Nice, Western, Consensus Buddhism

Stumbled upon a couple of very interesting posts critiquing Western Buddhism:

Nice Buddhism

Niceness is a sleazy business. It is an unstated bargain: “I’ll overlook your bad behavior if you overlook mine.”

It is often kind to overlook other people’s bad behavior—but not always. There are times when the right thing is to point it out politely; to object firmly; or to suppress it violently.

The second half of the bargain is self-protective. “I’ll be nice to you because I’m afraid I won’t be able to cope, emotionally, if you draw attention to my selfishness.”

Within Consensus Buddhism, there is a huge emphasis on emotional safety. It’s non-confrontational, unconditionally supportive, peaceful, supposedly-inoffensive. This may be appropriate for children, or for people who are severely emotionally damaged. It’s repulsive and ridiculous as an approach for grownups.


From the same author, a little more intense:

What got left out of meditation

Buddhist meditation methods have been forced through a series of filters over the last 120 years:

  • Christianity: Everything offensive to Victorian Christian morality had to be removed, in Asia, in the 1800s.
  • Scientism: Meditation has to claim to be compatible with “science” and “rationality.” Popular ideas about what’s “scientific” have changed in the West over the past 150 years. What’s left of meditation has survived challenges from each version.
  • Romantic mysticism: Westerners thought the goal of meditation was a spiritual experience—oneness with all beings, maybe—through attention to the self. Meditation methods that weren’t about spiritual experience, or not about the self, got dropped.
  • Late 20th-century morality: Meditation had be eco-granola-consensus-therapy-correct in the 1970s through ’90s.

Only something extremely bland could pass all these challenges. That’s what we’re left with: modern “mindfulness meditation.” It’s relentlessly nice and couldn’t possibly offend anyone’s ideological sensitivities.


The Chinese version of me doesn’t do kung fu

Recently I was following a discussion about Western versus Chinese student approaches to Chinese Martial Arts (CMA).  The premise was that from the perspective of a highly respected Chen Taiji teacher:

It’s harder for Western students to grasp a concept that’s inherent in the Chinese psyche and its culture. At times it seems impossible, as Western students try to interpret the concept on the basis of their own beliefs and interpretations. In approach and practice, Chinese students do, while Western students question. Chinese students go by feeling and sensing movement, while Western students are concerned with the mechanics, or kinetics, of movement.

Speaking as a Western CMA student, I’ve noted some cultural differences between myself and my teacher’s generation that could account for the observations made by Chen ZiQiang. However, I do not think these cultural differences are on the level of interpreting technical concepts within the martial art, but rather play a role in determining the kinds of people, Western and Chinese, who are drawn to CMA, and their different motives and perspectives in learning the art.

The most obvious distinction between Western and Chinese cultural experience of CMA is that for Westerners CMA is a foreign entity, a discipline routinely depicted in Western media and culture as mysterious, exotic, and esoteric.  In introducing and reintroducing Asian martial arts generally to the West, the media has typically sought to distinguish Asian martial arts from Western martial arts such as boxing and wrestling. The cultural context that depicts boxing and wrestling as relatively straightforward and intelligible physical endeavours seizes upon Japanese and Chinese martial arts as somehow being “more than” their Western counterparts.

Western audiences have been assisted in this interpretation by various spiritual and esoteric aspects of Asian martial arts, not to mention the mythic oral histories, performance-oriented demonstrations of skill and strength, and the absence of the kind of regulatory or competitive platform found in Western sports-oriented martial arts.

In other words, some degree of esotericism is built into Asian martial arts, yet this esotericism has in turn been exaggerated and made the raison d’etre of Asian martial arts for generations of Western audiences, and some proportion of Western students.

This is, I think, the first cultural difference between Chinese and Western students of CMA, and I have to admit it is prominent in my own relationship with the art I’ve practiced for more than half my life.

Why is it that I, and others like me, are so drawn to CMA but have no interest in Western boxing, or indeed in sports generally? For us boxing and sports feel like a known quantity, a domain where little counts beyond sheer physical skill. The domain of CMA is immediately appealing because it seems to promise at face value a blending of physical skill with other kinds of skills albeit ones that are only dimly perceived. The whole point of many demonstrations of skill in CMA is to show that there is something ‘unusual’ going on, that the demonstrator has strength or speed or power that somehow goes beyond what we would expect from a purely physical skill.

We expect a boxer to be able to hit hard, or a wrestler to be able to throw or pin people with ease. But CMA demonstrations typically hinge on a disparity between skill and appearance: the teacher who hits much harder than expected and with little apparent effort; the senior student who seems impossible to push or pull or otherwise move; the grandmaster who is able to move you around with ease, with a strength that is incommensurate with his apparent frailty.

None of these demonstrations are ‘obvious’ in their mechanics or physical logic, and they present a puzzle and then a goal that becomes irresistible for many Western students. Western students generally are drawn in and motivated by achieving these same skills or abilities for themselves, but such skills and abilities typically remain incomprehensible despite years of training.

The problem is twofold: firstly, the disparity between the ‘normal’ rigours of martial arts training that develops comprehensible physical skills, and the esoteric and intriguing skill-set of the teacher that remain beyond our understanding and our reach. It is not at all apparent how ordinary training can produce extraordinary results, and many students remain stuck, grappling with this apparent paradox.

For many students the disparity between training and the desired skill-set leaves them preoccupied with a goal they do not understand and do not know how to achieve. Assuming that the teacher is able and willing to actually teach these more advanced skills, they may nevertheless find that their students are so entranced by the idea of unusual power or superhuman skill that they fail to appreciate, understand, or properly commit to the more prosaic skills and fundamental physicality of basic training. The irony is that such students would develop much better skills if they focused on learning the art as though it had no esoteric or mysterious connotations whatsoever.

The second and perhaps more challenging aspect of this cultural problem is that a subset of these entranced Western students are the kinds of people who have no real interest in or affinity for sports and physical disciplines in the first place.  The esoteric appeal of CMA and the demonstration of skills that seem to depend on something other than sheer physical strength attract people who are implicitly poorly equipped to learn a martial art in the first place.

For me this part of the problem is personal: why is it that I have no interest in boxing, yet an overwhelming and enduring interest in CMA? Because CMA somehow promises more than boxing does.  From an early age, CMA seemed to draw upon more than raw physical talent, and so for someone quite lacking in raw physical talent CMA is an attractive proposition.  But the reality is that CMA is intensely physical, at least as much and perhaps more than boxing trained at the same level. The esotericism is a physical esotericism, built on hard training, strength, flexibility, and other fundamental physical attributes that can be developed, yet come more naturally to some of us than to others.

Returning to the original point, I suspect that for people raised in a Chinese culture, the esotericism and mysterious skills of CMA are less salient than the physical discipline required. It’s not that Chinese people generally are better suited to CMA, or that their psyches are somehow more attuned to CMA principles, but rather that those who – like me – are naturally unsuited to physical disciplines and lacking in raw talent are much less likely to be entranced and attracted by CMA. CMA to a person raised in a Chinese culture is more like boxing to a Westerner.  The analogy is not perfect, but cultural familiarity strips away much of the esoteric appeal that draws in Westerners like me.

In other words, the Chinese version of me doesn’t do kung fu, and through self-selection, teachers like Chen ZiQiang will encounter more over-analytical, questioning, missing-the-point Western students than they will Chinese.

The irony is that magnifying the impression of esoteric or mysterious skills prevents us from truly developing any significant skill.  The answers could be right in front of us, yet the sense of ‘something more’ prohibits us from recognising the real nature of the skills exhibited by our teachers.

Having trained a martial art for more than half my life with fundamentally the wrong attitude, I should probably be relieved to have nonetheless made some progress, rather than being disheartened by my lack of progress.  Perhaps a better attitude for people like me is to recognise from the outset that CMA is not a physically less demanding discipline, but a more demanding one; that whatever physical problems or lack of talent we face will not be compensated for by something esoteric within CMA; that ‘understanding’ CMA without doing the physical work will be as fruitless as ‘understanding’ boxing, weight lifting, or jogging without doing the physical work.

What I really need to understand is not how my teacher ‘mysteriously’ has so much power, but why I mysteriously have so little. My goal should not be to discover the esoteric logic at the heights of CMA, but to work out the overlooked question of why I have failed to fully embrace the most basic physical form and discipline.  I need to start looking at CMA not as a way to compensate for physical impediments, but as a context in which to challenge, identify, and remedy them.






On the virtues of cherry-picking

Matthew’s extensive comment in response to my Yoga post raised some interesting points and deserves an equally considered reply:

The irony of all this talk of cherry-picking is that the actual picking of cherries is surely a tedious and taxing task that requires the virtues of fortitude (so as to keep going) and temperance (so as to not eat all the cherries straight away).

But I take your point, though I ought to clarify that I never expect anyone to actually take up what I’m advising, whether it be making their own beer or realising that atman is Brahman.

At the same time, I would be remiss in suggesting that I am more virtuous than my contemporaries. So at minimum, I am writing for the pleasure of recognising that some things have a deeper meaning and a greater significance, yoga being one of them.

As the immortal sage Bruce Lee also wrote/quoted/paraphrased: when the wise man points at the moon, the fool sees only the finger.

Now, people can cherry-pick, but we take for granted some element of wisdom in their cherry-picking: that at least they are picking what they want, or at best they are picking something of value to them.

Yet stretching is not easy, it is painful and difficult. Why do people pick it? Have they been told to pick it? Have they been impressed by advocates of stretching who have promised great benefits? Have they tried it and found it deeply satisfying or beneficial?

I suspect the first point is that it (Yoga) looks exotic. In addition it is praised as beneficial. Subsequent experience shows that it is difficult, yet rewarding (either physically rewarding or rewarding in the “hey look at me I’m doing Yoga!” sense).

But in addition, I think we’re all told by multiple sources from an early age that flexibility is important and valuable. It’s a deeply ingrained message that we should aim to be able to touch our toes at any point in life, and Yoga seems to epitomise that goal; like running marathons epitomises fitness and endurance.

I think that the value you are calling ‘cherry-picking’ has likewise been extolled by multiple sources from youth. We idealise it as freedom and autonomy, and respect the person who ‘takes control’ and improves himself through his own choices and actions; who lives a rich and enjoyable life; a person who – importantly – is not bound by anything unpleasant or odious or unwanted.

The virtues extolled by traditional Yoga appear to conflict with this ideal. Few want to cherry-pick “stop picking cherries”, without some promise or other condition of reward. Look at Bikram: he’s incredibly wealthy, powerful, and famous thanks to his physical mastery of Yoga asanas. If he committed himself as fervently to the abstentions and observances, he would not be able to enjoy his wealth, power and fame. But for some reason, people do not look at his physical mastery as an imposition. They don’t look at the opportunity cost of all those hours of stretching and training. They don’t think fearfully of how much laziness and sloth and leisure time he has had to sacrifice. How much enjoyment he has lost and pain he has endured.

So if I may reverse the equation: we are all fools looking at the moon, and we don’t realise we only see it because it has been pointed out to us.

Every religious and spiritual discipline that I have come across contains the same essential points of abstention and observance, discipline and virtue. And in the past, or in the limited circles of religious adherents, exemplars of these disciplines are praised and the benefits of these disciplines are known and understood.

Zhuangzi wrote: Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.

But what the hell are the springs of the Heavenly, and why should I care? My lusts and desires are the backbone of my identity, and the thought of purposefully diminishing them is about as appealing as abandoning friends and family to go live in a tin shed in some godforsaken desert.

Yet the Patanjali Yoga sutra refers to them as “afflictions”:

2.1 Austerity, the study of sacred texts, and the dedication of action to God constitute the discipline of Mystic Union.

2.2 This discipline is practised for the purpose of acquiring fixity of mind on the Lord, free from all impurities and agitations, or on One’s Own Reality, and for attenuating the afflictions.

2.3 The five afflictions are ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion, and the desire to cling to life.

2.4 Ignorance is the breeding place for all the others whether they are dormant or attenuated, partially overcome or fully operative.

2.5 Ignorance is taking the non-eternal for the eternal, the impure for the pure, evil for good and non-self as self.

2.6 Egoism is the identification of the power that knows with the instruments of knowing.

2.7 Attachment is that magnetic pattern which clusters in pleasure and pulls one towards such experience.

2.8 Aversion is the magnetic pattern which clusters in misery and pushes one from such experience.

2.9 Flowing by its own energy, established even in the wise and in the foolish, is the unending desire for life.

2.10 These patterns when subtle may be removed by developing their contraries.

2.11 Their active afflictions are to be destroyed by meditation.

Clearly Patanjali didn’t understand that the purpose of meditation is actually to heal your body, make you rich, give you peace of mind, and stop you complaining about your employment conditions.

Securing our attachments, defending against our aversions, consolidating our ignorance, and celebrating our egoism: this is the ‘Yoga’ of modern life; – stretching optional.

60 sqm homestead

I’ve never been a very productive person, so I’m relishing my current spate of home-made produce, which I hope will only increase in future.

In the past I would have found any number of obstacles to every item I’ve thus far produced; even something as simple as not being able to find strong flour for bread-making at my local supermarket. You could say I was a little too easily defeated.

I’ve been reflecting on my progress thus far, and have to give credit to two elements that have inspired all the subsequent productivity. Firstly, my brother and his wife got me started on roasting coffee, which in many ways remains the easiest, quickest, and most rewarding activity. It meets the ideal of providing a high-quality product at or below commercial prices. Half an hour of roasting literally doubles the value of the coffee beans. Other adventures in home produce have followed this same goal – creating something that tastes as good as or better than anything I could afford, but at a much lower cost.

The second major element is all thanks to my friend J, over at Gray’s Brewing. J did everything to get me brewing, short of threatening physical violence: before heading overseas he showed us the process from start to finish, and left us with a cube of wort, a bunch of fermenters, a freezer, a sachet of yeast, and assorted bits and pieces in what is effectively the brewing equivalent of pre-chewing your child’s food so he doesn’t choke on it.

Brewing all-grain beer likewise produces a high quality product at much lower costs, but unlike my coffee roasting, it also introduced a number of basic technical skills and equipment that have lowered the cost of entry to other products.

For example, if it were not for brewing beer, I would never have tried brewing rice wine. If it were not for the rice wine, I would never have started brewing soy sauce (don’t worry J, I’m using my own fermenter for that). All three require fermenters, familiarity with yeast fermentation, and for the latter two a familiarity with Aspergillus oryzae.

Beer also required the use of a thermometer, which, as simple as it sounds, was otherwise an obstacle to producing yoghurt. Producing yoghurt led to simple mozzarella cheese (more complex cheese to follow). Cheese and yoghurt are both closely related to butter, with yoghurt providing cultures for both, and butter producing buttermilk as a by-product, which is (in name at least) in turn useful for the cultivation of a different variety of cheeses.

Making the soy sauce required a huge amount of brine, for which I used my brewing hydrometer to establish the specific gravity and hence salt-content of the brine. Having made so much brine for the soy sauce, making another brine to wash the butter was no obstacle.

Salt has been the common ingredient in both the soy sauce and the bacon, and with lemons coming into season we’ll likely be using it to preserve lemons as well. Preserving lemons will be easy now that we have the mason jars purchased for the sake of the pasta sauce; mason jars that turned out to be very handy for making and storing yoghurt, as well as for whipping cream into butter.

I even used a mason jar the other day to store cold-pressed coffee, an experiment which proved dangerously good for making impromptu iced-coffees.

If you’ve read this far, what I’m getting at is that there’s a basic knowledge and familiarity with these various ingredients, techniques, and skills that lowers the threshold to an array of wonderful products. They are interconnected in surprising ways, such that I could, in the near future, have a bread dough, yoghurt, cheese, beer, soy sauce, and rice wine in the one fridge, all undergoing varying permutations on the fermentation of yeast or culture of bacteria.

I’m struck by how limited my knowledge and skills were before, and how enriching by contrast this new-found productivity has already become.

Australia’s complex multi-culture

My latest article at Eureka Street examines the complexities of Australia’s multiple cultures, and the challenge of cultivating overarching, common values across society.

I wrote this piece some time ago, but news of the siege in Sydney broke just as it was about to be published. We can only hope and pray the siege ends peacefully.

Anyone who happens to live outside the predominant football and cricket cultures can attest that culture clash, exclusion, and alienation can be equally powerful within ethnic boundaries. It may seem petty to compare social and sporting interests to the divisions between different ethnicities, but we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of these phenomena. It is not hyperbole to refer to Australia’s drinking culture, barbecue culture, beach culture, business culture, consumer culture, and so on. We can quite often have more in common with people from different religious and ethnic groups than with people from our own ethnicity whose lifestyles and interests are totally divergent.

‘White’ identity in a multicultural world

My latest piece on examines the bizarre claim that we are living through a period of ‘white genocide’ under the guise of multiculturalism and diversity. If I may paraphrase Pastor Niemöller “First they came for the entitled Anglo-Irish majority, and I did not speak out- Because they were clearly overreacting…”

White Australians are generally in the privileged position of being able only to imagine the kind of persecution, suffering, and violence that a select few religious and ethnic groups have endured for real. It’s as though they’ve looked around at the steady stream of migrants and wondered ‘maybe this is that genocide thing we’ve heard so much about?’ What these ‘pro-White’ activists lack in moral seriousness, they make up for with a bizarre, depressingly sincere global persecution complex, an anthropologically untenable racial category of ‘White’, and a seemingly limitless sympathy for their own imagined plight.

Critiquing masculinity

A friend sent me an article on male violence from a feminist perspective, and I’ll return to the issue of male violence soon; but in the meantime, this got me thinking:

Recently my younger son, a huge Frozen fan, asked to go to a school fancy dress disco dressed as Queen Elsa of Arendelle. We’d spotted an outfit in Sainsbury’s – a long, sparkly blue dress, complete with a silver wig. Despite the well-intentioned warnings of grandparents, I let him wear it. A dress is a dress. So he arrived and there was a lot of fascination – and some mockery – of this “boy dressed like a girl”. He didn’t care and went and got his nails painted blue to match his dress. I felt proud of him. His disregard for social norms makes him strong, not weak. And yet there was a part of me that still feared the consequences of this “like a girl/not like a boy” definition imposed upon him by his peers.

While I agree that it would take strength for a boy to wear a dress to a school function, I’m skeptical of the claim that this indicates his disregard for social norms.

Adopting the social norms of the opposite sex is not the same as disregarding social norms. If her son made the choice naively, he still did so in the context of a family with particular values, and a particular attitude to social norms. There is no ‘view from nowhere’, whether we blindly follow the crowd or try to stand apart from it.

A mother who writes “a feminist take on parenting and politics” and who feels proud of her son for wearing a dress is not a value-neutral background for childhood development. Family is the beginning of society, not a hermetically sealed environment or laboratory in which human minds are formed free of external influences.

Feminists (in general) have their own ideological aims, and it makes sense that the columnist would feel proud of her son for making a choice that affirms her political theory.

But ultimately the “disregard for social norms” is better expressed as an affirmation of one set of norms against another more predominant set. True disregard for social norms would be indicative of psychopathy. In fact, the columnist’s broader and more interesting point is that the gender-gap cannot be overcome by giving women increased access to male domains, or by “celebrating femininity“, but must instead come about through a more thorough critique and deconstruction of masculinity. Plenty of women wear pants, but hardly any men wear dresses.

I have to admit I have some sympathy with this idea. As a part-time stay-at-home dad who has always done more the majority of the cooking and cleaning, I’ve come to realise that it’s not enough to get women into the workforce: getting men into childcare is the other half of the equation. The first day of looking after my 18 month old son convinced me that a generation of stay-at-home dads would utterly destroy the foolish notion that caring for children doesn’t constitute real work.

At the same time, I’m not inclined to wear a skirt or dress for a number of reasons beginning with what I thought would have been a fairly obvious point: skirts and dresses are not made for male bodies. But beyond that, it’s also somewhat inappropriate for a woman to be spearheading a critique of masculinity, as evidenced by the discussion of violence, with a false dichotomy of ‘kill or be killed’. Nonetheless, it’s great to have these issues raised because there is so much dysfunction in the culture of masculinity. I’ll never encourage my son to wear women’s clothing, but I will do my best to instil in him virtues and ideals that give noble expression to masculinity.