By Gerald “Strib” Stribling
The historical Buddha seems to be a bland dude—very even-tempered when compared to, say, the lively, run-for-your-life story of Jesus.
And just as Jesus had his bad-ass moments, like throwing the tantrum and knocking over the money-changers’ tables, and whipping their asses, the Buddha had a few bad-ass moments himself.
I’ve written about the story of Angulimala before, the fierce robber and serial killer who cut a finger off everyone he ever slaughtered and strung it on a necklace he wore (his favorite accessory, so to speak). When Angulimala met the Buddha on the road, he charged toward him, bellowing that he would kill the Enlightened One, who just continued to stroll along.
The story is usually looked at from Angulimala’s point of view, who achieved enlightenment but was still so reviled in the community that he became a recluse. But what about from Buddha’s perspective? You have to be pretty fucking enlightened to stare down a charging homicidal maniac. The Buddha transcended fear, but it still must have been an adrenaline rush.
I know many earnest Buddhists who have a hard time finding sanghas to attend.
The main reason is that they don’t feel welcome when they do visit whatever is available, just like Angulimala. I hear this most frequently from women and active duty military. The places they visit are “snooty,” “way too white,” and “political.”
They’re not all that way, of course. But the two most dominant brands of mainstream American Buddhism cater unabashedly to the upper-middle-class, and have been trying to wussify American Buddhists for decades.
They can be ineffective, feminized havens for neurotics, education centers lock-stepped with a tradition of pacifism, with people blissfully unaware of the suffering they cause themselves by using Buddhism and the sangha as a way to insulate themselves from reality instead of engaging it.
You approach reality by utilizing the relentless practice of insight meditation to loosen and wash away delusion like vinegar on soap scum. It’s like aerosol brake cleaner on cosmoline, like Dawn® on baked-on grease, like a power-washer on aluminum siding. Like a baby-wipe on shit.
But most temples and meditation centers don’t teach vipassana. What they teach is overstuffed doctrine, guru worship, metaphysical improbabilities, passivity, intellectual snobbery and how to rest instead of meditate. They are for the most part, disengaged from their communities. Buddhists who are Not Of This World can’t find haven even in mid-sized towns anymore.
But they leave many seekers out in the cold. New-agers who promote mystical agendas, the Whimsicals who identify themselves by their “lineages” (pledging allegiance to dudes rather than dhamma), the metaphysical rigidity of the Mountain Folk, the superstitions of the Theravada, the promise of eternal life in a land of great agricultural potential, the radical atheists, all hold little appeal to free thinkers hoping for an island of rationality in Buddhism.
So it is of little wonder that much of American Buddhism functions as a country club for mental wankers, neurotic misfits, and pseudo-intellectual Libtards. Their ideologies do not match those of compassion and caring set forth by the Buddha. Most of them couldn’t enumerate the Noble Eightfold Path if they had to (not without looking it up on their cell phones).
They don’t realize that Buddhism isn’t about them; to them, it’s all about themselves. The point of practice is to make a strong mind so that you can fulfill a useful role in life, one that is focused on the needs of others. It takes balls to be a Buddhist, but in many American Buddhist institutions, you check those balls at the door.
A lot of people are unwilling to go there. They feel left out in the cold. They know inherently what Buddhism is supposed to be. But much of American Buddhism just doesn’t offer what they’re looking for.
There is a tradition in Buddhism: the Lone Buffalo. That’s a Buddhist without a sangha.
A lot of the best Buddhists I know in America are Lone Buffaloes. And there are legions of people who are Buddhist and who don’t realize it, temperamentally predisposed to be compassionate and courageous.
Bereft of teachers, they go to books, and to the internet, to find information about that belief system of which they are aware and curious, the religion that’s not a religion, to help them learn to revel in and gain the most psychic benefit from the good they do in the world.
What they find is mostly a party-line American Buddhism. Much of it is too dense to wade through. A lot of it is self-help reference material. And there’s tons of neurotic blog posts from people who claim to be Buddhist, but who are unhappy.
What’s up with that?
There is a lot of good material out there, too. Even stuff that explicitly demonstrates how applying knowledge of dhamma can be of direct benefit to life in 21st Century America.
But the concept missing from this material is the one that is most central to living a Buddhist life: compassion.
Without compassion, you’ve got squat.
(to be continued)
Editor: Dana Gornall