Because I seem to know a lot about Buddhism, my students often ask me if I also follow a spiritual path. In other words, do I follow a particular Buddhist teacher or lineage, or hold beliefs about reincarnation or an afterlife? Often these people are also wondering whether they should join one of the groups in Perth, so I typically map what they will encounter if they do (more about this later). In this article, I will try to answer an even deeper question: “Is Buddhism a healthy religion or belief system, or not? Would it be good for you?” I should emphasise that I am only talking about Buddhism for Westerners. I have no idea what it means for ethnic Buddhists. Nor can I pretend to be objective in my opinions. I know Buddhism from both the inside and the outside. I’ve experienced the good and the bad directly over the last forty-three years.
By 1975, I was already familiar with the key meditation texts, even before meeting any Buddhist teacher. I then spent a total of eighteen months until 1990 doing retreats with Western teachers in the Vipassana, Zen and Tibetan traditions. When I opened up the Perth Meditation Centre in 1987 in Kings Park Road, I clearly stated that I taught ‘meditation’ and not ‘Buddhism’ (It is quite easy to separate them).
Nonetheless, I was obviously sympathetic to Buddhism. I sponsored the tours of six Western non-monastic teachers and I allowed my premises to be used for free by the local Zen group. I gave free talks on meditation and Buddhism each Friday for two years. I helped promote the Dalai Lama’s visit to Perth in the 1990s. I was on the committee of one of the Tibetan Groups (now moribund) for nearly a decade, and my best friend since 1993 was the local Zen teacher, Ross Bolleter. I also attended three huge conferences of Western meditation teachers in California from 1994 to 2000.
Yet I never regarded myself as a Buddhist. I was always more committed to the world view of Western philosophy and science. I am a natural outsider, rather than a ‘joiner’, so I spread my involvement over many schools of Buddhism. Because I thought I had a good bullshit indicator, I assumed I was inoculated against the stupidity that I saw. I now realise I was much more sucked in than I imagined. If we regard the word ‘cult’ as referring to a small religious group in which the leader has excessive authority, then I had definitely been tangled up in Buddhist cults for at least 15 years.
It is relatively easy to walk out on a cult. It is much harder to escape from cult thinking. In 1998, I wrote a book called The Naked Buddha to help me do so. There was no doubt I had gained a lot from Buddhism, particularly the opportunity to do long retreats, so I tried to sort out what was good and bad about it: what was left in the sieve after the dross was washed away.
Most of that book involved positive reinterpretation of the core Buddhist doctrines. The remaining five chapters, however, presented some polite criticism. Those five chapters were enough to ensure my permanent ostracism and ‘un-friending’ from the Buddhist world. I gave copies of the book to about 20 of my Buddhist friends. The response was a perfect 100% stony silence. I now recognise this as the knee-jerk Buddhist response to criticism. The only exception to this was Ross Bolleter, the Zen teacher. He liked my book because he was facing similar issues in his own group at the time.
Conversely, The Naked Buddha was received with gratitude by many ex-Buddhists. I met several people who had been exploited and humiliated for decades. When they could no longer contribute, they were either elbowed out or drifted away. Too old and too sad to develop an alternative perspective on life, they were trapped in the identity of being disgruntled ex-Buddhists. Because my book stated the obvious, that the emperor often has no clothes, it validated their experience, and confirmed that they weren’t mad or bad. I was very glad I could help them. This article is like a belated footnote to The Naked Buddha. I hope it can be equally useful to you, if you are having similar doubts about Buddhism.
In The Naked Buddha I tried to take a balanced approach: i.e. this is good, this is bad. I couldn’t do that now. I now think Buddhism is almost completely toxic in its effects on Westerners. It has all the faults of any religion. The closest analogy would be medieval Christianity. It is stuck in the 13th Century. Even the Western secular forms of Buddhism and the mindfulness movement itself tend to have fundamentalist religious roots. It is not enough to abandon the outer forms of a religion, the so-called ‘trappings’, in search of the ‘essence’. The viral memes that drive religious thinking can easily survive unscathed and go on to thrive in new environments.
CRITICAL AND INTUITIVE THINKING. As part of my deprogramming, I realised I needed a much stronger grounding in Western science and philosophy. For several years from 2000 onwards, I trained myself up in biology, physics, chemistry, neuroscience and cognitive psychology. I also examined Western philosophy with a particular interest in the Greeks, in the history of scientific thought, and in the field of cognitive fallacies.
Thanks to the latter, I came to understand how immature most of my habitual thinking actually was. My common-sense thinking got me through my working day, but it wasn’t fully rational or grown-up. I now make a distinction between ‘intuitive’ thinking which aims to strengthen one’s prior understanding (‘Confirmation Bias’), and ‘critical’ thinking, which can seriously consider a plurality of views. Intuitive thinking is natural, easy and automatic. It is based on unconscious pattern recognition and a sense of familiarity. Intuitive thinking goes back thousands of years, and is the source of all religion and spirituality. It is embedded in holy texts, ritual and moral codes, and has the authority of immense antiquity. The answers ‘feel right’: end of story.
Critical thinking is a different animal altogether. Only a critical thinker can go that extra step and sympathetically evaluate an opinion that doesn’t support his own. As Antisthenes, a follower of Socrates put it, “Philosophy has taught me how to have a critical dialogue with myself.” So a critical thinker can start with the possibility, and even the likelihood, that his firmest convictions could be wrong. It also implies that two or three minds, courteously clashing (i.e. not shouting at one another), are usually better than one mind at establishing any truth. A dialogue is more productive than navel-gazing. Intuitive thinking can give a comforting but closed-minded sense of certainty. Critical thinking, however, is scratchy, exciting, adventurous and open-minded.
Critical thinking is the basis of what is called ‘The Socratic Dialogue’. This is the very foundation of philosophy and the modern scientific method. This approach to truth is also new in human history. It only dates back to 600 BC. Critical thinking and questioning assumptions are also more difficult than intuition. It could even be regarded as unnatural (but then so is reading). It is hardly surprising that many, perhaps most, religious authorities have regarded it as evil.
Just as religions historically preceded philosophy, so it seems that we all start life as believers and intuitive thinkers and then only gradually, if at all, we grow into rational adults. I think I reached that point sometime after the age of 50. So to return to the question that started this article. When people ask me if I follow a spiritual path, I usually say “I am a critical thinker”. It is certainly a far more demanding and rewarding practice than anything I encountered in the Buddhist world, where belief and obedience were usually sufficient. This is also the position I take when I examine Buddhism. I assume that any good idea should be robust enough to take some examination.
The Socratic Dialogue actually starts with semantics: what is the meaning of a particular word? “Does the young man Charmides have a good soul?”, asked Socrates. “When I ask him how he understands the word ‘temperance’, can he give a good answer?” Socratic dialogues often revolve around a question such as ‘What is Courage?’ or ‘What is Truth?’ The ensuing dialogue helps to flush out contradictions, clarify the subject and determine good usage, even without coming to a final definition. Charmides, by the way, passed the test. He could analyse an important word. He could talk and reason well. He had a good soul.
This examination of individual words was the basis of education in classical Greece and Rome. An educated, adult citizen understood the meaning of the words he used (grammar); he could think and argue coherently with those concepts (logic or reason); and he could explain his ideas persuasively in dialogue with others (rhetoric). From Galileo onwards, this developed into the scientific method. A scientist first establishes his terms and definitions (grammar). He presents an explanatory hypothesis (logic or reason). He then carries out experiments and exposes the whole process to the criticism of others (dialogue). It is hard for us to realise how fabulously valuable this process has been for humanity. Most of us would not be alive today without it.
When someone asks me, “Do you follow a spiritual path?” I’m happy to discuss any of my ideas and beliefs but I don’t want to talk about meaningless guff. So I sometimes ask them in return, like Socrates: “What does the word ‘spiritual’ mean to you?” My question usually flummoxes them because it is a hallmark of spiritual ideas that they are immune from, or actively hostile to, any kind of enquiry. Buddhism like most religions is thick with language that resists explanations. This usually doesn’t trouble believers or intuitive thinkers. In fact, opaque or mysterious words seem far more important than those whose meaning is clear.
When we first approach Buddhism, we meet words and ideas that seem remarkably profound and alluring: buddha, enlightenment, nirvana, liberation, awakening, karma, reincarnation, transcendence, enlightened sages, pure awareness, psychic powers, spiritual practices etc. From a distance, this language can seem to refer to something quite real. If we enquire more closely, however, if we approach those shimmering bubbles with a pin, often there is nothing, absolutely nothing, there. Or to use Nietzsche’s analogy, just one light tap is enough to hear the hollowness within. The whole spiritual edifice, which once claimed to fill all time and space, can collapse to even less than zero (which does at least refer to something).
My commitment to clear and accurate words and ideas is quite enough to explain my antagonism towards Buddhism (and the antagonism of Buddhists towards me.) Most Buddhist language is exploitative guff, perfected over millennia for maximum effect by monks, priests and lamas. The Dalai Lama, with his team of ghost writers and co-writers, is a non-stop guff machine. The guff usually masquerades behind moral platitudes, hyperbole, abstractions, metaphor and stories. Nor is it necessarily dumb and childish. It can take the form of Tibetan scholasticism (in which it takes 25 years to graduate) or the barbed-wire obstacle course of the Zen puzzles. Nonetheless, most of it is a house of cards, vulnerable to the least cross-wind. You can stress-test it by asking, as Socrates would, ‘What does this word actually mean?’ Does it correspond to anything at all in the real world? Even Google is likely to give you a better answer than most Buddhist teachers, and a lot quicker.
CULTS. Most Buddhist groups are cults. I know this is a problematic term, but bear me out. Buddhism has gods but it downplays the idea. This means that their followers naturally project their ‘God’ archetypes on to the guru, who soon comes to expect it. Christians have an alternative source of authority in the Bible, but hardly any Buddhist reads original Buddhist texts (they read the Dalai Lama instead). This means they are utterly dependent on the teacher. He is their sole doorway to the truth. If the word ‘cult’ refers to a group where one man or woman has exclusive, unquestionable authority, then most Buddhist groups are cults and always have been. Buddhism lends itself to this kind of organisational structure.
This structure resembles that of a family dominated by a powerful patriarch, and in fact few Buddhist groups are any larger than an extended family. In many cults, the leader is even addressed by Asian words that mean ‘Daddy’ or, in many Indian cults, as ‘Mummy’. This patriarchal structure often induces a kind of infantile dependency in his followers. I was frequently amazed to see mature adults regress almost instantly to submissive, childlike behaviour when the teacher appeared. It is also interesting to note that most popular Buddhist virtues resemble those you would expect of quiet, obedient children (Be nice, think of others, don’t say anything that might offend etc).
Most Buddhist groups are mental ghettos. When you join a group, it can be like getting married. Your freedom of thought goes, the doors shut behind you, the group becomes a fortress against differing views, and the guru operates like a covert mental censor. Western students who want to visit other teachers are often criticised for ‘spiritual shopping’. The teachers also tend to become islands unto themselves. Because they often feel they embody the truth, they lose all interest in, or actively hate, alternative narratives. As Francis Bacon would put it: they become like spiders, spinning intricate cobwebs out of their own navels. Furthermore most Western teachers of Vipassana and Zen now function independent of their own Asian teachers. Although they invariably claim authority from the tradition, they are basically making it up as they go, for better or worse. (The Tibetan schools, on the other hand, keep tighter control.)
This atmosphere of uncritical adulation (or resentful fear) can have a pernicious effect on the character of the guru himself. If he has any inclinations towards narcissism, it now has a perfect opportunity to flourish. He is superior to everyone he meets. He is never challenged and he has all the instruments of control. Buddhist teachers frequently exhibit at least some narcissistic traits: inflated self-confidence, a sense of entitlement, an assumption that what is good for them is good for everyone, off-stage temper tantrums, and an extreme sensitivity around issues of status. I’ve noticed this across all schools of Buddhism.
Buddhism even has a philosophic sanction for this extreme focus on the teacher. Its dogma of ‘no-soul’ implies that the individual opinions of a student are irrelevant: his ‘ego’ is full of erroneous views anyway. The only enlightened perspective in the room is that of the teacher. This implies that the student should dissolve his self-centredness (what the Dalai Lama calls ‘self-cherishing’) and do what he can to please the teacher. It is easy to see how this situation lends itself to sexual or financial exploitation.
POOR TEACHING. While I saw all of this happening, I was never close enough to the action to be personally affected. What really annoyed me, however, was that the ‘teachers’ did not ‘teach’. I’d been a schoolteacher for a year in my youth. I knew what was involved in teaching and learning. Whatever these Buddhist ‘teachers’ were doing was something else altogether.
For me, the last straw was a retreat I did in the early 1990s in Balingup. It was expensive. It had no structure. We did what we felt like. The Canadian teacher (Namgyal Rinpoche, who died in 2003) stayed away from the premises and was driven in for a one-hour talk or ‘empowerment’ ceremony on most but not all of the days. It was quite impossible that any teaching or learning could occur with that minuscule amount of contact. That teacher was just riding the gravy train, doing as little as possible to fund his expensive lifestyle.
This is an extreme example but other Buddhist teachers are little better. It is very rare for them to give a systematic course of study. Maybe the students lack commitment, but usually all they can expect is a sermon once or twice a week. It is like going to church on Sundays. Anyone who wanted to seriously learn something – wine-tasting, golf, creative writing, a language – would commit vastly more time to it than most Buddhist students do to their Buddhism. (Some Tibetan groups are an exception to this, and do offer a long course of training/indoctrination).
Even if you do attend a lecture or sermon, you will probably be disappointed by the poor quality of the delivery. Stream-of-consciousness waffle is the order of the day. (I’ve heard this justified as ‘entering the mind-stream of the guru’.) You are most unlikely to encounter any systematic explanation of Buddhist dogma. Or you may get a teacher who just can’t shut up. One teacher I knew well could talk for seven hours a day, without a single comma or full-stop.
Furthermore, every teacher I encountered had a similar fault. They couldn’t listen and didn’t feel any need to. They would use any question as a springboard for another sermon. I once organised some talks for another Canadian teacher. After he had finished his long tangential journey in response to a question, I then addressed the questioner: “Did you feel that he answered your question?” “Well, no….” she said. The teacher was furious and cancelled his next scheduled talks.
By the mid-1990s, I’d fully or partly organised maybe 15 teaching tours by visiting teachers. I’d help expose thousands of people to Buddhism. I finally had to ask myself the uncomfortable question: “Was it worth it? Did any of those students get any lasting benefit?” From virtually any perspective, I had to say “No”.
The evidence for positive effects was vanishingly faint, and depended on a lot of wishful thinking. Even long term students seemed to stagnate, and teachers themselves were hardly shining examples of serenity and wisdom. Moreover people voted with their feet. They came for a look but didn’t stay. Even now, I estimate there are no more than 400 Westerners who are members of any Buddhist group in Perth. Even the hundreds of teachers I met at American conferences seemed little better: their idea of teaching tended to collapse into a churchy pastor-flock model rather than anything dynamic.
MAGIC. The core ideas of Buddhism are quite simple. They could easily be mapped out in an hour or two by a good university lecturer. This plain, austere fare is not very attractive to most of us, however, so it is ignored or misrepresented by nearly all Buddhist teachers. In practice, Buddhism is far more about magic and ritual, with symbol and inspiring stories passing for spiritual truth. As my Zen friend often said: “The truth shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of a good story.”
The first form of magic is about ‘earning merit’: giving money or labour to ensure a better rebirth. For Westerners, this translates as voluntary labour, or doing unpaid work often for years, from cleaning toilets to building temples to doing the accounts to working bees. This is seen as being good for your soul, but don’t expect to be thanked for it! Unpaid labour is regarded as spiritual practice that results in good future karma. After my third year of this, I decided “Never again. This is a con.” Unfortunately some people are bled dry by this. If you go to a group, just notice how quickly you are invited to volunteer.
Beyond that, Tibetan Buddhism in particular is wall-to-wall magical spells in the forms of ceremonies, complex visualisations, liturgical chants, temple building etc that you can either pay monks to do or practice yourself.
Many of these activities can last days or weeks, and could easily occupy half the days in the year (like medieval Christianity). What was their ultimate goal? Mostly, paying off bad karma and gaining a better rebirth.
I did some of these out of youthful stupidity: 100,000 full-length prostrations, complete with visualisations and philosophic speculations. Then 100,000 mantra of this practice, counted off on rosary beads, then 100,000 of that. I remember one of my teachers looking very contented one day. He said he had finally completed all his preliminary obligations for 76 different meditation practices. It had taken him many years just to do the required 100,000 mantra of each of them. That was just the beginning. He was now free to go deeply into any one of them he chose. This is ritual, ceremony and self-hypnosis gone mad, but many dedicated followers of Tibetan Buddhism will commit themselves to some form of this.
JUST SITTING. Zen Buddhism has another form of magic. It is sublimely simple compared with the Tibetan practices above. It is postural. It is called Shikantaza. This is usually translated as ‘Just Sitting’ but the original Japanese is stronger than that. I translate it as ‘Absolutely nothing but sitting.’ Ross Bolleter translates it as: ‘Nothing but precisely sitting.’ The argument is that if you can sit exactly right with a passive, open state of mind for long enough, ‘body and mind will drop away’, and you will realise that you are already enlightened!
This is the experience of Emptiness or Oneness or Buddhamind or Pure Awareness. Of course, it never seems to happen that smoothly, so Zen practitioners slog away for years, getting little tastes and hoping that the full magic will kick in eventually.
Zen is extremely, ideologically, hostile to rational thought, which it regards as a primary source of human misery and an obstacle to the experience of Oneness. Strange to say, the Zen tradition does operate through dialogue but it also delights in wordplay, hyperbole, puns, non-sequiturs, crazy stories, wistful poetry, point-scoring quips, verbal combat, crude insults and physical violence. You have been warned! However I recently attended a retreat with a teacher trained in both the Zen and Vipassana traditions. Out of character, he generously offered to answer any questions until one brash American asked: “What are we doing all this sitting for? How does this get us to enlightenment?” (I thought this was an excellent question). The teacher quickly slipped back into character. He rudely fobbed the American off, and then literally spend the entire next hour demonstrating all the possible ways of sitting correctly.
So how magical is Just Sitting? Let me paraphrase Dogen, the 13th Century Zen monk who defined Shikantaza, and who also gave precise instructions on the perfect posture. “How do you do Just Sitting? Just sit and think about not thinking. How can you think about not thinking? By not thinking! This is the essence of the entire Buddhist path. The scriptures, the rituals and chanting are all irrelevant. You don’t even have to be intelligent. Everyone who has ever awakened since the time of the Buddha has done so by Just Sitting. Why would you want to do anything else?”
The previous edition of my book The Foundations of Mindfulness contained four pages that referred to Zen (because it is the source of modern mindfulness). Before publication, I sent Ross Bolleter, as the local Zen authority, those four pages for his comment. He emailed back, saying “You don’t know the first thing about Zen!’ and then criticised three of my points. These were as follows: I had said that ‘Just Sitting’ prioritised the sitting position over the other three standard postures of Buddhism (walking, standing and lying). I said that in Zen, the idea of ‘Emptiness’ takes over from the Buddha’s original emphasis on ‘Suffering’. And I said that Zen is a late reform movement within Buddhism. When we next met, however, he couldn’t defend his points and the conversation lapsed after two or three minutes. He then said: “It would be ridiculous for our friendship to fall apart over religion.” (We had enjoyed 20 years of weekly breakfasts and walks around the river).
Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened. When my book was finally published I gave him a copy. A few months later I shamed him into reading it. I had reviewed 15 or 20 of his musical compositions over the years, and he had reviewed all of my books to that point. However he obviously did not want to read this one.
The next time we met his face was black. He said: “I don’t like your book at all and I don’t want to talk about it. Anyway, we’ve already talked about it enough.” In fact, we had only discussed the four pages relating to Zen that I had forwarded to him before publication. The other 220 pages were the substance of the book, but they didn’t count. When I asked him why he was so annoyed he said “No one but a Zen teacher in the koan tradition should say anything about Just Sitting (Shikantaza).” The conversation went no further than that. The familiar stony silence followed.
So why, really, was he so infuriated? The three points he raised were minor, and hardly deal-breakers.
However, a year earlier he had said: “If I took seriously what you say (about the mind), it would undermine my faith in Zen.” He also said: “I sometimes get frightened by the sharpness of your mind.” (In other words, I make distinctions in ways that he doesn’t). At the time of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, he had also made a comment that astonished me: “I don’t think religions should ever be criticised.” (Really? I thought. Never?)
I think it comes down to one more fundamental disagreement. Ross believes in ‘Emptiness’, and I have a more sophisticated and scientific understanding of the mind. Moreover as a critical thinker, I can talk about the mind while he, as a Zen teacher, can’t or won’t. Zen is more about intuition, aesthetic sensibility, mystery and the presence of a wise master, than it is about reason. I can understand why Ross felt uncomfortable around me, even though we never, not once, in 20 years of weekly walks and breakfasts, explicitly discussed Zen. It was always off the table. Which leads to the next point….
THE PURE AWARENESS FALLACY. The Buddha was a sharp and accurate observer of the mind. I still find many of his insights amazing, and they are reasonably compatible with cognitive psychology. His doctrine is known as the Theravada. Unfortunately, this got swamped 500 years after his death by a grandiose new form of Buddhism called the Mahayana. This includes both Tibetan Buddhism and Zen.
Despite its colossal pretensions, the Mahayana dumbs down the Theravada. It makes Buddhism far simpler and more religious than it was. It establishes a simple body/mind duality. It posits that you can transcend the body through meditation or other disciplines and enter into a pure, eternal state which is called ‘Emptiness’.
This is also called ‘Buddhamind’ or ‘Pure Awareness’ or ‘Pure Mind’ and it is much the same as ‘God’ in the Hindu tradition. If you attain Emptiness, your consciousness is identical to that of the Buddha’s. This is Enlightenment or Nirvana or God-Consciousness, and it is the ultimate attainment. There is nothing else to do. After that, you ‘just watch’ and your example ‘liberates all beings’.
Mahayana Buddhism is full of spiritual ideas which feel intuitively right. Transcendence. Pure Mind. All is One. The mind can be liberated from the body. Life after death. Ultimate Reality. Glorious as these concepts seem, they are virtually all abstractions. This is where intuition lets us down. These ideas feel ‘right’ but they are actually wrong. Years ago, I tried to figure out exactly what these concepts meant, but now I don’t bother. They all boil down to nothing eventually. In fact, they are worse than nothing. You can waste a lot of time trying to make them fit into your flesh-and-blood life.
I regard ‘Emptiness’ or ‘Pure Awareness’ as a naive idea. In meditation, it is certainly possible to attain a profoundly serene state of mind ‘empty’ of discursive thought. This state has many names: bodymind stillness, trance, absorption, samadhi, a state in which ‘body and mind drop away.’ The word ‘empty’ describes this state well, but to reify this adjective into a spiritual absolute is ridiculous. In philosophy, this is called ‘the fallacy of misplaced concreteness’. To believe in Emptiness as an ontologically real, transcendental, eternal and all-pervasive Pure Mind, tends to fuel spiritual hubris in anyone who thinks he is getting close. A psychologist who has a wonderful experience on a meditation retreat can feel he has understood the essence of Buddhism and can talk authoritatively about it.
Underneath the guff, the Mahayana is Theravada-lite. Zen is even simpler: it is Mahayana-lite. Dogen actually says that Just Sitting is enlightenment itself. Nothing else is required. Not even the teachings of the Buddha. Modern mindfulness goes one step further: it is Zen-lite. Its founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, developed his therapeutic program (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) out of his Zen practice. I am sure he is a fine meditator. His authority as a spokesman for Buddhism however has no deeper roots than his confidence in his attainment.
SPIRITUAL OPTIONS Many people have little interest in Buddhist but love meditation, so they like to go on regular retreats. The most common are 10-day Vipassana retreats, Zen retreats and those run by MBSR practitioners. These are well worthwhile in most cases, and I encourage people to attend them if they can. The religious elements are downplayed, and practical experience takes over. In fact, most of what you are likely to learn on a long retreat will come from you, not from either Buddhism or the teacher. This means you can profitably attend these retreats with no allegiance or even interest in Buddhism.
Nonetheless, retreats often implicitly encourage certain Buddhist ideals without spelling them out. One ideal is that inactivity, withdrawal and passivity are a valid spiritual path; that not-doing is better than doing; that ‘just watching’ is better than responding; that going with the flow is better than actively pursuing goals. These are extremely old and durable monastic values.
Another Buddhist ideal is that by meditating, you can achieve ‘peak experiences’ or an alternative, truer view on reality. You can transcend the everyday and enter into a different plane of existence. Many meditators can hanker for years after peak experiences and enlightened perspectives that they hope will answer all their questions and dissolve their spiritual angst. This can be a very disappointing goal to pursue: people strive for years on retreat trying to get ‘there’.
A third idea is that of ‘Being Present’, which usually includes the concepts of acceptance and not thinking. These seem obvious and harmless, but they still carry unspoken spiritual values. ‘Acceptance’ correlates easily with the idea of accepting your fate, or karma, or submitting to your lot in life. Religions often suggest that fitting in, accepting your place in society, being obedient and not thinking too much is a way to inner peace. ‘Being Present’ is a modern reworking of this idea, with a bit of epicurean sense-pleasure thrown in.
Withdrawal, inactivity, not reacting, being present, suspending thought, smelling the roses and hoping for peak experiences are not very reliable ways of establishing a good life. These may be useful as correctives but they can become escapist indulgences on their own. They can even lead us to devalue what we really need to live well: things like work, love, money, humour, pleasure, passion and productive effort.
Even if you are mostly interested in meditation, it often comes as a package with Buddhism or yoga. So would it still be worth your while checking out one of the Buddhist groups in Perth? Could you go to a group and cherry-pick what you could use? I certainly did. I extracted meditation completely from its Buddhist context and made it the basis of an excellent profession. So if you go looking, what options will you find in Perth? Just remember that my opinions about these groups could be out of date. I’ve had virtually no contact with them for twenty years. And I won’t try to give you information you can easily pick up from their websites.
By far the most successful group is The Buddhist Society of WA in Nollamara. By membership alone, it is ten or twenty times larger than any other group. It is funded extravagantly by Thai Buddhists but its monks are nearly all Westerners. It has been led for a decade or two by the eccentric English monk, Ajahn Brahm, who now has a worldwide presence through his books and travels. He is something of a force of nature. His lecture style frequently includes puns, strange moral stories, and stream of consciousness digressions. He can be very entertaining, and when he is on song he can easily hold an audience of hundreds.
Brahm’s huge self-confidence has had one remarkable effect. Thai Buddhism (the Theravada) is an exclusively male domain. A few years ago, Brahm decided to ordain the first Buddhist nuns in over two millennia. I don’t think he had any idea how much furore this would create in Thailand. He has now been effectively excommunicated, although it hardly matters. He has his own multi-million dollar power base here in Perth. All credit to him! Despite this, he is still a hardline Theravadin teacher and I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes.
The Zen Group of WA was founded by Ross Bolleter in 1983, who has singlehandedly held it together since then. Through the teachers he has trained, he is the major Zen teacher in Australia and New Zealand. Unlike Ajaan Brahm’s group above, the Zen Group has always been tiny, introspective and somewhat intense. Like nearly all other Western Zen teachers, Ross has no active links to any living Japanese masters.
Students at the Zen Group practice ‘Just Sitting’. However Ross is also a koan master. This means that students can also choose to be given koans (verbal puzzles or short philosophic stories) such as ‘Who is hearing this sound?’ to meditate on. If a student can eventually give Ross an answer that he feels reflects their intuitive understanding, he will advance that student to the next koan. (It can take months or longer to get through this first barrier.) There are about 500 koans in the series.
There are three Tibetan Groups of any size in Perth. The Hayagriva Centre in Kensington is the local branch of the Dalai Lama’s missionary wing, the FPMT. There are dozens of FPMT groups worldwide. This organisation is very conservative and devotional on a mind-blowing scale. Its international leader, Lama Zopa, is fanatically obsessed with raising money for colossal building projects. When I met him years ago, I seriously wondered whether he might be a bit insane.
The Tibetan Buddhist Society of WA in Herne Hill is closely affiliated with just one now deceased Tibetan teacher, Geshe Loden, and his vast centre in Victoria. Both centres have magnificent Tibetan temples. This group is also very conservative and devotional, but many of its talks are given by an articulate and entertaining professional writer, David Michie.
The last Tibetan Group is a peculiarity. The Dharmapala Kadampa Centre in Fremantle seems to operate as a business running workshops all over Perth, rather than depending on a membership. This worldwide organisation is run by Western monks and nuns. It is violently antagonistic to the Dalai Lama and vice versa. Their feud, frequently bloody, has been going on for centuries. In all these Tibetan Groups, you can expect a hardline interpretation of karma and reincarnation, and an emphasis on doing thousands of prayers counted off on rosary beads.
There are also at least four groups that run regular 10-day Vipassana retreats which are mostly led by visiting teachers. Thus the quality of the retreat depends on the particular teacher. I discourage people from attending the ‘free, donation only’ retreats that are held in Brookton because of their bad reputation decades ago and their bootcamp approach. The other retreats held in Mundaring, and those held by the Perth Insight Meditation Group, are usually comfortable, humane and sensible. All these retreats usually emphasis long silent sittings, almost no talking and very little Buddhism. Ajahn Brahm from the Buddhist Society of WA also runs long retreats, but these have a stronger Buddhist flavour.
So to return to the question at the beginning: Would further involvement with Buddhism be good for you or not? Of course, this question is far too broad to answer. Even bad groups tend to have something good to offer, if only as bait, and many of us will learn more from an ordeal than from a pleasant experience anyway. However, it is helpful to know what to expect, and to be prepared, just in case. None of the problems you might face will be unique to you, and nor will they be your fault! I hope this article has helped and I wish you luck if you choose to explore further.