01: Introduction: Healthy Skepticism as an Antidote to Dogmatism

Annie had finished her third prostration and as she began to stand up, she initiated the motion by pushing off from her closed fists. Lama, passing by, remarked casually, “hm, be careful not to do this or you be reborn as horse…”

The look on her face was abject incredulity, or was it terror?

The Rinpoche was taking questions when Petra asked about friends who had passed away, “where are they now?” A beat and then the reply: “they are in hell”.

The names have been changed, but these exchanges happened and the result is that both “Annie” and “Petra” were given pause (as opposed to hooves) and fairly shaken by what each teacher had said.

At issue here is what happens when westerners come face to face with traditional explanations and the conflict that ensues from the acceptance of the teacher as infallible (of particular emphasis in Tibetan Buddhism). For the record, both women continue to practice and quite diligently, but the questions remain what we are to make of claims made from traditional perspectives, what makes sense and what doesn’t, and by extension what to keep and what to discard. Among these components are how to interpret karma and rebirth, what to do about the various transworldly beings that populate the milieux of the various cultures in which Buddhadharma took root and how are westerners in the context of the twentieth century’s realities to utilize Buddhist hermeneutics?

The posts to come will be, to some people’s minds, controversial. They’re meant to be. Part of my practice is to consider those aspects of received teachings that frankly, don’t make sense. However, I’m not one to throw the baby out with the bath water, but I believe practitioners need to ask hard questions and come to terms with these issues which can be traumatic for some.

Personally, this has been an on-going project for much of my life, not merely because I don’t want to accept whatever I’m told dogmatically and blindly, but also because I need to question myself what I believe and why; it’s extremely important to me to engage in a kind of deconstruction of these teachings as texts, and outside the texts, as practices. And a step further beyond practice, as viable and vital methods for experiencing this enworldment. This means being able to be as open as possible in that realm of, to borrow from Heidegger, being-for-others, which I believe is the bedrock for all ethical behavior.

I often hear folks in the U.S. discussing what American Buddhism is going to become, usually refracted through the prism of whichever tradition they follow, without realizing that Buddhism isn’t monolithic and that as pluralistic as western society is, the question is often moot; it’s too soon to tell if there will be a singular “American Buddhism” or if there will be several, each of which would be lineal descendants of the various Asian traditions. This is another element that I’ll be touching on because I don’t think I’m unique in the questions I’ll be posing and I am less inclined to think of Buddhism as just one more philosophy among others garbed in the trappings of religion than as, quite simply, the truth of phenomenal existence.

I’ve been moved to write this because I recognize certain potential fissures in the way fellow students have had to either jump through logical loops that would do any lawyer proud or who, and this is no laughing matter, are shattered by some of the claims made from traditional teachers and the dynamic of the teacher-student relationship.

I’ll also state here, at the outset, that I’m not a hard liner for a kind of Buddhist agnosticism (though I find that a reasonable approach) but likewise, I’m very much of the mind that there are inconsistencies and logical fallacies in the various Buddhist textual traditions that require scrutiny and the wherewithal to address these vigorously, if only because it is the existence of these anamolies where practitioners come to grief, if not depression.

It is my hope that I can present these perspectives with both nuance and humor. What I’m addressing is serious, but it won’t do to be too solemn about it.

One word of warning up front (or several, actually). Despite my desire for nuance, I guarantee you that I will speak in hyperbole and exaggeration to drive points home and I may employ language that some may feel is a tad, um, salty.

Lastly, I don’t envision this blog lasting long. Because some of the points fold into others, I don’t want to keep flogging dead horses and I think I can draw this whole project to a close by the end of the year.

My hope is that this stirs reflection, debate and that out of dialog may come some relief for those practitners who find themselves confused or worse.

Lastly, where possible, I’ll try to provide bibliographical information and annotation where I feel it necessary. This is mostly in an effort to keep me honest, but also to give credit where credit is due.

I dedicate the merit of this project to the benefit of all beings and I fervently hope that it proves galvanizing enough to promote serious inquiry between practitioners. If anything, I hope that it assists in building stronger sanghas and acts as an aid to provide teachers and students both with additional tools to grow in the dharma.