Shopping around for Buddhism
December 16, 2013 3:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to figure out whether my local Triratna Buddhist organisation will be a fit for what I think I want from Buddhism.

I've been interested in Buddhism in a quiet way for a few years. I've listened to a lot of Zencast podcasts, done a little bit of reading, and done just enough meditation to know that it drives me nuts but I want to do it anyway. I've never established a consistent practice.

My wife was quite closely involved with Triratna in the 70s and 80s, but for one reason and another became disillusioned with it as an organisation. (She had her reasons, but they're not ermane to my question). She still maintained some Buddhist practices, but lived in a way that was much more 'secular'.

I kind of kept my own interest in Buddhism under wraps - not least because the largely US-based programming I'd been consuming was much less Tibetan-flavoured and seemed to me less cluttered with devotional practice and chanting in languages I couldn't understand. (My apologies if my subjective thumbnail is offensive; it may be that it merely underlines my own lack of understanding). Hence a sort of Buddhism-by-stealth. Not a sustainable thing, obviously.

My wife died a little while ago, and somewhat unexpectedly had expressed a wish to have some Tibetan Buddhist features present in her funeral. This was a bit of a step into the past, I thought, but of course I was ready to support it as much as possible. So I got some help from the local Triratna sangha. I also became a little closer to some of the people in the local Sangha as they helped me plan and officiate the funeral. It was also just nice to meet some friendly people.

Partly it's the sense of trying to find my 'own life' now in the aftermath of my wife's death; partly it's because of the spiritual support I feel I've been offered, but I feel a bit like I might like to find some other people to practice with. The local triratna sangha seems welcoming & I already have a few acquaintances there, though always outside the context of the centre itself (& I think the stealth-Buddhism is holding the cloaking shields fairly steady too: pretty sure they have no idea I'm interested). I'm still unconvinced by more ritual/devotional approaches though. A caveat to that is that in emotional moments I have found it comforting to do some of the practices outlined in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, for the dead person. Which is of course ritual... but I think I can see how the benefit for me is real, because I am undertaking visualizations of purification, release and dispersion that are about me visualising my wife' death in a positive(ish) way.(And of course positively willing a letting go and freeing of whatever of her remains, even inside me.) It makes me wonder about the other practices that I'm shy of and wonder if I'm wrong about them - that they can be 'worked into' in non-literal ways (as if they were parables). But there seems to be so much real reliance on personalisations/ individual boddhisatvas. It looks perilously like worship sometimes. Against that, perhaps I can glimpse how these images of beings are sometimes just coherent forms to give homes to certain practices. I suppose there is some similarity in the presence of formal myths in psychological views of the world. They're resonant forms whose logic isn't to be taken literally, but consideration of them might be helpful to us. That sort of thing.

I don't suppose they go beating their beginners over the head with too much chanting and rupas, but I'm still not sure that this is the way I see Buddhism. It seems a risky business to leave all these high-powered symbolic complexes lying about when one is trying to concentrate.

Do you think it's worth me trying the local/slightly-acquainted-with/possibly not quite what I want sangha (because it seems friendly and is a bit of a link to my community and past)? Will I be able to process the inclusion of image and ritual successfully? Or does it sound like I need a more 'protestant' sort of Buddhism (that would unfortunately take me away from these tiny roots of friendship I see around me)?

I'm still early on in my grieving process, so I won't be doing anything precipitous. I'm also aware of the fact that I'm undoubtedly more emotionally vulnerable, but of course that's precisely the reason why I might seek a community.

I see that I am asking you to gauge my ability to make use of symbolic materials creatively and imaginatively (or, saying the same thing, assess my resistance to concretizing metaphor into dogma). Which is unfair of me. But we could give it a whirl, eh? Thank you.
posted by aesop to Religion & Philosophy (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think that because you have some context for this sangha, you should give them a try. I don't know the group you describe, but it doesn't sound to me like it would be the right sangha for me, and you too may ultimately find that it doesn't suit you. But given where you are, the most important thing for you right now IMO is to find a group of people who are supportive. Then the form of what they do becomes less important (not unimportant, but less important).

My mother converted to become an American Baptist late in her life. When she told me, I said, "but Mother, you love to dance and play cards -- WTH are you thinking?" Then I met her pastor, and I said, "OK, I give you permission to be my mother's spiritual advisor." He was a lovely person and caring and open-minded. You see, this is a metaphor.

I too am resistant to Buddhist practices that look like worship. Things like putting flowers or food items on the base of statues or bowing to statues before/after a sitting. But even in the Western Buddhist sangha that I belong to, in which there's a strong secular sentiment, there are rituals that look a lot like religion. Some people do 'em, some don't. I don't. And that seems to be okay with everyone.

It looks like there are a variety of retreat centers in Devon that might be more in line with your wish for symbolic rather than literal language. Here's a link to a page that lists a few. But that is probably not logistically practical for you. So I come back to -- If the group of people works for you, then never mind the ritual.

Hope this helps.
posted by janey47 at 4:02 PM on December 16, 2013

Tibetan Buddhist here (mahayana; kadampa); chanting, purification, offerings, meditation and all. I go to temple at least once a week to study with a monk & Sangha and yes I do all those weird practices whole-heartedly. I thought they were BS idol-worship at first too so I totally know where you are coming from. It creeped me out to be honest... now I'm sure I babble like a born-again (and born-again, and again, and again...) Buddhist, because the practices are powerful and I know it from experience.

First off, feel free to me-mail.

Secondly, those practices look weird and insane from the outside, until you study Buddhism for long enough to realize what the practices are "really" doing. What they are "really" doing is transforming your mind; how you feel about yourself, your surroundings and others. What it looks like you're doing is giving a piece of food to a metal statue (for "Offerings") or chanting long texts of meaningless words ("Heart Sutra"). But that is just what it looks like on the outside.

Someone on this site gave a great analogy - Buddhist rituals are something you use to get you to the point where you realize you never needed it in the first place. The example I give is Wizard of Oz - she had to walk the path (yellow brick road) to realize she had the solution with her all along (red shoes). Your Buddha nature is right there. To get to it needs these tools (rituals).

It is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem; you do a little of the practice, then have some experiences, which then fuels the practice, which then gives you more experiences. It sounds like you kind of understand this.



I see a number of Buddhists turn Buddhism into just another type-A perfectionist dogmatic crap. They engage in the practices without understanding; they apply it as strict rules and it IMPEDES their spiritual progress; they want to look like the perfect Buddhist so they're just "oh everything is wonderful la la la" and never fully explore the symbols, or their deeper feelings, or their real experiences. It's all an act. Or they treat Buddha like a god instead of an enlightened being (state of mind); they see karma like a punishment instead of an outcome. They sit for years and barely grow. They just don't get it.

Don't be those people.

I also see smart people who are "easy meditators" but who can't get past their own conceptions and just submit to the practice. They can't get past their own aversion to religion; to thinking of themselves as religious. They dabble but never commit and as a result their growth is very very slow.

Don't be those people either.

So my advice to you is... keep your skeptical-but-open stance. It will serve you well. Be a scientist. Give it a shot, and see what happens and keep your wits / wisdom about you so you won't fall into something that you are not ok with. As you grow in your practice, your heart will tell you where to go, if it is to a different more secular tradition or whatnot. I know a number of monks in my tradition who started on other traditions for example.

There is nothing wrong with ritual. Ritual without understanding is unhelpful.

So seek to understand the "whys" of the ritual. Grow at your pace, with what makes sense to you. Do not move ahead of your understanding. And have enough curiosity and patience to give something a shot even if it doesn't make sense at first.

Personally, knowing what I do now, I would be wary of a Buddhist tradition that tried to divorce these rituals from it and boil it down to some comfortable quotes that fit with my secular lifestyle. Mindfulness is all the rage these days; the intention behind it is getting lost, so its power to transform the mind is weakened. People having been relying on these rituals for over 2500 years and achieving incredibly pure states of mind as a result. I don't know if you've talked about "emptiness" with your sangha at all, but studying that topic may help as well.

Remember that all these different personifications of Buddha are just aspects of the same consciousness. Just like how you fulfill different roles (husband, son, brother) when the time calls for it, so do these different aspects of a Buddha's consciousness show up in different symbolic forms (compassionate, wise, purifying etc.)

I've been told they are two ways to practice as a Buddhist: literal or symbolic. Literal = there is a Buddha, he exists, he's blessing my mind. Symbolic = there is nothing I experience that is outside my mind; if I imagine a perfect consciousness named Buddha blessing my mind, this functions to do so, as in emptiness there is no separation between my mind and Buddha's. Both ways will get you there; pick the one that sits well with you.

Finally... I am sorry to hear about your wife.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:48 PM on December 16, 2013 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for these answers. They're helpful, and I'm grateful for the thought that's gone into trying to answer my beginner's questions.

I've been thinking thoughts along the same lines - basically, "If I think I've got a good enough poetic curiosity/open skepticism I should be fairly safe around these practices. If I haven't got the oomph to make them mine they might be a distraction." For me, the scientist's skepticism seems to work best alongside the poet's 'synthesising metaphorical discrimination', (Bit of a mouthful, I know).

I wonder if there's a Buddhist terminology (that comes from the student-side) for "I'm not ready for this practice yet, it still feels too weird". (As opposed to the teacher side "You're not ready for this practice yet because you'd take the literalism too literally, or not literally enough')

My heart says to give it a whirl. These individuals seem like good people (in the usual there's-perfectly-normal-human-bickering-and-gossip-under-the-surface sort of way), and whatever institutional misgivings my wife might have had might be unfair to apply to everyone associated with triratna. Thanks for your advice. I'll tread slowly and try to pay attention sometimes.
posted by aesop at 7:31 AM on December 17, 2013

A friend who set me down this path in the first place said when I told him I was debating on going to a local sanga, "why do you want to go when all you need is a wall?" (He's coming at this from the Zen tradition) I'm at a point in my practice where I would say back if asked again, "why do you need the wall?"

My attitude for much in life has been; go in with an open heart and mind, you can't know unless you give it a try; that it's ok to seek solace and community within the group while you decide if it is a good fit.
posted by redindiaink at 9:46 AM on December 17, 2013

Response by poster: Some of these answers are useful, thanks.

I'm not sure about the 'you don't need other people' part of the advice quoted in the last answer. Yes there's a lot that is extremely personal about being mindful, but I think part of that is about being aware of how we're all connected too. It seems like it might be helpful to have training wheels around that part sometimes (though in a similar sense it's all around us all the time -sangha everywhere if you will). But I'm not that good! (The other part there to just go with an open heart and mind seems good though).

I still haven't done much about it, though I have had a couple of 1:1 conversations with a knowledgeable member of that sangha.

Thanks everyone.
posted by aesop at 5:14 AM on January 23, 2014

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