For those of us who like nice round numbers, today marks The Existential Buddhist’s fifth anniversary and its one hundredth posting. Since July, 2010 it’s attracted 215,000 visits from readers in over 150 countries. If you’ve been a loyal reader, thanks for sticking around. If you’re a newcomer, welcome.
Although the Buddha taught that all things are subject to change, The Existential Buddhist’s mission has remained relatively constant: to investigate Buddhist teachings through the twin lens of reason and personal experience, and further the dialogue between Buddhism and Western science and philosophy. Although the mission has remained constant, the content of the posts has not. I’ve tried not to repeat myself, so many of the basics of Buddhism (beginning meditation, the precepts, karma, the eightfold path, the nature of awakening) were covered in earlier posts, never to be taken up again. If these are the topics that interest you, please browse through the older posts; their content is timeless.
The reader who, for some unknown reason, plows through all one hundred of these posts will probably note that the earlier posts draw more from Theravada teachings, while the newer posts draw more from Zen. This parallels a change in my personal life: I moved from one geographical location to another, choosing a new practice home on the basis of convenience and congeniality rather than staying rooted in one tradition. As a consequence, many later posts reflect my growing understanding and appreciation of the theoretical and practical differences between the traditions. Some of the posts reflect changing times, focusing on disputes regarding secular versus religious interpretations of Buddhism, the ordination of women in Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhist response to climate change, and responses to politically-based critiques of mindfulness. Others reflect the vagaries of my reading list — something I read in Dostoevsky, Dogen, or Aristotle that sparked my interest. And then, of course, there are the personal matters that inevitably arise in the course of Buddhist practice, some perennial, some fleeting, that can always be relied upon to provide new grist for the writer’s mill.
Taken as a whole, these essays reflect my ongoing love affair with Buddhist practice and my ongoing lover’s quarrel with antiquated dogma. They’re my attempts to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’ve no special qualifications for this task. I’m neither a scholar nor an authorized teacher. I haven‘t received Dharma transmission or achieved Enlightenment. The only reason to read these essays is that you might enjoy my companionship on your own journey. You’re more than welcome to adopt me as a spiritual friend as we travel the path together.
I’ve learned a thing or two on my journey. The first is that Buddhism is not one fixed thing. In fact, it’s not a “thing” at all. It’s an evolving set of traditions, multiple branching streams that have the Buddha’s teachings as their initial inspiration. Buddhism is a live and ongoing conversation about the nature of awakening that’s undergone countless revisions, reinterpretations, and transformations throughout its 2,500 year history. Some people will try to tell you otherwise. They’ll tell you they know precisely what the Buddha said, even though none of his teachings were written down until centuries after his death. They’ll tell you the Buddha was infallible and that everything he said must be true. They’ll tell you they know the one true path to Enlightenment. If you meet these people, it might be a good idea to run the other way.
I invite you, instead, to trust logic and your own experience; to read the words attributed to the Buddha in all their various incarnations; to listen to authentic teachers from all the traditions; to practice a variety of forms of meditation; to compare and contrast the Buddha’s teachings with those of the great Western philosophers; to discover for yourself what works and what does not, what’s transformative and what’s tripe, what makes your life virtuous, heartful, intimate, and whole, and what makes it cramped, dull, and inauthentic; to take what’s useful and leave the rest. This is how modern Buddhism is evolving. Not through top-down proclamations, but through the simple daily choices of millions of practitioners.
I’ve called this practice Existential Buddhism to distinguish it from traditional forms. It isn’t based on the authority of Buddhist scripture; it’s informed by it. I don’t believe every word of the Suttas and Sutras. I don’t believe in reincarnation or supernatural versions of karma. I don’t believe in permanent and perfect Enlightenment. What I do believe in is the reality of impermanence and interconnectedness; in the virtues of equanimity, non-grasping, and compassion; in meditation as a path of intimacy with the world and with oneself; in mindfulness and discerning wisdom as a way of being in the world; in paying attention and listening to life. These are truths anyone can discover through their own efforts. I call them existential because they’re something we validate through living and doing, not through reliance on authority.
The other thing I’ve learned on my journey is that Buddhism isn’t simply a set of beliefs. It’s not a philosophy, something to think about. It’s something to live, something to do. That’s why we call it Buddhist practice. It’s something that seeps into our very marrow, something we embody and breathe. Tibetans, I’m told, don’t say they have a “religion.” They say they have a gyu, or “way.” In China, the word Dao also means “path” or “way.”
Buddhism is a path, and a path is something to walk, not something to believe.
I look forward to The Existential Buddhist’s sixth year, and I invite us to continue to walk the path together.