes because they are Buddhists. My first idea explained that the reflective process of the spiritual path can indeed inspire assholey behavior. Now I’d like to ask why people take up that path in the first place. Simple answer: they’re angry, unkind, selfish, spiteful, cynical, anti-social and self-destructive. “So what?” you’re saying. “So’s everybody else.” The difference is that these people notice. Someone who takes up a spiritual path usually does so because they notice the pain and suffering that they and others are enduring.

When I tell non-meditators I’m anxious or depressed, they say “Yeah, whatever, so’s everybody.” They are not mean about it, but they don’t seem to think it’s a big deal. When I tell my Buddhist friends, it’s the start of a dialogue about why we (not just me) are anxious and depressed and what we can do about it. These people notice their pain and suffering, they study it, they give it real attention. They don’t just say “Everybody suffers, let’s go get a beer,” they say “Everybody suffers: what can we do about it?” Why do we suffer? What would it look like not to suffer? How can we change our lives to create less suffering?

My point is that if these “Buddhists” have gotten to the point of saying “I’m going to change my life because I see my suffering,” then that is a pretty huge change. Enlightenment doesn’t happen overnight, however. What I’m saying is that if any self-identified Buddhist deliberately hurt you, my experience tells me that they know it and are probably guilty about it, as opposed to a regular asshole, who is a lot less likely to even notice, much less care. I’d like to have enough faith in people to think that every person who behaves in a cruel way does at least notice, but my experience tells me that most of the people who notice are working hard to fix it.

A third minor hypothesis states that when someone self-identifies as “Buddhist” or “spiritual” or even simply “kind,” that is an idea. It’s a great idea, but it’s not how you actually manifest in the world. Even though your aspiration may be toward these things (and that’s great!), the problem is that you will forget, and you might just forget while you’re driving, while you’re buying a house, or while you’re interacting with someone at work. You might forget for weeks or years at a time. If you didn’t ever forget, you would be done with your spiritual path; you’d be a Buddha.

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first repr...

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t know what people are after when they attack forms of Buddhism other than their favorite, but it seems to stem from (surprise!) ignorance. Ignorance about history: Buddhism spread mostly by oral tradition along the Silk Road, before the creation of the internet, much less public libraries; ignorance of culture: wherever Buddhism goes, to Afghanistan, China, Tibet, Japan, or the United States, it will take on aspects of the local culture. That doesn’t mean it isn’t “pure.” The only question the Buddha asked people to consider was “Do you want to be free from greed, hatred and delusion?” He didn’t say “Do you want to be free from greed, hatred and delusion in a particular way that seems like the right kind of ‘Asian’ to you?”

The Solution

My own story is that despite the assholification of Buddhism that I’d seen in Boulder, I managed to discover that Buddhism was much more diverse than I thought. I was only exposed to (splattered with?) a particular offshoot of Tibetan Buddhism in Boulder. I’m going to be contentious here and say that the form of Buddhism I encountered in Boulder was deliberately contrived to be palatable to the people who I encountered as particularly asshole-rific. However, there’s really a form of Buddhism for anybody, from hardcore anti-religious people (so-called “atheists”) to hardcore Christians (some believe that Amitabha Buddha was either Jesus or Zoroaster; others believe Jesus was a Buddhist monk). There are forms of Buddhism that emphasize meditation (Zen and Theravada), there are forms that emphasize ritual and ceremony, there are forms that de-emphasize meditation (e.g. Nichiren), and there are forms that only emphasize generosity and ethics. Even within something that most Americans consider monolithic, like “Tibetan Buddhism,” or “Zen,” there is a huge diversity of practices, teachings and ceremonies. Evolutionary biologist perspective: the current diversity of Buddhism is the result of over 2500 years of development, with many forms in complete isolation with one another. I doubt the Zen masters of thirteenth century Japan were having Webinars with Theravada monks in Sri Lanka.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn (Photo credit: Mari Smith)

I rediscovered Buddhism by way of mindfulness in modern psychotherapy. After meditating for a while I decided to find others, although I still didn’t want to call myself a Buddhist, and wasn’t looking forward to trying to find a meditation group. I thought I would find a bunch of ego-driven jerks! What I found instead were some of the nicest, most welcoming people I’d ever met. That group itself is diverse, with some people who primarily meditate for its psychological benefits, and others who call themselves Buddhists because of their interest in the Dhamma. They don’t shove it in anybody’s face, however. If you saw my friend Eddy, you wouldn’t think “There’s one of those Buddhists who’s going to tell me how to feed my dog.” Instead you would just see a smile.

This leaves me disappointed and guilty (okay, not really) about some of the interactions I had in Boulder. The father of my brother’s girlfriend was actually a nice guy, and he and I were both big fans of Philip Glass. Many times he tried to engage me in conversation about music (my favorite topic) and I just didn’t give him a chance. However, the point of my own spiritual path is that I can learn to let go of all that. And hopefully the next time I visit Boulder, I can greet people with a smile, even if they look really disturbed and grumpy. If any of you have experienced the dukkha of interacting with a self-righteous Buddhist, you can still keep an open mind.

Why I have avoided becoming a Buddhist (Review: Why I Am A Buddhist by Stephen T. Asma, Ph.D)

March 16, 2011 2 comments

I have just finished reading an astonishing book, Why I Am A Buddhist by Stephen T. Asma, a philosophy professor at Columbia College in Chicago. I read this book over three days, probably the fastest I’ve read any whole book since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in high school. This book is funny, enlightening (in the broadest sense of the word), and has opened my eyes to the possibilities of learning about something very interesting, but also something very useful for my life.

My impetus for learning about Buddhism is (what else?) the crushing stress I have found myself in during graduate school. I have two classic ways of denying this stress: (1) I deny that it has anything to do with graduate school, it’s just life; and (2) I deny it exists at all. However, having two kids, a wife who’s a physician and being in graduate school does add up to a recipe for incredible stress when one doesn’t have a strategy for dealing with it. I have been crippled by migraines for the past few years, and have sought all kinds of medical help for it; not only that, but without getting too personal, I’ve also spent a lot of time ruminating about things that happened when I was a teenager, and this led to even more stress. Luckily Asma covers all of these bases in his book!

I knew that I needed something, or rather some thing that was going to form a whole philosophy for dealing with the stress of my life, making me more efficient at work, and overcoming and living up to challenges. I started practicing meditation a few months ago after reading Daniel Siegel’s book Mindsight. I was impressed by how rapidly I’ve been able to use concentration and mindfulness to handle my daily life better: even having really difficult, uncomfortable conversations has become almost effortless since I have the calmness of mind to focus on the task at hand. I’ve started actually dealing with my kids the way I’ve always wanted to: modeling good behavior, encouraging them, and stopping punishing them. Unfortunately in the past couple weeks I’ve gotten frustrated with meditation, and I started to wonder what my goals are. At this point I decided to do some reading.

But why was I avoiding Buddhism? I’m not a religious person, and therefore have no religious prohibitions about learning about new (old) religions. Why the denial on that level? There are two major reasons: (1) I’m not much for institutions and (2) I grew up in Boulder, Colorado. Again, Asma’s book deftly deals with both these problems.

One thing that has held me back is that Buddhism seemed, from what I knew of Asian culture, to be a huge part of the established religion of Asia. I’m not one for temples and gongs and socializing over spirituality. For me if I have any spirituality it is very very private (I’m surprised I’m even writing this) and not only is it nobody’s business what I believe but I don’t really care what anybody else believes. Buddhism, in all the contact I’ve had with it, seemed a very social, very institutional enterprise. I’ve always had an interest in Taoism, but I’ve recoiled in disgust whenever I’ve heard someone say “Taoist temple” or “Taoist priest,” because I didn’t want it to be an institution. I love universities, but governments, religions, arts academies, the press, and even professional societies I belong to, seem far too wrapped up in ensuring their own existence to be helpful at all for anything in my world.

The other problem was where I grew up, or more specifically the white-bread Buddhist converts I had contact with trying to be an intellectual in a city full of (some other) intellectuals and countless sycophants. Again, I knew plenty of Asian “cultural Buddhists” as Asma calls them, as well as Hindus, Muslims, Mormons (wait, they’re not Asian, are they?) and Christians. However, the (white) Buddhists were mostly trust fund babies and arrogant jerks. There are a few major exceptions: some of the people I knew that were associated with Naropa were some of the nicest people I’ve known in my life, and I still count them as friends, but they were the exceptions. A lot of these people were serious pains-in-the-ass who would believe anything as long as it came from further east than Jerusalem. I knew a lot of their children (who were all on drugs) and they were the most stuck-up, prejudiced kids in school. An art class from Naropa trampled a Lark Sparrow nest during my honors thesis research project. Naropa also angered the wildlife community in Boulder by scheduling a fund-raising birdwatching event called “Birdathon” whose funds went to Naropa, not a wildlife-related cause, while the Boulder County Audubon Society had been holding their own Birdathon for over twenty years.

I’m full of stories about Naropa and its tendrils, and its unintended consequences, but I won’t go into them here. The point is I obviously wasn’t going to take up Buddhism surrounded by that. However, the other night while browsing the book stacks in the Durham Public Library (of all places!) I read the first chapter of the book subtitled “No-Nonsense Buddhism with Red Meat and Whiskey.” I have already given up red meat, but I got the idea. Even more encouraging was the excerpt on the book’s back cover:

In my experience, raising a child has been like having a miniature war under our roof. Quiet contemplative meditation seems like a very remote luxury to me. I fantasize about joining a monastery and letting wolves raise my son instead. But then, what good is my Buddhism if it can’t handle the chaos of everyday life?

That sounded about right to me. Actually it sounded ironically useful. Through the first few autobiographical chapters, Asma teaches the reader about the basic characteristics of Hinduism and how Buddhism responded to it. This was highly revelatory: much of what I thought (or had been told) was Buddhism back in Boulder was actually Hinduism. It didn’t make sense to me then, and Asma points out how Buddhism offers a totally different perspective. More interestingly, he says that one of his goals of the book is to “take the California out of Buddhism,” and create what he calls “Chicago Buddhism.”

Many Westerners who have adopted Buddhism are remarkably humorless brown-rice eaters, who look like they wake up every morning and say “no” to life. In short, they are masochistic personalities. But this should not be taken, by the rest of us, as a strike against Buddhism. These characters would practice any religion in the same cheerless manner.

I was so glad to learn that I am not alone in thinking this! The following chapters cover all very interesting topics that highlight the teachings of Buddha and the important aspects of Buddhism: how do we deal with our strongest cravings, namely sexual and romantic cravings? Another topic that should obviously appeal to me is Asma’s alignment between Buddhism and science: he believes that Buddhism is science in a way, because Buddha doesn’t say “Take my word for it,” but invites the practitioner to see for himself. Asma repeatedly points out that Buddhism is about suffering in this life, rather than in the next one, something that is totally different from what I previously thought about Buddhism. Another especially interesting and practical chapter about work and wealth was especially helpful in finding that Buddhism is incredibly practical. A closing chapter deals with misconceptions about the politics and cultural significance of Buddhism and its place in the global society of today. A fairly misplaced chapter mostly about Jack Kerouac explores the appeals of Buddhism to artists; I saw this as mostly history (much of which I already knew from growing up in Boulder, again). This chapter is interesting, and certainly doesn’t detract from the book, but I may have to read it again to really get the point.

This book is not only educational but is downright funny: especially when the author is talking about raising his son, I laughed out loud. I’ll add that since taking an interest in Buddhism seriously, I have laughed out loud more in the past few days than I have in the past few years. I take this as a good sign. I especially enjoyed a passage about the value of work, versus fame, where the author asks his students to name a single scientist: “Well, um, isn’t there that one dude who’s in a wheelchair…?”

That brings me to another reason I found the book so instructional: I can not only relate to the author as a father, but as a like-minded thinker. He talks about how he loved Carl Sagan, and the Cosmos series: I did too (and I’m making sure my kids see it). He was also a Deadhead; I never toured with the Dead, but I love their music. Asma is also a musician and his repeated musical metaphors really appealed to me.

Another very appealing aspect of the book is that it doesn’t deal with “mechanics.” Asma does not relate any meditation methods or discuss specifics of how to live an ethical life. Instead he focuses on the psychological and philosophical aspects of Buddhism. It’s almost like he knows you’ll get better advice somewhere else, but I suspect it’s more than that. He’s simply sticking to the topic of “Why I am a Buddhist” and meditation techniques, or meditation itself should not be enough to convince someone to lead an ethical life of moderation. He does an excellent job of repeatedly stressing how Buddhism fits into the real world, in a philosophical sense, and a practical sense. He focuses on Buddha’s teachings, and not on saints, shrines, offerings or any of that stuff that has turned me off.

And he does an excellent job of dispelling myths. As I said, according to Asma, much of what I thought was Buddhism is actually Hinduism. Not only that, but much of the other woolly thinking that gets associated with Buddhism in places like Boulder, is transcendental, New Age nonsense. I knew plenty of people who would believe anything as long as it involved some sort of unknowable, transcendent reality; these people always struck me as Christians who had just changed their dramatis personae. Even when my girlfriend in high school was practicing Wicca, it didn’t seem that different cosmologically from the same-old Abrahamic worldview. Asma points out that Buddhism is radically different, and consequently highly practical.

He even takes a stab at Fritjof Capra, who I once thought really had it together, but then seemed to just be selling books. Asma points out, through his first-hand knowledge of Asian culture, that there is no “Eastern philosophy,” no matter what Capra says, to align with modern physics. One fatal chink in Capra’s Tao of Physics that Asma doesn’t point out is that the parallels that do exist between Taoism, Hinduism and quantum physics are intentional, since physicists are generally smart people, enjoy learning, and some of them learned about Taoism (Nils Bohr) and Hinduism (J. Robert Oppenheimer and others). Asma does a great job of pointing out how anybody like Capra (e.g. Deepak Chopra) who sells this sort of “quantum healing” is just selling more transcendentalism, i.e. not dealing with the real world.

But why am I telling you this, faithful readers of “Sex, Math and Programming?” I’m telling you because Asma’s book has taught me that Buddhism embodies a lot of things that I already believe anyway. If it’s true for me then it might be true for you. This was eerily similar to the first time I read about the software freedom movement. I already hated Microsoft, knew their software was crap, and that there was something unethical about agreeing to proprietary software licenses. What Richard Stallman did was to codify things and give it a name — without turning it into a boring institution, of course. Instead he gave a practical voice to the ideas that any smart person will come upon in the course of examining the world. According to Stephen Asma’s book, that’s what Buddha did, too.

Another reason I’m telling you, O faithful readers, is that Buddhism has a certain amount of Unix-appeal. Particularly the chapter on work, and how work can be meditative, and satisfying, there’s one way to do things (well), all really appeals to my Unix-guy sensibilities. Asma even uses coding as an example of work that can be done well. This only surprises me because most people I know who aren’t programmers (even the other scientists) don’t think about coding. Again, these are things that any smart person will come to on his own conclusions, but it’s good to have names for these concepts and to be able to discuss them.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a stressful life, or who is interested in pursuing a well-done life.

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