buddhism can’t make you happy so why bother: what being failed teaches us

The very sad news of the tragic death of Buddhist teacher Michael Stone has stirred a flurry of comments on various Buddhist internet sites that range from the expected grief and – sadly – the expected lack of awareness of the suffering that mental illness can bring on us. The latter set of comments includes and exposes a deep misapprehension of what a Buddhist practice can do for its practitioners.

The quick answer, if asked, is that a Buddhist practice has little to do with effortlessly conferring happiness, calm, serenity, and peace. Sadly, the practice also does not confer invulnerability to slings and arrows of outrageous inner and outer judgments, exorcise self-generated demons, or make one beloved by all. Buddhist practice is also not going to cure or remove whatever neurological process involved in profound depression, extreme anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, narcissism, antisocial personality disorder, or many other ways of being that require a more focused approach. In a word (or six), Buddhist practice does nothing for you – except one thing.

To practice the Dharma is to examine the topography of places where we fail ourselves over and over. It is to turn towards that suffering, relentlessly; that incongruity between who we thought we were and who showed up at the family dinner, the date night, the wedding, the job interview. And in that turning towards, we find a way, through practice, to be steady in the face of the whole blessed mess – even when we aren’t. Buddhist practice is a how-to lesson in cultivating humility, skillfulness in failing, and loving with a heart broken open wide.

I understand the defensive posture of superiority in the comments when any Buddhist teacher has not lived up to our expectations. Been there, sacrificed my dignity. It’s frightening to think that someone in an elevated status can be so fragile, even if we were the ones to lionize them. It’s more frightening to think that this practice does not protect even those who have such an obvious commitment and fierce devotion to it. What does that say about us mere mortals who struggle with taking seconds on dessert, feel impotent rage at the state of our world, or whose lives had to be rebuilt because we followed in a very human teachers’ footsteps? What hope is there for us?

The reality is that there is no one who can satisfy our craving for security. There is no one who can single-handedly lift us out of our messy morass and make it all better. Sorry. There is actually one who can – but that requires teaching the eye to see itself, the hand to hold itself, the heart to feel its own beat. But we’re not ready for that and won’t be as long as we think salvation is in someone else.

These incidents of teachers who show their utter humanness are themselves our teacher. It opens us to be brutally honest about who we become in the face of our desire that the teacher should be our source of safety and support. It should open us to discern between an authentic teaching that is grounded in Buddhism and aspects of our own Western culture (read: knowledge of mental illness). I have listened too long and too often to the damage caused to practitioners by Buddhist teachers who say, “Just sit with it. It will pass.” Or, “meditate more.” Or, imply that somehow it’s some past life transgression that totally explains and justifies one’s current pain and suffering. It’s a long road back from this level of hurt. And more often than not, it ends up in a conversation that necessarily deconstructs the person’s belief that they are not a “good Buddhist” but also that they may have to surrender their clinging to the belief that they are “Buddhist”. Understanding this collision of our desires and what is promised as “freedom” is crucial to understanding the core of Buddhist practice: taking responsibility for our own development.

However, in the process of taking responsibility for our own delusions about teachers and about being “Buddhists”, we also need to see how the teacher’s own frailties serve us in some way. I have sat in front of teachers who are blissfully blind to their own mental illness and – here’s the rub – whose illness is useful to their community. This collusion likely contributes to stigmatizing mental illness and seals it in silence. It is time we ask ourselves how we impart subtle judgments and demands for perfection onto to each other. It is time we examine how we uphold each other’s frailties so that ours can be further served.

I do love the story Woody Allen tells voice-over at the end of Annie Hall (at least that’s my memory of the story): A psychiatrist’s patient says he has a brother who believes he’s a chicken and wants the psychiatrist to tell him what to do. The psychiatrist suggests the brother may benefit from treatment to rid him of the delusion that he’s a chicken. The patient is horrified: But, doc, then what would I do for eggs?

Once we cure ourselves of the delusion that Buddhism will make us happy and free from pain, what would we do for eggs?

The post by Justin Whitaker, On the Death of a Teacher: A Buddhist Teaching, is a recommended companion piece to this post.


Book review: Choosing Buddhism

Choosing Buddhism: The life stories of eight Canadians by Mauro Peressini (published by University of Ottawa Press 2016) offers an interesting mix of socio-anthropological information of Buddhism in Canada wrapped around narratives of eight living Canadians who converted to Buddhism. Specifically, the domain of the book is the phenomenon of conversion rather than cultural or heritage Buddhism. The arc of the book however is a study in coming to Buddhism through a variety of life choices, many of which appeared to move away from Buddhism rather than towards it.

Peressini begins with a detail description of his own process in writing the book and a heavily detailed description of the way the book is set up. It’s only 13 pages but it’s a bit of a slog unless research methodology and census data is something that intrigues you. Nevertheless, it was interesting to learn about the intricacies of tapping into the actual numbers of Buddhists in Canada and even more so for the conversion to Buddhism. The chapter on Buddhism in Canada (p53-61) was particularly fascinating especially noting the differences before and after 1967 being related to the political lines drawn between those of European races and the “undesirable” Asian races. (We arrived in 1965 and I recall my parents saying with some awe and anxiety that we were one of 19 families accepted from “the East”.)

The heart of Peressini’s book however beats in the narratives of the eight Canadians (some naturalized):

Ajahn Viradhammo (born Vitauts Akers in Germany),
Jim Bedard (born in North Bay ON),
Albert Low (born in London England),
Taigen Henderson (born Ian Henderson in Toronto ON),
Zengetsu Myokyo (born Judith McLean in Aylmer QC),
Louis Cormier (born in Rogersville NB),
Kelsang Drenpa (born Christine Ares in Longueuil QC), and
Tsultrim Palmo (born Anna Szczygielska in Ostrow, Poland.

Their stories are not the typical sorry tale with a flash forward to some moment of enlightenment after which all is well. The very poignant human struggles and challenges of faith are helpful to know for anyone who thinks the Path smoothly rises up to greet us. And of course, it just continues after (their self-reported) enlightenment. Peressini offers a commentary at the end of each life story which rather nicely ties together his intent in the methodology and the narrative itself.

Personally, I was fascinated to read the life path of Ajahn Viradhammo and Albert Low, having met both as teachers and practice briefly with Low. Ajahn V. is a towering individual in the Buddhist community in and around Ottawa. I recall meeting with him when he was living in Ottawa and caring for his mother. Our conversation was warm and wide-ranging but it was very clear that he, as a traditionalist, was going to have no truck with this beast called ‘secular mindfulness’. I learned a lot in that conversation, not the least was to hold the integrity of the Dhamma close in anything I was going to do.

Albert Low’s narrative was astonishing probably yet so consistent with his clear vision of who he is (was?). Of all my teachers, I knew him for the shortest time but was most deeply affected by his gentle and quiet presence. He left me with a simple instruction: Be gentle with your breath, don’t be afraid to always start over. When I wrote to tell him I could no longer make the 4-hr return trip to Montreal every week, he wrote back (I paraphrase here): We are only given the privilege to walk with each other for short spaces. But stay with each other for an eternity.

Choosing Buddhism is really not about how these practitioners decided what path to take. It is about the what they chose in each moment of their lives. If it was to suffer, they chose to suffer fully. If it was to stop, they stopped fully. If it was to move on, they did so whole-heartedly. Like Ajahn V., they heard that very quiet call that could have easily been lost in the noise of whatever drama was playing out in their life at the time.

The book itself is a resource to understand both the development of Buddhism in Canada and how we come to create the path we walk. If that’s not your bag, the life stories make a lovely fireside read.


invitations from the buddha, rsvp: book review of Gowans’ philosophy of the buddha

Christopher Gowans’ Philosophy of the Buddha gives me some hope that I might get a handle on the convolutions philosophers tend to put into explaining the fundamentals of Buddhist thought. It’s well over 10 years old in print and I suspect some challenges have arisen around his explanation of non-self though I have yet to find anything via my oracle Google. I did however come across an essay by Gowans on Buddhist Well-Being that outlines his approach to this intersection of Western philosophy and Buddhist ideas.

Gowans’ interest in this meeting place of thoughts and ideas introduces his essay:

First, what is the proper philosophical elucidation of Buddhist ideas? Second, in what ways, if any, do these ideas relate to ideas in Western philosophy (contemporary as well as historical)? Finally, to what extent might these two domains—Buddhist philosophy and Western philosophy—learn from one another and challenge one another? That is, to what extent might they critically interact so as to advance our philosophical understanding?

The first point – the proper elucidation of Buddhist ideas – is the gist of this book where

(the) first goal is an accurate and insightful understanding of the Buddha’s teaching. We should assume neither that a perfectly objective account is possible nor that any interpretation is as good as another.

Gowans is insistent throughout his book that we are held tightly by our own perspective and, while not necessarily a negative thing, it would be naive to believe that objectivity would be possible. That being said, he does an excellent job of guiding us down the intricate path of Buddhist ideas and principles. Where the interpretations are likely to be convoluted or conflated with Western ideas, he sets up the investigation so that ideas are challenged not as a means of showing off but rather to truly tease apart the complex layers of understanding. His strategy is particularly helpful in working through the concepts of impermanence, non-self and suffering where he holds up the objections and the support all the while questioning the answers.

As for that thorny issue of non-self, Gowans does a remarkable job of breaking it down into substance-self and process-self; the former being a belief of the Buddhism-curious (he calls them stream-observers) that various aspects of form and experience confirms the existence of a distinct substance with an identity (think: sun and plant) while the latter proposes a self “consisting of over-lapping and ever-changing aggregates (p78 Kindle edition)” which have “no independent reality but do have a form of dependent reality (p60 Kindle edition).” Even more so is his explanation of dependent origination which includes imagery of aggregates as “neighboring sandbars…each is a unified nexus of processes that is part of the overall network of processes (p81 Kindle edition)” and the challenge of explaining causal conditioning and freedom to choose action “without recourse to distinctness” of the component parts.

After establishing the underlying Buddhist thought, Gowans tackles the Four Noble Truths and Eight-fold Path with the same steady and unrelenting intensity of examination all the while returning to a common sense rendering of the teachings.  These two sections of his book contain some of the best and most clearly written explorations of the core teachings of Buddhism. And they are enhanced by a tone and quality of writing that is absent of the writer’s need to show he is doing what he is doing.

The final chapter is perhaps the sweetest. In it, Gowans proposes the Buddha’s teachings are an invitation to live selflessly (the theme of ethics runs through all the chapters.

“The first invitation asks us to think about the quality of our life as a whole in a fundamental and sustained way.”

“The second invitation asks us to consider why the fragility of our lives is a source of dissatisfaction.” (Go beyond the obvious that we don’t have what we want, don’t want what we have and get confused regularly by all of it.)

“The third invitation brings us to a crucial juncture. What, the Buddha asks us, can be done to overcome this dissatisfaction?” (The answer can be one of despair, frustration or hope.)

“The (fourth) invitation asks us to reflect on why fulfillment of desires is so important to us.”

“The (fifth) invitation (and hardest to accept) is to consider whether piercing through the illusion of selfhood might reveal not nothing, but…everything.”

“The final invitation asks us to discover on our own whether there is any truth in what he says.”

Gowans book makes for a good introduction to Buddhism and a training in critical thinking that many practitioners would find useful, especially in these days of “quotable Buddhism” and a leaning to fundamentalist-type clinging to what we think is what the Buddha taught. This is definitely a keeper on the book shelf.

not yer granny’s buddhism



There have been a few posts lately about the true nature of Buddhism, whether that nature has been defiled, and (mostly with erroneous logic and lousy data) whether one of the greatest defilers is the Momentum of Mindfulness. A sub-clause to all this cogitating is a need to prove that the Mindfulness Movement is really a pernicious process of oppressing the masses to be sheep and fodder for the Capitalist Overlords. I actually have no argument for the latter because, in my experience, the mindfulness modality is becoming a bit of a dumping ground for hard-to-treat and hard-to-diagnose mental health issues; those Capitalist Overlords may be the over-burdened health care systems that want relief through a 21st century mode of chemical constraints and the ice-water dunking baths of yore. But I digress.

Justin Whitaker, my favourite male Buddhisty philosopher, wrote a great post on the differentiation of Buddhism as a philosophy and a religion. And it is accompanied by a mind-blowing work of art in which his photo-shopping places the Buddha smack down in the middle of a symposium or a wonder of philosophers. I really liked it. Not only does it place the Buddha in the scrum representing various branches of knowledge but specifically placed in the one related to understanding through the determination of primary causes.  The post riffs on an article by Michael McGhee asking “Is Buddhism a religion?” Other than a bit of a sniper shot at the Momentum of Mindfulness and the NHS (UK’s health care system) decree that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is the cat’s meow these days, there is much of worth in the article.

I am compelled yet again to dig into the reality that today’s Buddhism in North America (being much more driven by the American zeitgeist than we care to admit) is not my granny’s Buddhism. But then again, today’s Burmese Buddhist vihara is not my granny’s sangha either. It seems a tough notion to resolve in our minds. And perhaps that’s the start of the problem: we’re trying to think our way through this evolution rather than actually experience it. But thinking is what we do.

McGhee points out that the while a-religionists claim Buddhism is not a religion, they go on to accessorize their own beliefs with the language and conceptual hooks of Buddhism. This seems to be a bad thing, a sort of theft or spiritual plagarizing – which I can see may be hurtful because if you’re going to say the meal offered is not suitable for your purposes, don’t then walk away with the silverware. But I do feel his pain. And equally, I love the reactivity when I say that Buddhism is about renunciation; the dilemma it poses if positively Freudian!

And although I’ll skip over McGhee’s silly sidebar swipe about therapeutically-used meditation allowing for better killers, it is interesting to follow his reasoning that Buddhism being a program of ethical preparation, ironically may move it into the realm of philosophy. (Hence the serendipity of Justin placing the Buddha at the gate of the philosophers!) McGhee writes:

In that case Buddhist practice becomes a form of ethical preparation, reducing the forms of self-preoccupation that impede a concern for justice. This aspect of Buddhism has led some commentators to say that it is more like a philosophy of life than a religion. This contrast with religion relies too heavily on the assimilation of religion to religious belief and it neglects the ceremonial and ritual and community-building aspects of the various religions, including Buddhism.

Now that leads us to the graphic above about bears. (You were wondering, I know.) In my first retreat, all the talks and exchanges were in French. My friends and the facilitators were very kind to translate everything for me, despite my assurances that I was perfectly bilingual. On the second day of the retreat, we were called to a meeting and warned that there was a black bear loose on the grounds and to be careful. Those camping by the centre were invited to sleep in the zendo. I realized after the meeting that no one had translated any of the exchanges for me. From this I concluded that it was vastly more dangerous to not have an accurate understanding of the Dharma than of a potentially lethal bear.

The evolution of Buddhism and of various modalities of psychotherapy is like that. Better to be accurate in one’s intention to practice which directs one’s attention to the details of practice and improves one’s stance to the inner experience which includes ethical prepardeness. How this plays out in your life of practice will depend on whether the bear gets to you before the Dharma.

the dog ate my zabuton: life koans we die by – part 3

DSC_0010It’s going to be a couple of months of dealing with koans¹. Maybe it’s not a stretch to say it’s going to be a few lifetimes of dealing with koans. Notice I wrote “dealing with” and not “working with.” As someone who not only flunked out of koan studies but also remedial koan practice, I’ll not be your bright North Star – other than to serve by nefarious comparison. I also think we tend to deal with something more than work with it (which implies some level of commitment) because we rarely know it’s a koan until smacked full in the face with one.


The Dog Ate My Zabuton Koan

I walked in and said, “Teacher, the dog ate my zabuton so I couldn’t practice.”

She tipped her head to the right and smiled. “How did the dog manage to eat your zabuton?”

‘She doesn’t get it,’ I thought. Aloud I replied, “The dog ate it. He just did. Maybe he’s not a good Buddhist.”

“Ah. Or maybe he’s just a dog. Where was your zabuton that your dog could get to it?’

I scuffed my toe.

“Dog is dog,” she said. “And you know better.”


On the surface, the previous three posts have dealt with issues of the Plum Village Lineage Dharma Teachers and their document intended to resolve conflicts. You can read about it (in order) herehere, and here. Underlying the issues of what one global sangha has done to make it possible for individuals to seek support and recourse in cases of conflict in their sangha are an innumerable number of accretions and assumptions of what it means to be a Buddhist practitioner. Or more accurately, a practitioner of the Buddha’s teachings. These are very different paths and the former may not always end in liberation.

When we are caught in our need to belong, to not be criticized, to be accepted, we are vulnerable – and all the more so when the philosophy of the captor organization is couched in concepts of peace and love and oneness. In our fear of being disconnected from the tribe, we buy into the constructions that seem like Buddhism but are not. If you want to delve into the ways we have bought into a constructed institutional Buddhism, I strongly recommend reading NellaLou’s post Precisely the problem? Typical of her deadly swordship, she points out the ways we risk becoming a mindless cog in the massive machinery that can be Buddhism:

Institutions and systems are made up of processes. These processes get codified—more in theunwritten (sic) rules, rituals, codes of behavior, habits and hidden agendas (include shadows in that) by the laziness of participants than in what is actually written down if anything is written down at all. Laziness in that once comfortably ensconced in an institution, it’s pretty easy to hand off control and thought and critique to that institution and simply become a piece of the machine.


Some of that persuasive environment in a sick institution can include undermining individuals, coercion, guilt, enforcing conformity at all costs, punishing outliers, etc. This leads an individual to self-doubt and unmoors moral anchors making them far more pliable parts of the machine. It’s cult like behavior that leads to insecurity and increases dependence on the institution by the individual. It’s co-dependence all the way down.

This is the point: without transparent and courageous leadership, we – who are hitched to these massive vehicles – are easily dragged away despite our own moral anchors. At the same time, without our own inner leadership that must be unrelenting in its willingness to blast away personal delusions, we are fodder for anyone who talks the ethics talk. And who wouldn’t be? It gets tiring being oh-so-watchful over my anger, greed, and delusions. It wears me down to constantly check in on the wholesomeness or unwholesomeness of my thoughts, speech, and actions. It’s hard not to flip the truths of impermanence, nonself, and suffering on their heads and claim anything goes because nothing lasts, there’s no one to hurt, and samsara just is. So much easier to believe that if our leader is ethical, we are in a position to benefit from a received knowledge of their values.

But we know better. Truly. We know better in that moment when we turn away from something that doesn’t feel right. We know better in that moment when we said nothing because belonging was more anxiety-reducing and speaking out. We know better when the sound of our voice denying malfeasance carries into our spirit and rings false.

Yes, we know better than to think someone else can do the thinking for us. And we know that the cost of that unwholesome choice is ultimately having choice taken away. I’m not talking about the choice of staying in a corrupt organization. The choice we lose is the choice to honour the life we have and the death we practice.

NellaLou’s uncompromising conclusion:

If somebody doesn’t even want to confront blatant wrong doing, or question what they are being fed, or even take a look in the mirror (actually and metaphorically), how are they going to confront the great matter of life and death?

Living Truth IS the very matter of life and death.

NellaLou’s second post, Buddhist Exceptionalism, drives the point home. Believing that our path as practitioners of the teachings of the historical Buddha make us Buddhists is the first step in not knowing better. It is the first loosening of the knot that ties us to our “moral anchor.” Our attraction to the putative safety and support it affords us as captialized-B Buddhists is the first magnetic event that destabilizes our moral compass. We can continue down that path, caught by the desires of our teachers and sanghas who are caught themselves in their delusionary states. And pretty soon that capitalized-B is the way in which we keep people quiet or ostracized so that our world is not rocked by facts or reality, ethics or responsibility.

I told a friend last week that I have given up on Buddhism. I have.

But I know better than to give up on buddhist practice.


¹Mid-October will be a review of Barry Magid’s Nothing is Hidden: The psychology of Zen koans (Wisdom Pubs) and November features Zenshin Florence Caplow & Reigetsu Susan Moons’ The Hidden Lamp: Stories from twenty-five centuries of awakened women (Wisdom Pubs).

the industry of zen & buddhism

Ah! There you are*.

I’m rather chagrined to discover I’ve been MIA for almost a month.  There are no excuses but many reasons; and as I type I’m scrolling through my eCalendar to wow you with some of the amazing accomplishments that have come to pass in these three or four weeks.  Well, perhaps I overstate myself.  It seems the biggest accomplishment has been that I got through the weeks, day-by-day, moment-by-moment, only arrive right here where I began three years ago.

Over those weeks, days, and moments, a challenging question has been worming its way through my mind: Is this Zen?  Is this even Buddhism?  Perhaps this is a poorly conceptualized version of the more powerful question, What is this?  What is this?  Or perhaps this is an important space to open up (again) that cultivates the discernment between the Industry of Zen/Buddhism and the embodiment of it.

Not-Zen/Not-Buddhism is typically easy to spot albeit not easy to resist.  Beer labels, perfumes, furniture, bars, restaurants, clothing, and most objects can safely be tagged “Not-Zen.”  However, it is useful to consider that the intent of using the term for a product is to increase sales through a subtle promise of a mind-state.  And yet, if that is the case, perhaps we find ourselves reduced absurdly to include things like books, audio files, dharma talks, zafus, zabutons (and the love of words most people in our life circles would neither understand nor use in daily discourse), and even dharma teachers, priests, temples, zendos, and the odd kit with kaboodle.

Is that absurd?  I’m beginning to think not.  It’s been my observation that when we first encounter something which fulfills the promise of a mind-state more easeful than the wild, vicious, tumultuous one we inhabit out of habit, we quickly slip from the embodiment of that state to the Industry of what promises to accomplish that state.  Meditation helps you feel calmer?  Great!  Sit longer, download more meditation tracks!  Buddhism explains the state of your world?  Awesome!  Get a few more books, buy a few more buddha statues to fill the spaces!  The world too filled with distraction and pain?  Great!  Go on more retreats, enforce more silence in your schedule!

The sad thing is I don’t think I’m exaggerating.  The early stages of the path are filled with opportunity to be infatuated with what we think is Zen and Buddhism but which, on closer examination, is only a promise heard in a moment of desperation.  And what a seductive promise it is with its purring engine and fine, fine aerodynamic lines!  The vehicle of Buddhism – especially the Zen model rolling off the production lines – has us begging for the keys.  And we fall prey to the Industry of Buddhism which is in fact the after-market industry and occasionally comes frighteningly close to “Pimp My Ride.”

But in the fine print of the ownership papers lies the true intention for taking this baby out for a spin.  The intent of Buddhism in general and Zen in particular  is – and has always been – embodying  openness to the dynamic between our experience and our avoidance of it.  There’s no promise of elevated mind-states or visceral joy in catharsis in the fine print.  There is only bearing witness to the slip-slide-skid and the compassionate action of turning into that skid.  And yes, there are some forms in practice that facilitate our skillfulness to embody its intent.  However, and sadly so, the more enamoured we are of specific forms of practice – be it meditation, insight cultivation, retreats, or what have you – the easier it is for the Industry of Buddhism to aid and abet our avoidance of who we are in this and every moment.


*This is our little ghost cat, Desirée.  She’s 14 years old and this is first time she’s allowed me to cuddle her.

theoblogger challenge: god in 100 words

Patheos is a fascinating site offering a “balanced view of Religion and Spirituality.”  Debra Arca Mooney of Patheos contacted me about 10 days ago and offered a “theoblogger” challenge:

Who/What is God?

In 100 words or less

A previous challenge had been issued to a selection of Christian writers.  As a result of the responses to that challenge, bloggers across a variety of faith traditions were asked to participate.  As a Buddhist, I wondered how to even begin since Buddhism didn’t carry a premise of “God”.  Yet, there is an experience of the sacred – at least as I comprehend it in my own limited mind.  If nothing else, participating has forced me to struggle with the slip-sliding nature of language in trying to articulate the experience, result, and outcome of practice.

My response:

The concept of a singular God is not in found Buddhism.  There is only practice as Buddha, which means “One who is Awakened.”  An adjective, Buddha describes our capacity to cultivate joy, love, compassion, and equanimity.  Being Buddha means full engagement in life without preference for something different to be happening for or to us.  It is practicing authenticity and the courage to live ethically.  It cultivates living fiercely, fearless of the crucible which transforms our greed, rejection, and disconnect to generosity, open heartedness, and wisdom.  Then, we see sacredness in the ordinary: a cup of tea, a falling leaf.

It, along with the other featured bloggers, can be found here.  Please visit Patheos to read the variety of responses.  Also share your response – here and there – to the question (in 100 words or less!).

Thank you for practicing,