Blog Introduction

For more on the purpose and origin of this blog, click here for the inaugural post.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Taking care fearlessly - blog introduction

The dharma (teachings of the Buddha) is an incredibly valuable resource for living life. However it's come to us through 2,500 years of Asian history and unsurprisingly, it's come in certain traditional dress(es). The western world needs it badly to cut through the fog of lost-ness that has depression and other 'mental illnesses' at an all time high.

My exploration of it so far has been energising and liberating, not just because of the wisdom contained in the dharma, but because, despite some popular misconceptions, it doesn't ask us to leave our minds at the door. Nor does it ask us to make any leaps of faith. This makes it fit beautifully with our rational world view in the west.

Despite this, and despite meditation's increasing popularity in the West, I think that the 'traditional dress' I referred to deters many people from exploring it - seeing it as another religion. That's such a shame and such a waste of an incredible body of insight that is now being discovered through another avenue - science. Ironically, the traditional dress also encourages others to identify with the dharma (e.g. indulging in Buddhist paraphernalia to identify oneself as a Buddhist, speaking of oneself as a 'Buddhist' when it's not necessary, putting on one's 'nice Buddhist voice' when discussing spiritual issues, mindlessly following rituals without questioning their purpose and impact). The Buddha was very clear that much of our stress and unhappiness is created through the building up and clinging to a fixed identity, so this outcome is also highly unhelpful.

The Buddha himself instructed his followers to go forth (no two in the same direction) and share the insights in a way that the people they encountered would understand. He was all for adaptation to suit the audience. He spent over 40 years of his life adapting his insights to make sense to the people he was speaking to. Yet I hear, see and feel a certain reluctance to do this for ourselves in the West - almost as if our cultures are less valid or meaningful contexts for embodying the insights.

A couple of years ago I went on a combined Zen/Insight Meditation retreat to a wonderful bush venue owned by the Sydney Zen Centre. The flags covered with Japanese characters looked so out of place in the Australian bush and created in me a sense of divorce from my colleagues there, and from the place because I didn't know what they said. Shortly afterwards I sat through a lecture from one of the Zen practitioners and missed the whole point of it because he kept using Japanese dharmic terms with which I was not familiar. I mentioned this to the group the next day and felt a strong sense of having just struck a sacred cow on the nose. A day or so later one of the teachers who is a Zen and an Insight Meditation teacher told me that she had been a bit of a frontier pushing girl in adapting Zen. An old teacher of hers warned her to 'take care' because the changes in the dharma to date had occurred over a very long time and essentially, we don't want to be rash about making them.

I agree with the need to take care, to be diligent, educated and honest about our intentions when adapting something so valuable. However I also think we need to be fearless. We need to look honestly at our reluctance to change traditions and I suspect that often, if we do, we'll see that the motives to follow traditions are actually at odds with the dharma itself. An important caveat here is that we educate ourselves well about what the Buddha taught so that we don't go throwing any babies out with bath water and to test them out fully against our own experience so that we don't swallow any stale bath water.

I also discovered on this retreat, that most of the Zen practitioners knew little to nothing of the dharma itself - the most original version of which is the Pali canon. They knew ONLY the traditions and some of the concepts as intepreted and taught by Zen teachers. They also seemed to have a veneration of the position of 'teacher' - something I have always found unhelpful if learning and practising learning is the main game. The emphasis on one's 'lineage' connection to the Buddha also struck me as strange - pretty hard to verify anyway I thought, and either what? The Buddha himself was deliberate about refusing to appoint a successor - he wanted people to use the teachings as our guide, not to get hung up on who's head honcho at Buddha Corp.

I don't mean to pick on the Zennies here, they are in no way alone in this. I also thought they had some wonderful traditions in which I could see great value. For example publicly taking 'precepts' - declaring your intention to live according to a certain principle and making a bit of a song and dance of it. I can see this could help us keep our resolve when things get tough - a bit like getting married helps you stick with your husband even when he's being a pain in the bum. The reason I've pointed out the things that set off my crap detector is that for me, they detract from the trustworthiness of the tradition overall because it has privileged certain rituals - relieved them of the obligation to stand up to the question:

How does this help?

I've also had numerous other experiences, many of which I'll share as I write these posts, where I've found my 'in-built crap detector' going off at things I've heard in dharma circles. I'll use the question above as my guiding light as I explore. Specifically, what I'll ask is: how does this help me let go of the stress, angst, anxiety and suffering I cause for myself?

I'd really like for this blog to be a forum for taking care of the dharma by:
  • fearlessly questioning what's taught and practiced out there
  • relating it back to the teachings in the Pali Canon
  • subjecting it to the 'how does this help?' test
  • practically applying the helpful stuff to our modern lives, and 
  • consciously shedding any of the barnacles that have been mistaken for the boat.

I hope you'll share the ride.


  1. Great initiative. Looking forward to reading it and watching how it evolves. Well done!

  2. Congratulations, LenorĂ«, on the splendid initiative of this blog. It bears the spirit of today’s secular dharma (or ‘secular Buddhism’). ‘Secular’ comes from saeculum – a specific age, originally a human lifespan. We study the Buddha’s teaching against the specific backdrop of his historical, so we understand much better where he’s coming from. Then we adapt his insights to our own age, to give them contemporary form and relevance.

    Your opening gambit put me in mind of my impromptu visit last Saturday to Old Parliament House in Canberra (I had an hour to kill before the Nat Gall opened), and I found to my surprise that it now houses something called the Museum of Australian Democracy. The curators push the theme that democratic achievement has been a very long and arduous achievement, and its maintenance and improvement never gets any easier. We Australians should know, as we maintain the second oldest democracy in the world after New Zealand, if one person/one vote is the essential criterion. Democracy is our high-maintenance birthright, to be practised whenever and wherever we associate with each other. And when, where and with whom did the development of Australian democracy begin? In 5th century BCE Athens, with a bloke called Pericles (ca. 495-429 BCE), the curators inform us.

    If you haven’t had your first cup of coffee for the day you might be wondering why I’m telling you this. If you have, though, you’ll have noticed that Pericles’s dates overlap the Buddha’s (ca. 480-400 BCE). They weren’t in touch, never met in cyberspace like we’re doing now, but they shared an idea – one these days called civic republicanism (not to be confused with anti-monarchism) – that freedom in communal affairs means self-rule. It remains the core of the democratic ethos. Members of a free community meet as equals to thrash out their mutual affairs in a fearless and frank spirit. The Buddha grew up with this idea in a real republic, and he saw it as a guide to all forms in which people associate, including his own spiritual communities. He expresses it rather neatly in the first couple of pages of the Mahaparinibbana sutta, the account of his last weeks of life.

    LenorĂ« mentions the problem of confusing the barnacles with the vessel as we receive and practise the dharma in our modern society. So secular dharma practitioners tend to unsheathe the scraper when confronted with such inherited/ imported ‘Buddhist’ barnacles as authoritarian and hierarchical institutions, and demands for deference (‘Teacher knows best!’). The dharma and our democratic birthright mesh nicely. And dharma practice is about sangha, it’s a communal practice. Modern democracy demands equality and inclusiveness. So claim your birthright, and take the barnacle scraper along to your dharma group just in case.

  3. Reads wonderfully Lenore. Looking forward to reading more of your blog as it evolves. It's all very interesting & new to me. All the Best

  4. the robes are symbols of renunciation

  5. Hi there Anonymous. I've replies to your comment above on the post 'Robes for the new millenium' as it seems to be more relevant to that one. Warm regards