Nate, at the Precious Metal blog, had the great idea of an article swap in which Buddhist bloggers would appear as guest writers on other Buddhist blogs. So today on ‘Sweep the dust, Push the dirt’ you’ve got me, Marcus from ‘Marcus’ Journal’, writing about a topic suggested by John – Buddhism as self-help. Meanwhile I asked Shane from ‘Zenfant‘ to write about a favourite sutra as a guest on my blog.
In setting the theme of this post John was very generous, making clear it was just a suggestion and inviting me even to vent if the need arose. What he was interested in, he said, were my opinions on “the current movement of Buddhist practice in the west towards a secular or ‘self-help” approach… Anything from being a more compassionate individual to “living the mindful life” or the 12-steps.”
However, having lived in the west for only two out of the last fourteen years, and not being particularly interested in Buddhism when I first left, I can’t say I’ve had much direct experience of self-help Buddhism except for seeing, and sometimes reading, the odd blog post now and then. In fact, I think there was one on this very blog not so long ago.
What I do know, however, is that many new to Buddhism often pick up the wrong idea that the Buddha taught there is no such thing as a self. Perhaps this is why some would be against ideas of self-help, self-development, or self-reliance, perhaps they think that such programmes run counter to the Buddha’s teachings. Far from it. The Buddha taught self-help.
What the Buddha denied was the Atman, the concept of a permanent, solid, unchanging self. He also warned against Vibhavaditthi, the view that you have no self. What he said is that what we think of as self is subject to change and is interconnected with everything else. The idea, often voiced I think in western Buddhism, that we must destroy the self, is nihilistic nonsense.
I heard Venerable U Vamsarakkhita speak in Bangkok recently on this very issue. What the Buddha did not teach, he said, was detachment. The Buddha did not tell people to cast aside their bodies and thoughts and feelings. Rather, the Buddha taught people to examine them. And then, through this investigation, they will be better able to live in the moment, experiencing a richer more fulfilling life.
My own root teacher, Seon Master Daehaeng Sunim, writes “There is no substance to the I that people have thought of as themselves. However, it is said that I has no substance, not because such a reality does not exist, but because what is called I always changes from moment to moment.” And thank goodness for that. It is this constant change that makes self-development possible.
And so the Buddha developed one of the very first 12-step self-help programmes, only he called his the Noble Eightfold Path. And he talked about developing skillful states such as morality, generosity, and wisdom, and breaking free of greed and anger and delusion. Right Effort was an integral part of his 8-step programme; and he encouraged people to support each other in this programme.
So if self-help practitioners draw from the abundant storehouse of Buddhism, making use of the teachings and practices, that is entirely wonderful and I don’t think anyone in the Buddhist world will do anything other than celebrate. My only concern would be only if those parts of Buddhism most readily useful to a western therapeutic approach were presented as the entire Buddhist story.
This could be a problem if western self-help Buddhists came to believe that theirs was in some way better than the Buddhisms found in Asia, or if they had no access to the fullest teachings. Because self-help is not the final goal of the Buddha’s programme. Liberation is. But, like John himself said recently here on this very blog, “We need to work with the small first and move the rest of the way up as time and ability permits.”
Thank you John and to all the readers of ‘Sweep the dust, Push the dirt’ for having me here today as a guest. May all beings everywhere be safe, well, happy, and free.
Thanks Marcus! Love to open the doors for you over here! I appreciate your input and insight. Cheers! For everyone else, I have listed the participants of the blog swap. I will update the posts as they come out and I notice them.