Upgrading to Post-Traditional Buddhism

Posted on 05. May, 2011 by in Blog

Here’s the transcript from the Q&A section in the introductory session of “Three Pathways of Awakening” virtual course, being offered through Buddhist Geeks. The question by a participant was basically – what is specifically post-traditional in this approach? What follows is an attempt to answer on the spot.

Hokai Sobol: There are three basic elements that move someone’s approach from traditional to post-traditional. Now, when we use the word traditional, it doesn’t mean that one is necessarily using traditional language when talking about one’s practice, or that one is necessarily using traditional criteria to organize one’s lifestyle. On the contrary, one may on the surface live a very contemporary lifestyle and may talk about dharma in very modern rational terms, however at the core one’s practice still remains traditional. When I say remains traditional I mean remains in a limited way, if three basic shifts haven’t taken place. And I will just name them now. We will get more into them as we go through the course.

These three shifts are number 1, one needs to really make sense of both the techniques and the teachings that one is putting into practice and following. Now really make sense means that one can actually explain what one is doing and how one is thinking about it in terms of one’s own life, without recourse to specific notions and concepts that one has quite naturally lived without before meeting Buddhism. This is the first step that needs to be taken. I called this step “naturalizing the dharma.” So basically the dharma needs to be defined in terms that are meaningful to one’s life situation. That’s no. 1.

Number 2, in pursuing one’s practice, one needs to take an additional degree of responsibility for the results of one’s practice. This doesn’t mean that one does not commit to specific style of practice and one does not basically develop – especially in the Zen and Vajrayana tradition – a strong relationship to a certain community and teacher. However, one must be fully clear that one is developing that commitment and developing that relationship of one’s own free choice. And that whatever happens in that relationship one basically takes responsibility for it. Without making that shift people often feel victimized when things get tough. And things may get tough in a good way like when you really hit your edge and hit into your limitations, or sometimes things get tough in a bad way when communities fall apart or teachers or other models, senior practitioners appear to not be what we expected. In any of those cases whether things get tough in a good way or in a bad way feeling victimized shows that we hadn’t made the second significant shift meaning taking full responsibility for our own practice and for results that come out of it. Again I repeat this does not mean giving up on reliance on Buddha’s teachings, the communities and the teachers. But it does mean never giving up our responsibility and accountability.

And the third shift that makes the practice post-traditional is a shift which makes it clear that the meditation experience, even meditative realization, in itself, means nothing. Every experience and every realization, even very high realization, very advanced realization needs to be fully interpreted and fully acknowledged and fully integrated into life experience. This basically means that there has to be a high degree of integrity between our spiritual lives and mundane lives. The basic degree of spiritual development would be a decreasing gap between what we see as spiritual and what we see as unspiritual or ordinary.

So this third shift is also extremely important because scripturally in the Buddhist texts there is a lot of talk about nirvana being samsara, samsara being nirvana. However in the lives of traditional people and traditional society this has never really worked. Today, it’s becoming possible because of changes in social and cultural circumstances to basically dissolve this gap between spiritual and secular to a much much larger degree, and it is our responsibility to do so.

So again very shortly there are three shifts to be undertaken which would make a practice post-traditional without throwing the baby with the bath water of the tradition, right? So, the first step is the shift in interpretation. Meaning that one needs to develop an understanding of the dharma both in theoretical and practical aspect that has a minimum of unnecessary alienating conceptual categories and the maximum of basic natural life categories. The second shift is a marked shift in responsibility and psychological integrity for every practitioner. And the third shift is a shift in interpreting and integrating whatever level of experience one reaches, or whatever level of realization one can stabilize. And I will also emphasize that these three points go beyond a mere postmodern approach.


Let me add here several points not made in the live dialogue. I assume that by moving beyond strict traditional considerations we do not just replace Buddhist teachings with modern or postmodern preferences. This has been tried and has – in many respects – repeatedly failed. While post-traditional in the strict sense means evolving Buddhism beyond ethnocentric identities, parochial attitudes, and ideologically-based loyalties, in the broad sense it means also being alert to modern and ‘postmodern’ reactivity when it comes to spiritual principles of authority, verticality, and devotion. In short, it’s a challenging leap with implications for spiritual practice, critical studies, communal discourse, institutional reform, and political culture. Insofar as these spheres are interdependent and mutually inclusive, the actual shift to post-traditional can only really take place as a comprehensive strategic endeavour, bringing together the best of premodern, modern, and ‘postmodern’ contributions, while making sure the core principles of the Buddhist path are reasserted effectively and compellingly. The above transcript only deals with individual approach to spiritual practice in simple, straightforward terms.

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