The message changed as Buddhism traveled the world. It changed as societies changed. People like me weaseled our way into Buddhism. We shaved our heads, put on the robes and went through the ritual motions. After getting a better seat in the Dharma Halls, we changed the Dharma because we secretly sucked at practicing and explaining it.


By Johnathon Lee

Are you a thrill seeker? Do you have an impish little devil on your shoulder? Is self-destruction part of your personality?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then Buddhism might be right for you! We’ve got robes, cushions, bells and funny hats! We’ve got big rooms where you can sit silently with strangers after listening to an upper-middle class white person Zensplain for an hour! We’ve got wine!

Ope, wait, that’s the Catholics. Sorry. We’ve got, uh, books! 

I’ve been practicing Buddhism for almost 10 years now. That’s a long time for me. I used to change my religion each laundry day. I went through it all, from Ancient Egyptian mysticism to quantum physics. 

I found Zen (or it found me) when I was in a dark place. Literally.

I was living in an attic with one tiny window. I was cynical, nihilistic and done with everything. Then, thanks to the show Life, I picked up a copy of Taking the Path of Zen, and I’ve been a Buddhist since. Two years in, I became disillusioned with Soto Zen, so I figured I’d start at Buddhism’s beginnings and work my way toward (post-)modern Dharma. A decade (and a few sidetracks and traumas later) and here we are. 

Now I’m cynical, nihilistic, and done with everything. But I’ve got an apartment, so that’s cool. 

After a long, agonizing depression, my, “Fuck off,” attitude is returning, and it feels great. Far better than, “It’s all good, just let it go.” I’m a mirror. If you’re kind, I’ll be kind to you; if you’re an ass, I’ll mess with you. 

That’s not Buddhadharma. Buddhadharma is unconditional patience, generosity, loving-kindness and equanimity; no attachments, no preferences, no egocentric delusions—thus no suffering. 

Here’s the problem I ran into over and over again: why live? Without struggle, I can’t come up with any good reason to be here. Master Yunmen said, “I just eat and shit.” Another old expression is, “Chop water, carry wood.” Wait, scratch that, reverse it. 

You wake up, do you what you’ve gotta do, go to bed, and then repeat for the rest of your life. Why?

Like all the other -isms I’ve immersed myself in, Buddhism could never give me an empirically sound reason to be alive. It offers explanations for how we got here. It gives advice on what to do now that we are here, but—apart from narratives on karma and rebirth—it doesn’t provide a good reason to stay here. 

If I followed Buddha’s wisdom, then after actualizing it, I’d just… 

That’s because I’m a thrill seeker. I’ve got that naughty little devil on my shoulder. Rather than ruining my life, that little devil gives me a reason to go on living. As I page through the scriptures, and peruse the silent halls full of fresh-faced philosophers on vacation from their families, I know that nirvana would kill me. 

Certain Buddhist schools bring a little passion into the Dharma, even giving tips on how to make sex an enlightening experience. They use the words but change the meanings so that they can have their cake and eat it too. 

We try to get around the issue by calling everything upaya (skillful means), but that’s transparently BS. There is no possible world where Siddhartha Gautama (the guy who left his family to sit under a tree) would recommend sex magic to someone. 

The message changed as Buddhism traveled the world. It changed as societies changed. People like me weaseled our way into Buddhism. We shaved our heads, put on the robes and went through the ritual motions. After getting a better seat in the Dharma Halls, we changed the Dharma because we secretly sucked at practicing and explaining it. 

Fast forward a few centuries and you’ve got people like Chogyam Trungpa who can get wasted before Dharma talks, make passes at students, and still call it Buddhism. The whole thing is brilliant, because we can explain away all the harmful or heterodox behavior by calling it skillful means. 

What… a load… of crap. 

Buddhism is for people who’ve done the passion project and found that there’s no happiness for them down that road. You can find a lot of schools and lineages that challenge that conclusion, but all I can say is that they’re not really Buddhist. 

Zen isn’t Buddhism. Vajrayana isn’t Buddhism. Secular Buddhism isn’t Buddhism. They are responses to Buddhism. They’re cultural commentaries on Buddhism. Buddhism is boring. If practice makes you progressively more boring, then you’re on the right track. 

As for the rest of us, why do we limit ourselves by pretending that we’re following the Path? We’re not. The fact that we’re following in the footsteps of people who veered off of it centuries ago doesn’t make us Buddhists because they weren’t Buddhists either. 

The Tattooed Buddha isn’t Buddhist. It’s inspired by Buddhism and by all those people who took those trips into the weeds because the orthodox Way just wasn’t right for them. It would’ve killed them, the same way it would kill me. 

There are Buddhists in all of the traditions I just mentioned. There are Zen Buddhists, Kagyu Buddhists, and Pure Land Buddhists. You can spot them because they have a strong focus on ethics, morality, and taming their minds. That’s Buddhism. It’s quite vanilla.

There are also non-Buddhists in these traditions. Dogen was a Zen Buddhist, Ikkyu was a Zennist. The Dalai Lama is a Gelug Buddhist, Chogyam Trungpa was a Kagyuist and Nyingmist.

I’m a Channist. May Buddhism’s serenity and purity never befall me again. Long live the shoulder devils.


Photo: Pixabay


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