What do you look for in a Buddhist tradition? What draws you in and makes you feel like one specific approach is your home? A charismatic teacher? Pragmatic meditation techniques? Elaborate rituals? Fancy man-dresses and sparkly beads? The opportunity to kung fu your enemies?
Want to know what I look for? Probably not, but here goes.
I look for perfection. Utter, complete, sublime perfection.
For the past 16 years or so I’ve been on an elaborate, grueling search for Buddhism’s immaculate vehicle, the tradition or lineage that will slingshot me to enlightenment without ruffling any of my admittedly messy feathers, the one that suits me to a T. Not too hot. Not too cold. Just right.
I’ve spent more time hunting this exquisite Buddhism than actually practicing, which makes me about as far from awakened as possible. I am literally unenlightening myself.
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In my various half-assed involvements, I’ve stumbled through all three major divisions of meditation-based Buddhism popular in the US—Tibetan, Zen, and Vipassana. What I’ve learned is that they’re all just fine, and it’s not them, it’s me. I’ve put together the top five reasons I can’t seem to just pick one already and get on with it.
This one is just sheer anxiety. Fear of missing out, inculcated by digital technology, is a subtle plague gnawing at my attention. Sort of like when I’m at my desk, madly typing away at the next great comedic Buddhist masterpiece, and I wonder what’s happening on Facebook. Well, not exactly what’s happening. What’s happening is nugatory. But I’m missing it. What if, underneath the mean-spirited memes, owl videos, and blisteringly pointless arguments, there’s something important? Something I need? And here I am just working and earning a living like a chump.
Unfortunately, I’m the same when it comes to Buddhism. It’s hard for me to settle into just one thing when there are so many other things out there I may be missing. Shiny things.
No matter what tradition I’m in, I wonder what’s going on in all the others, if their approaches might be better. What if mine, delightful as it is, turns out to be wrong, and something else is right?
It’s a bit like at the gym. I have my steel-rolled oats for breakfast and then head over in an attempt to get all lean and at least partially mean. And while human bison in the back lift small planets and human gazelles gallop to svelte glory on their treadmills, I’m wondering whether I’m doing my yoga right. Maybe . . . a protein shake?
Every time I’ve focused on a particular approach, it’s because I believed it was the right one. Not right for me, but correct in general. And that mindset is what has subverted every serious attempt at dharma practice I’ve undertaken. There is no right one. This spiritual practice is about fit, not fact; method, not maxim.
But I kept missing that. Instead of choosing something and trying to understand its ups and downs, I left at the first down. I bounced from one tradition to another hoping I’d find some sublime bag of chips just waiting to be ripped open. There had to be something that was only ups and no downs, something with all the tasty answers. I just had to keep looking.
And I wasn’t even looking out of real dissatisfaction with my current situation. I was just too antsy to relax. I kept one eye on what I was doing and the other peeled for the next thing, the better thing that might come along.
Predictably, I never got very far. With one cheek on the cushion and one foot inching toward the door, it’s impossible to settle down and let the practice do its thing. The worst part of it is how capricious I eventually became. At first I was searching out of nervousness that I might miss exactly what I needed, somewhere vaguely “out there.” But eventually I realized I was looking because of a new, sneering cynicism. That’s because…
2. Familiarity breeds contempt.
Is Theravada too simple? Is Zen too chilly and austere? Is Vajrayana too mystical, scary, and outlandish? Where are my pants?
(See? It gets weird quick.)
I started my Buddhist journey in the Shambhala lineage because it was available. Its amazing mix of secular teachings and old-school Tibetan Buddhism was intoxicating. In addition, the vivid colors, weird-ass knives, screaming skulls, and snarling deities declared right up front that, much like Wu-Tang, this wasn’t nothin’ to fuck with.
I spent several years there and completed the first five levels of Shambhala Training, which is like getting your yellow belt. After that, I lived at a retreat center in Vermont in order to totally immerse myself. I discovered that this was a religion like any other with bureaucracy, hierarchy, secrecy, egos, superstitions, and misplaced devotion. There was plenty of good, too, but I was overwhelmed by the ersatz royal family and their quasi-military Vajra Guard. I wondered whether this often-outrageous system might be incompatible with the modern world.
Then Zen sauntered by, with its clean lines, stripped down practice, and dark, emo robes. A few wild stories about ancient masters and I was ready to jump its bones and fondle its koans. It was so different from the extravagant world of Tibetan Vajrayana, so sleek, elegant, and indifferent. It played hard to get and I was intrigued.
I slunk to Zen’s non-approach and we had a one-night stand that turned into something more, something solid. Together, we heaped scorn on the ostentatious Tibetan path I’d recently escaped. We were so facile and free, so snarky and sage, and so downright mean sometimes. And all for the cause, all for some of that sweet, sweet kensho.
Zazen became my new thing, and its pure, unaffected elegance was a joy. Meditation sessions were filled with form and emptiness and all those other things. Everything clicked right into place like I was Tab A and Zen was Slot B. That’s the stuff, I thought. Or maybe said out loud in the zendo.
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Five months later I was a bit miffed at Zen’s OCD. Can’t I just leave the occasional thought lying around my mind? Jeez. Lighten up. Grow a sense of humor and stop bugging me about polishing the mirror.
There wasn’t anything wrong, exactly, but Zen became sort of aloof and distant. Its ideas of liberation were mired in double-speak and its stylish simplicity seemed to mask a devilish complexity.
When I bumped into Vipassana, I wasn’t really looking for anything. I was sure Zen and I could work this out. Hey, we weren’t even on a break.
But it was tempting. Vipassana was very practical and unadorned and seemed like a straightforward shot through the drippy, spider-infested jungle of life. Zen felt like a clunky paradox compared to the smooth sensibility that drove Vipassana. And, really, the silly questions were getting to be too much.
So Vipassana and I got together within a mostly Theravada framework, and I was happy at first. But—you see where this is going…—Vipassana became drab and hollow. It lacked mystery and creativity. Over a few months the practice ground to a dusty halt and I wondered if maybe Vajrayana was the right thing all along. I wondered if maybe I’d jumped the gun kicking it to the curb. I wondered if maybe metaphors aren’t my thing.
But the crux of this issue really became clear once I realized…
3. I have no idea what I want.
Not much of a problem when you’re standing at a Redbox agonizing over whether to rent Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 or American Sniper, but a pretty big deal when you’re trying to decide which brand of Buddhism to follow for the rest of your life. Especially when you’ve tried all the major titles and are still weighing your options.
Usually for me, it comes down to one basic conflict: religious Buddhism versus secular Buddhism.
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I’ve been an atheist for most of my life. I lack belief in higher, supernatural, disembodied powers. I was initially attracted to Buddhism because it laid out a spiritual path for happiness that didn’t seem to rely on divinity. It was up to me. No one was judging my sins or administering punishments.
Then, naturally, I jumped right into Tibetan Vajrayana, which is probably the most religious, elaborate form of Buddhism, replete with monstrous dharma protectors, ritual, and reincarnated saints. Well done, me. Then came Zen, which still had rituals but didn’t focus much on things like rebirth and karma. Zazen was important; the rest would work itself out. That was more comfortable to me. Vipassana was even less religious. Despite traditional Asian Theravada’s relative conservativism, Vipassana and mindfulness could be practiced in an entirely secular fashion.
But everything has its flip side, and I don’t do well with flip sides. Vajrayana is flamboyant and peacocky but it’s also an ingenious system for practicing in the everyday world. Zen is subdued and streamlined but it doesn’t much emphasize ethics, kindness, or compassion. Vipassana can seemingly be removed from any belief system and still aimed at enlightenment, but it can appear desiccated and stale.
Rebirth, reincarnation, karma, hell realms, jealous gods: probably none of these things will ever make sense to me. I honestly doubt I’ll ever embrace the most supernatural nature of any Buddhism. But that doesn’t mean I want a purely deductive path based solely on what modern science can verify. In short, yes, I would absolutely love to possess my cake and devour it as well.
The deeper into a religious Buddhism I go, the more I yearn for total practicality. Yet when I’m involved in a devoutly pragmatic Buddhism, I always begin to gravitate back toward a more spiritual approach.
Is there a balance, you ask? Some delightful dharma concoction that blends the spiritual and the sensible together in a light and fluffy crust? Maybe. Or maybe it’s more a matter of personal approach and how I relate to the teachings. There’s no perfect approach out there, despite my long Bilbo-like journey to discover one. The longer I do this, the more I realize it’s my own views I have to break down. Which is a problem, considering…
4. I don’t know myself that well.
Not knowing what I want is one thing. I’ve done extensive—if superficial—research into what the main Buddhist schools have to offer. I have a solid, basic understanding of all their individual styles, attitudes, methods, strengths, and weaknesses. It’s perfectly feasible that I’d be able to make an informed decision.
But I haven’t, because I remain breathtakingly ignorant of my own self. Or lack of it. You know what I mean.
I have a unique personality that I’ve watched grow and change over 41 years. The fact that it’s illusory isn’t really the point. The point is that anyone with a modicum of insight and confidence would have pinned the tail on the donkey by now. They would have matched their own temperament with a suitable style of practice and just gone for it.
Instead, I’ve spent years avoiding getting to know myself, both consciously and unconsciously. I often hide the worst of myself from myself, and then spend precious energy convincing myself it isn’t so. Then, when I stumble across those evil little soul turds, I have to act all surprised, like I had no idea. It’s exhausting.
And this is where the irony slaps me in the crotch like a cricket bat. Had I spent more of the past two decades meditating—and not on this drunken scavenger hunt for Buddhist perfection—this wouldn’t be an issue. The reason I don’t know myself well enough to settle on a specific practice is because I haven’t spent nearly enough time practicing. When I write it down in black and white it seems even more ludicrous than when it was floating around in my head.
So far, I’ve been unable to reconcile the perceived inadequacies of whichever tradition I’m in. No matter how many pros it has, the cons bug the shit out of me. But it’s absurd to think that someday I’ll stumble across the consummate form of Buddhism that I’ll sink into like a warm whiskey hot tub, all troubles and sobriety whisked away. There will be irksome aspects to any religious, secular, or spiritual path one embraces.
I don’t want you to think I’m totally unaware of my own proclivities. There’s at least one thing I know damn well about me, and it’s the final reason I keep switching lineages. It stings to say it, but…
5. I want to be a Buddhist hipster.
You know that old joke, right?
How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?
It’s like, this really obscure number you’ve probably never heard of.
Buddhism is the only area of my life that demands hipsterfication. I don’t fit into skinny jeans, my mustache is attached to a beard, and I hate PBR, even if it’s wedged into a Neutral Milk Hotel coozy. But my smoldering ambition is to be part of a Buddhist group that is so far out on the fringe that it goes almost unnoticed. I have no idea where this desire came from, or why it should exist in my persona, which is lightly antagonistic toward hipsters at the best of times.
My Vipassana experience moved from the Bhante G. school of gentle sitting to “Hardcore” or “Pragmatic” dharma, sponsored in part by teachers like Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk, who champion the idea that with assiduous practice, enlightenment is not only possible but also probable. Many Buddhists find their assertions of enlightenment much too loud and arrogant, which pretty much guaranteed I wanted to be part of it.
It was a pure ego trip and I admit it. Not many people knew about the Hardcore Dharma movement and it felt great to be a part of something surging through the underground, like I was an anti-establishment Buddhist, too cool for school.
Before that, I used Zen to set myself apart. But Japanese Zen is well recognized in America, even if its common image, summed up by the mindless phrase “That’s so Zen,” has little to do with its reality. But I practiced Son, Korean Zen. Granted, that’s because my town only had Korean Zen, but still. It’s a different beast, with practices and rituals many people—even Zen people—haven’t heard of. It occupies its own little corner of Mahayana, and I sat in that corner giggling about finding something a little off the beaten eightfold path.
I had tried to be a spiritual hipster even with Shambhala. Tibetan Buddhism has been big in this country ever since Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys got on board years ago. Tibetan flags became the new Che Guevara t-shirt and the Dalai Lama’s celebrity soon dwarfed poor Mr. Gere’s.
When folks found out I was essentially a Tibetan Buddhist, they instantly had a mental picture of what that meant: maroon robes, smiling bald guys, and the Dalai Lama, the ultimate smiling bald guy in maroon robes. I would yawn dismissively and reel off some abstruse monologue about the Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism, how Chogyam Trungpa was a super-powered crazy wisdom master smashing spiritual barriers, and the Dalai Lama was nice, sure, but he wasn’t my guy. You’ve never heard of my guys, so don’t worry about it.
I was insufferable. Still am, in a lot of ways. When I look back on all the time I’ve wasted scouring the Earth and Internet for some Goldilocks version of Buddhism, I’m appalled. So many opportunities squandered, so many options carelessly dismissed, so many asinine stories now to tell. I think Big Daddy Dogen said, “There is the principle of the Way that we must make one mistake after another,” so maybe I’m just a Zen prodigy and no one is advanced enough to recognize it yet.
That’s doubtful, but I am changing. Close to two decades stewing in the depths of Buddhist thought, and some of it has sunk in just by osmosis. Even if I haven’t truly embraced one vehicle and accepted it, flaws and all, I’ve been changed on an atomic level. I’ve recognized that and begun to encourage it.
After emerging from the Hardcore Dharma movement and its gloriously breakneck, righteously rational, headlong sprint toward enlightenment, I’ve relaxed a little. I don’t feel I’m chasing liberation with that single-minded fervor. I’ve found something that I think will let me slow down and enjoy my practice, my life; something that celebrates the passion and creativity of this whole endeavor, every experience and every emotion.
It’s not perfect, of course. It’s just another method, with beauty and scars in equal measure. So far, that hasn’t bothered me like it has in the past. Once you get to know someone, explore them inside and out, and realize you’re in love, their scars can become their most attractive features. Maybe I can finally do that, finally fall in love with my practice. And maybe I’ll tell you about it someday, if we’re still friends after this article.
[This story was first published in 2015]
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