copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008

Introduction to 'The Trouble with Buddhism'

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The title of this book might suggest a rant by a disillusioned ex-Buddhist: but this is not the intention. Although I am no longer personally committed to the Buddhist tradition, I am still committed to practising its central insights. I want to use those insights to try to separate the wheat from the chaff in traditional Buddhism. This is a critical book about Buddhism from a perspective which is still sympathetic to some of its central teachings.


After around twenty years of engagement in Buddhism, I have reached the conclusion that Buddhism has largely betrayed its own insights. On the other hand, those insights are still there, and there is much that is valuable to be learned from Buddhism. Personally, I am no longer sure whether I should describe myself as a “Buddhist” or not, because it all depends whether this is taken to mean that I am committed to the core insights of the Middle Way (which I am) or to Buddhism as a tradition (which I am not).


I am writing this book not just to try to get Buddhists to look more radically at the defects in their own religion, but also to help both Buddhists and non-Buddhists to differentiate those defects from what is valuable. We should celebrate Buddhism’s insights, whilst decrying their betrayal. My main emphasis is a critical one, because I want to get people to think again about things they have taken for granted in Buddhism, but that doesn’t mean the intention is negative.


There are many Westerners approaching Buddhism today and finding much that is positive there. On first encountering Buddhism myself, one of the first things that I found impressive was the people. Sometimes years of practice can give Buddhist leaders an integrity, straightforwardness and trustworthiness that are certainly far beyond anything I have met elsewhere. Another impressive feature is the thinking. Buddhism in the West is a young religion, and there is still lots of real thinking and experimentation going on. Far from settling into a niche and just defending their position, as religionists often do, Western Buddhists are often still debating what they should believe and how they should live. For me this gives the Buddhist community a sense of openness and vitality that is valuable.


Buddhism focuses on practice, on changing the individual for the better; unlike too many other religions which either focus solely on belief, or on performing rituals that help to give a community its identity but have little further value. Many of its meditation practices are accessible to all, whether or not they think themselves “Buddhist”, and many people in the West are benefiting from them.


However, these positive features are unfortunately accompanied by others that often stop newcomers in their tracks, or confront them with quite reasonable doubts after only a little while. Despite its emphasis on practicality, Buddhism is still tied to an Eastern tradition that interferes with that practical value. The openness and practicality is obstructed by piles of dogma shipped in from Asian cultures. Many Buddhist teachings that at first appear plausible, when examined more closely, turn out to be contradictory. These contradictions are often mistaken for mystical insights when they are nothing of the kind.


Buddhists sometimes criticise Christianity for its reliance on belief in God and the revelations of the Bible. Yet Buddhist belief in the revelations of the Buddha from his enlightened state is often comparable in ways that many Buddhists seem unwilling to recognise. The strong tradition of faith in the guru also raises similar worries. Many schools of Buddhism maintain a tradition of monasticism that separates Buddhists into first and second-class categories, whilst even those Buddhists who have given up monasticism often maintain a sentimental attachment to the idea of it. Similarly, with karma and rebirth, even those Buddhists with apparently new interpretations of these traditional doctrines often turn out to have a strong sentimental attachment to them. Above all, much Buddhism turns out to be obsessed with an ideal of nirvana that is celebrated for its own sake, at the expense of the spiritual progression within ordinary experience that most commonly attracts people to Buddhist practice.


None of these kinds of worries would matter so much if Buddhists did not go so much out of their way to appear reasonable on the surface, thus creating a deceptive impression. In fact, their most vital, important, and insightful teachings often serve to lure people into Buddhism so that they then feel subsequently driven to swallow the dogmatic, traditional and unreasonable bits of Buddhism for fear of losing the good bits. Some teachings, like that of the ultimate emptiness of all phenomena in Mahayana Buddhism, seem to serve primarily to reassure the critical parts of Buddhist brains and make them feel their doubts have been addressed, when they have not at all. A general reassurance that everything is empty, endlessly repeated in scripture and ritual, does not get us anywhere in coming to terms with this fact and actually seeing its implications.


In becoming an ordained Buddhist, a member of the Western Buddhist Order, my experience was that I was obliged to either take Buddhism or leave it. Either one accepted the unhelpful bits of Buddhism with the helpful, or one did not get the benefit of the helpful. I did not want to lose the beneficial aspects of Buddhism, so I took ordination. Three years later, I realised that this had been a mistake: I had compromised my intellectual integrity by committing myself to Buddhist tradition, in a way that was in fact undermining my relationship to truth, and thus in the long run even undermining my ability to engage with the helpful practices of Buddhism. So I resigned from the Western Buddhist Order.


It should not be necessary for people like me in the West to face this dilemma. All that Buddhism needs to do is to reform itself in accordance with its core insights, and be ready to discard much of the other stuff that has been deposited on those insights to obscure them over the centuries. For Western Buddhists this would be relatively easy to do, for the tradition in the West has scarcely put down roots yet and could easily be shaped anew. It does not need to completely abandon doctrine, symbol and ritual, but it does need to give them a much more thorough overhaul than has yet been undertaken, even by apparently radical reformers such as Sangharakshita or Chögyam Trungpa. If this could be achieved then Buddhism could become much more clearly a force for good.


So what follows is an attempt to sort out what is useful in Buddhism from what is not useful, as the basis of a plea for reform much more radical than anything that has yet been attempted.

A note on “Buddhism”


Throughout this book one of the central issues is likely to be the nature of what I am criticising: what is Buddhism? Buddhists have become Buddhists for all kinds of different personal motives, and many have arrived at their own interpretations of what “Buddhism” means. The concept, is, of course, contested.


For most academics writing about Buddhism, statements about Buddhism need to be backed up by copious reference to scriptures, anthropological observations of Buddhist practice, or both. This approach, however, in no way leaves the idea of “Buddhism” any less contested; moreover the scriptures appealed to are often open to multiple interpretations, and are interpreted in line with the preconceptions that have gained currency in the small world of academic Buddhist studies. Appeals to scripture tend to lead one in the direction of complex and often fruitless arguments that are largely about the history and culture in which the scriptures were written, or the conditions of their production, not about universal human concerns. I will say more about this issue in the last section of chapter 2.


My approach to “Buddhism”, to cut through this type of fruitless argument, will be simply to make statements about it based on my own experience, and examine their consistency. This method is philosophical, and in philosophy one makes progress, not by referring to sources of authority, but by investigating the grounds, consistency and implications of beliefs.


The experience that is my starting point consists in about twenty years of involvement with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO – recently renamed the Triratna Buddhist Community) plus some wider academic study of Buddhism. I will try to give due recognition to the diversity of opinion as I understand it, and not merely represent Buddhism in its “straw man” form of the most conservative versions. If anything, my impression is that I have been involved in one of the more radical sections of the Buddhist world, and will probably go further in accommodating some of the alternative approaches that are to be found in the FWBO than other more traditional Buddhists may find necessary.


There will be some limited discussion of scriptures where these are of particular importance, but I do not see any need or use in the academic practice of referencing all factual statements about Buddhism to a scripture. Rather this practice often distracts attention from the kinds of underlying problems I will be trying to address in this book, and for many gives a misleading sense of reassurance of the grounds of belief.


Obviously, the kind of Buddhism I will be addressing is a representative, broadly recognised one. In the vast majority of cases, I expect that this will largely fit with the experience of (Western or Westernised) readers with any experience of Buddhism. If you have so far customised Buddhism that my picture it does not fit with your understanding of Buddhism, then I congratulate you on having already done a lot of the kind of independent thinking I seek to stimulate in this book. For many years, I have myself worked with such a “customised” Buddhism, but also found distinct drawbacks in attempting to maintain a version of “Buddhism” which had little to do with what most other people thought it was. There comes a point where the strain of trying to hold such a position becomes too great, and perhaps one has to let go of the long-nurtured label “Buddhist”.


In my experience, Buddhists often deny that criticisms of Buddhism are relevant to the Buddhism they follow, because of their belief that the true Dharma is wordless, beyond mere descriptions, and certainly not to be encompassed by the crudities of any description of “Buddhism”. The purpose of this book is not to try to criticise any such true Dharma, if it exists. Instead, however, I would like Buddhists to start taking responsibility for the ways in which Buddhism is actually commonly explained and described, before they take refuge in idealisations.


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