Nostalgia for the Buddha

The figure of the Buddha permeates modern western discourse on Buddhism. “The Buddha” is used to validate and justify the most diverse claims and forms of practice. To my ears, “the Buddha” represents a hackneyed bifurcation. Most contemporary lay teachers, such as Sharon Salzberg and Jon Kabot-Zinn, present a “soft” version of “the Buddha,” one that caters to the desiccated middle classes of the twenty-first century West. This version promises rescue in the form of diurnal restoration, like “real happiness” or ease in the midst of “stress.” Traditional teachers present a “hard” version, derived from Buddhism’s ancient and medieval Asian past. This version advocates for a virtuosic cataclysm known as “enlightenment,” “satori,” or “nirvana.”

What use is “the Buddha” in the twenty-first century West? He is perpetually hoisted up as the physician par excellence against the acidic tension intrinsic to living in an ever-accelerating technological society. His remedy? Gelassenheit in the midst of the infernal samsaric whirlwind. Is that it? Is “the Buddha” a modern-day Epicurean clearing a path to eudaemonia, a garden that “slakes the thirst with a natural cure?” To read the contemporary literature, you would think so. The musty ancients, too, spoke of an adamantine buddha mind forged in an isolated forest glade.

Both versions flourish by virtue of an ageless curative fantasy of human beings. That fantasy? To be under the protection of a spiritual prince; to be guided to our true home; to emerge from life—and death—unscathed.

Is it not time that we jettisoned our childish nostalgia for “the Buddha”? But how? We are so enamored of him. Just look at the love and reverence extended to “living Buddhas” such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. Because  it takes a path cleared of grandiose monuments to the revered teacher, because it mutes Buddhism’s vibrato and quells its coercive if well-intentioned charism, Speculative non-Buddhism may offer a new way. Here is my contribution toward overcoming nostalgia for the Buddha. What’s the next step?


Imagining the Buddha

For two and a half millennia, Buddhists have been imagining the life and person of their revered founder. Since virtually the day he died, and probably well before, the Buddha’s followers have been recounting his life story in vivid, loving detail. At first, the story was spread orally throughout India. Later, it was carried in written form by monks and merchants throughout Asia, and beyond, to Greece and the Near East. Today, thanks to even more sophisticated means of information transmission the basic features of the Buddha’s life story are becoming known in the West.

The story goes like this. In a magnificent palace in the pristine mountains of eastern India, on a night when the moon is full, a prince is born to a powerful king and a beautiful queen. At his naming ceremony, a seer emerges from the forest to forecast that the prince will eventually face a stark choice: he will become either a world-conquering emperor or a world-renouncing sage. Desiring the former for his son, the king keeps the prince captive in his palace. The king reasons that if he smothers the prince with comfort and pleasure, fulfilling his every desire, the prince will never have cause for leaving the palace, much less for turning away from the world. But, being young and curious, the prince eventually plots with a trusted servant to venture out into the town. On doing so, he witnesses for the first time in his life sickness, old age, and death. These facts of life distress the prince tremendously. He becomes distraught and confused. If this is what becomes of the world’s beauty, then what’s the point of it all? How can I continue to take pleasure in life surrounded by death and decay? On a final outing, he sees a man whose face radiates peace and contentment. When the prince asks his servant what kind of person this is, the servant replies that he is a holy man who has come from his forest refuge to beg alms in the town center. Filled with a new sense of purpose to solve the riddle of life, the prince determines to flee into the forest. So, the next night, when the moon is full, he creeps out of bed while his wife and son sleep, and makes his way to the forest of seers. For six arduous years he practices severe austerities until on the verge of death. Realizing the peril he is in, he relaxes his efforts. On a night in April when the moon is full, feeling refreshed, he sits under a banyan tree in meditation. In a final cataclysmic battle with the forces of Mara, or Death, the prince overcomes the insatiable demands of lust, craving, and desire, and sees deeply into the nature of reality. Enlightened now, he must decide whether to remain alone in the peaceful forest or share his wisdom with others. After another internal struggle, he decides to re-enter the world as a “teacher of men and gods.” After nearly half a century of training and teaching others, he dies at the age of eighty, entering the eternal bliss of nirvana.

It is not difficult to understand the allure this story has had for people through the ages. In the throes of youth, with its promise of fulfillment and joy, a pampered young man ventures out into the world for the first time. The insight gained through his venture is both personal and universal. For, in coming face to face with harsh truths about his own life, the protagonist is realizing something common to all of life. Similarly, his eventual solution to the dual problem of life’s evanescence and pain is valid for everyone universally. But before he can discover that solution, he must overcome powerful resistance both within himself and in his environment. Through nearly superhuman effort, he does so—and lives to tell the rest of us about it.

One way of understanding this story of the Buddha’s life is as a coming-of-age, innocence-to-experience tale. What the young prince realized about life’s brevity and difficulty, after all, comes with maturity. And his enlightenment is in many ways simply adult wisdom writ large. It is also possible to see the story as a classic saga of the hero’s journey. In such a story, the protagonist is called to a perilous adventure, painstakingly initiated into new forms of knowledge, and returns triumphantly from whence he came to teach others this new knowledge, resulting in a better world.

However the story might be understood, it is a profoundly hopeful tale. Emerson wrote that for every insightful person there are two absorbing facts: I and the abyss. Being human means persisting in life as a feeling, desiring, happiness-seeking self on the way to decay, death, and, ultimately…who knows: paradise? rebirth? eternal oblivion? Tomorrow, much less our ultimate end, lies in darkness. As told, the Buddha’s life story unsentimentally highlights the facts of sickness, aging, and death while simultaneously encapsulating resolutions to them. And along the way, his story presents a living exemplar of human perfection and sustained, ultimate bliss. The story assures us that we, like the Buddha, can somehow emerge from life, and from death, unscathed.


Cure yourselves of your nostalgias…Let the moment do its work. Let it reabsorb your dreams.

—E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist

I am not satisfied with this story. It warms my heart, yes, and it lifts me up; but I am not happy with it. I find it dissatisfying on two fronts. First, as a long-time student of Indian Buddhism, I know better than to believe that there is any evidence for, well, virtually any of it. Neither can I ignore the fact that the story, as commonly related, stems from the pen—and the luxuriant imagination—of a man named Ashvaghosha. Ashvaghosha lived in the first or second century A.D. He was a world-class poet who took on the enormous creative challenge of recasting the story of the Buddha in the style of high literature that was popular in his day, that of ornate Sanskrit poetry. Working from basic templates that had been around for centuries, Ashvaghosha, as poets do, embellished, enhanced, expanded, and, when necessary, made up from scratch whatever he deemed necessary for his work of art. His achievement, titled Buddhacharita, or The Life of the Buddha, was monumental. Ashvaghosha was so good at what he did, that, here we are, two millennia later, recounting his tale. The poet, though, can’t be blamed for the fact that we read his creation as biography. So why do we do so?

As dissatisfying as the story is for me as a student of Buddhism, it fails me even more as a simple human being trying to make sense of life. In examining the reasons for my dissatisfaction, I think I can go some way toward explaining why we persist in telling ourselves and others fanciful accounts of the Buddha’s life, and why we need an alternative narrative.

To begin, I agree with Emerson that our life-guides, our “great men,” as he somewhat ironically called them, “must be related to us, and our life receive from [them] some promise of explanation.” That assessment makes sense to me; otherwise, what good would such a man or woman be as a guide to life? The figure of the Buddha as handed down to us is not really a man or a human at all, or, if he is, barely so. Certainly, he is no life-guide. Who can keep up with him? If he is great, he is too great. He is too much the Enlightened One, the Blessed One, the omniscient Sage. This Buddha reveals too few of the qualities that you and I—real people—possess. What, for instance, became of his desire, hope, cynicism, disappointment, loneliness, sadness, regret, uncertainty? What became of his pleasure, his longing, perhaps even lust, for the beautiful people and things that surrounded him? In short, what became of his humanity, of his connection to our world?

Many readers may be thinking: His enlightenment did all of that; his enlightenment uprooted desire and uncovered bliss and washed away human frailty. He was connected to a greater world. As a response to this ancient, persistent, and wide-spread belief in special types of human beings, I would like to quote at length from an essay by Émil Cioran. I think Cioran expresses simultaneously the common wish and the common miscalculation that so animates our religious/spiritual quests.


For a long time I have searched for someone who would know everything about himself and about others, a demon-sage, divinely clairvoyant. Each time I believed that I had found him, he obliged me, upon scrutiny, to sing a different tune: the new elect always possessed some flaw, some defect, some recess of unconsciousness or weakness which lowered him to the level of human beings. I perceived in him certain traces of desire and hope, some hint of regret. His cynicism, manifestly, was incomplete. What a disappointment! And I still pursued my quest, and always my idols of the moment sinned in some direction: the man was always present in them, painted over or juggled out of sight. I ended by understanding the despotism of the Race and no longer dreaming of a non-man, a monster who might by totally imbued with his nothingness. It was madness to conceive of him: he could not exist, absolute lucidity being incompatible with the reality of the organs. (From the essay “Rages and Resignations” in The Temptation to Exist)

Apparently, given the religious history of the world, the extreme condition of madness is not always required for such conceptions of, such longings for, “demon-sages.” Mere humanness will do. The present post endeavors to reconsider the life of the man we call the Buddha in a manner that is compatible with “the reality of the organs.” In doing so, a human figure will emerge where a sage once was. The cost may be “absolute lucidity”—that is, an infallible standard of rightness or goodness. But we will gain, perhaps, a genuine story of a life passionately lived.


Richard Robinson, a leading scholar of Buddhism in the twentieth century, put it succinctly:

The quest for the objective Gotama [the Buddha], like that of the historical Jesus, is foredoomed to a measure of failure. We cannot get behind the portrait that the early communities synthesized for their founders; their reports are all we have. (The Buddhist Religion)

We may not be able to get behind these pious accounts, but we can read between their lines. Robinson is saying that, in effect, religious books—scriptures—are cooked. Like the Christ of the Bible (as opposed to the historical Jesus), or like Plato’s literary figure known as “Socrates,” a figure called “the Buddha” has been written into the primary source material. “The Buddha” is an idealization of a man named Siddhattha Gotama (Siddhartha Gautama in Sanskrit).

That is not to say that there is no flesh and bone on this figure, or that his teachings as recorded are not authentic. But how can we distinguish between the literary figure and the historical person? How can we get closer to the real-life person on whom the community’s pious portrait is based?

Considering why this distinction between person and idol exists in the first place will help us to see a way forward. The first task of any religious teacher’s followers, whether in Greece, Rome, Arabia, India, or the United States is twofold: to propagate and to preserve the teachings. The decisive importance of the former goal, however, drastically impacts the latter. That is, propagation is a Darwinian struggle of competition and adaptation; and the very engagement in this struggle shapes the form of the preservation. Spreading the teachings required that Gotama’s followers successfully contend with fierce competition from several quarters. The most crucial—and ruthless—struggle centered on patronage. Without the support of the leading figures in society, a community had no chance of survival. Patronage involved not only financial and material support, but social prestige. The latter was particularly important for a community such as Gotama’s, which challenged the orthodoxy of the day. There was also the struggle with rival teachers and hostile sects, who made claims—and held out promises—for their teachings that were different from, and more attractive than, Gotama’s. Buddhist literature is full of evidence of such struggles. The literature also reveals the extraordinary internal tensions that arose from the need to maintain unity and morale. Soon enough, moreover, Gotama’s community had to meet these enormous challenges bereft of its charismatic teacher.

A common strategy, then as now, in this struggle for recognition is to cast the teacher’s sayings, discourses, dialogues, lectures, random utterances, and so on, as “sacred” or “religious” literature. I call a text “religious” if it or its proponents claim for the work’s origin and contents some special quality, possessed by the originator, that is fundamentally non-natural, and hence, categorically unavailable to the common person.

As far as I know, there is no cult of Mozart. We see him as a musical genius, yes. But no one seriously claims that his music was divinely inspired, that is, that it derived from anything but human capacities. If we do speak of Mozart’s achievement in religious terms (it is transcendent, sacred, holy, revelatory, otherworldly, etc.), we do so figuratively, poetically, in an attempt to match language to a breathtaking natural achievement.

I contend that Gotama’s followers (and perhaps Gotama himself) made a conscious decision to cast his teachings in overtly religious terms. Such an alteration—from secular, naturalistic, and commonsensical to sectarian, supernatural, and super-sensual—required that the teachings’ custodians combine the central teachings with particular adornments. These adornments—frames, conceits, rhetorical structures, supernatural interlocutors, awe-inspiring miracles, extra-sensory perception—tip off the reader or hearer to the uncanny, even daemonic, power of the teachings. At the very least, such adornments demand attention, inspire confidence, and make a compelling case. Only in this manner could Gotama’s community win the patronage necessary for prospering.

19 thoughts on “Nostalgia for the Buddha

  1. Blasphemy! How are we going to get by without a divine, fully transcendent Buddha? Just another chum like you and me, albeit kinder, smarter, and better looking? That would be a big let down for a lot of people looking for a way out of here. Most of us want a total contrast with our mundane existence, to believe there’s something more magical than the story of our lives. We need the example of a risen being, somebody who beat the system. We want to hitch our wagon to his. If Buddha was just a great axial teacher at the right place and time, but without all those miraculous powers we read about, we fear this diminished legacy. Where will that leave us?

    I think this is hard to look at for most people, at least those that want to call themselves Buddhists. I don’t know what is and isn’t true, but it’s worth checking out to see if it fits for us. I think this is what you are doing in your blog, Glenn – testing the limit of what Buddhism can live with and still be called Buddhism.

    I appreciate your pointing to Ashvaghosa and his refining of the Buddha’s life story. It rings true that the faithful are always tilting the truth, adjusting it for the place and time, packaging it so that it is more captivating and embodies a more coherent paradigm. What we end up with is a great and lovely myth. Whether this is a good thing for our times, is the question. It seems we just want the raw truth now. We don’t want the embellishments anymore. We want to know how it really happened. This is enough, because truth is usually stranger (and more satisfying) than fiction. I think this is because we’ve been lied to so much, and that in this age we are getting really tired of stories that have been used to control people. The bullshit is wearing thin.

    I think all this discourse is a good idea, but it seems to rankle a lot of people. Stirring the pot is tricky job, but somebody needs to do it. Thanks for taking on the challenge….


  2. I’ve often thought that it would not really matter to my “practice” (a term that I’m starting to think a little too cute and over-used) if the Buddha ever existed or not: and, in a certain way, it seems clear that he did not. Gotama perhaps existed, but he seems pretty lost in history. We have a poverty of riches when it comes to source material which may, or may not, go back to him in some way. Who knows?

    There are many good Buddhists who reject the flamboyant miracles in the Pali canon and also recognize the mythological nature of much of the story of the Buddha’s life. They may even reject the idea of rebirth. But they continue to believe that somehow the Buddha had The Answer: for him, for them, for everyone. I’m reminded of Alan Watts’ parody of liberal Christians who reject all the supernaturalism of the Bible but still want to have Jesus as the center of their universe: “There is no God and Jesus is His only Son.”

    I think your critique (in this article and elsewhere, if I read you correctly) goes further in that you question the very answers to the problems of living that the Buddha (Gotama?) supposedly came up with. Eliminating desire, aversion and delusion is just not possible and perhaps not desirable. But that’s the Buddha we have! And that’s what 100% of the Buddhist teachers I’ve ever encountered say! The infamous example I hear in so many dharma talks of the “chocolate cake” (always a euphemism for sex) that we have so much desire for: that desire is the Big Problem! Eat more mindfully and maybe the desire will go away on it’s own. Or take the route of the monk and don’t even touch that cake or go anywhere near it. The “reality of the organs” be damned.

    So perhaps there is a problem not only with the mythological nature of the standard Buddhist narrative — not too hard for us to reject — but also with the solutions offered to the problems presented – much harder to reject because then we are just left with the problem: our suffering, angst, despair, death, lack of wholeness, unhappiness in all it’s ten-thousand forms. We are stuck with the First Noble Truth. Shit.

    But maybe this desire to end desire was too much desire in the first place? Maybe it was hubris or childish or unnecessary to want to end all dukkha? And maybe dukkha is not that bad after all! Maybe the Buddha should have turned back to the castle and cradle his newborn son and rule his kingdom as mindfully as he could? Is this not a better narrative for us today?

    I’m being a bit flamboyant myself now and probably have deviated from the main thrust of your blog post. Perhaps consider this a response to many of the things you’ve posted here, as well as your work in general. What should our practice be like today? What do we make of the anti-life language of traditional Buddhism? Can we take the practices and basic framework of early Buddhism and modify and reframe them to fit our engagement with the world, with all it’s suffering, sensual enjoyment and confusion? I think that’s the route to take. Of course the danger is that we aim too low and really do miss out on something important that the Budddha was on to. But that’s life: dangerous and without assurances. Stephen Schettini in a recent Secular Buddhist podcast called mindfulness a “chaotic” thing. I think that’s true of the whole of the “spiritual life” actually: a constant balancing act in the midst of the howling winds of doubt and faith, goofing off and being serious, hating and loving the Buddha at the same time.

  3. Hi Brad. Thanks a million for your post. It is filled with rich questions, insights, and comments. I think that what you write here goes right to the heart of what this blog is about; namely, how do we carve out a space for ourselves in order to look with fresh, clear eyes at the teachings of the man called the Buddha?

    You are correct that my critique involves questioning “the very answers to the problems of living that the Buddha supposedly came up with.” First, your wise “supposedly.” “Buddhism” presents so many different and often contradictory “answers” that it becomes impossible to identify what counts as “the Buddhist” answer. Perhaps the numerous varieties – or could we even say, Buddhisms – count as evidence of this indeterminateness and ambiguity. Even when we look to a single source, say the Pali Canon, real problems arise. Let’s say that we get an unambiguous statement such that “you must eliminate desire, aversion, and delusion from your life.” What does that mean? In real, actual, lived, human terms, what does it mean? As you say, even if it were possible, is it desirable? Does such a statement simply reveal the hard-core asceticism at the heart of Buddhist teachings? What is it really asking of us? Was such a statement even intended for people like you and me? If the point is to make us more aware of the role that desire, aversion, and delusion play in our lives, then fine–I can see value in that statement. But I don’t need to subscribe to the authority of an enlightened Tathagata or to a complex system such as Buddhism to tell me that. Many poets, philosophers, artists, psychologists, talk show hosts, parents, friends, and enemies offer the same advice–or at least are willing to have the discussion with us. Some would say “why the hell would you want to eradicate desire?” Anyway, I feel like I’m rambling a bit here. Many of the concepts that offer on this blog are meant to serve as aids in thinking through the kinds of issues that you raised here. Just to name a bunch:

    fitting proximity
    devitalization of charism
    inhibiting the network of postulation
    postulate deflation
    re-commissioning of postulates
    saliency of requisite disenchantment
    incidental exile
    transgression of thaumaturgical refuge
    cancellation of warrant
    ancoric loss
    aporetic dissonance
    structural suspension
    muting vibrato

    That might sound a bit like a bad Dada poem; but I bet that some of it will make sense to you. For example, the next time you hear a teacher talk about “chocolate cake,” mute the vibrato on the statement and see what happens.

    What an intriguing question: what would our “practice” be like without some great, looming authority figure such as Der Buddha? And what great questions these are: What should our practice be like today? What do we make of the anti-life language of traditional Buddhism? Can we take the practices and basic framework of early Buddhism and modify and reframe them to fit our engagement with the world, with all it’s suffering, sensual enjoyment and confusion?

    One thing is for sure. There is one thing that I’ve learned from my Buddhist teachers that I can’t imagine giving up: meditation. But even here, I have begun to think of it simply in terms of still, silent sitting.

    I hope you will continue to live with these questions, and occasionally share your discoveries with the rest of us. Peace to you, Brad.

  4. Thank you so much for your spirited words, Andrew. Believe me, anyone who says things like “swoon” and “cognitive sphincter” has my ear.

    I think that you ask an explosive question: where will that leave us? My facile and impulsive answer is: let us see! let us light this fuse and find out! Then, I recall Herr Nietzsche’s abhorrence at realizing that his nihilistic deconstruction of the Christian myth had left humanity bereft of meaningful models in its stead. Remember, he had already slain maestro Wagner. So, please, help us out with this question that you pose–that you have blown open for us. Live it for a few years, and report back.

    I think that Ashvaghosha did more than refine Gotama’s story. I think that he made it up. I should add that I make this statement after working for the last three years on a “biography” of the Buddha. I am abandoning that project. But the point is, Buddhists are no different from Christians and Muslims and Hollywood star gawkers when it comes to blindly accepting the romance of the Spiritual Prince. I wholeheartedly agree with you that the bullshit is wearing thin–for some of us at least. Let us speak to one another.

    Thanks, by the way, for sticking up for me over at the Tricycle site. It was probably stupid of me to comment as I did. But I have recently made a decision to see what it is like to loosen my politeness sphincter a bit in public. Peace and thanks to you, Andrew.

  5. Perhaps because I am an artist (and an atheist Buddhist for 25 years) I regard Buddha in more or less the same light as Turner or Pollock — an exceptionally talented cat who broke through the endless barrier of subjectivity and brought back a new kind of seeing. But I don’t call myself an impressionist or an action painter, so why call myself a Buddhist? I think it’s the difference between outcomes and directions. If I say, “I am an impressionist painter,” that’s a limiting thing. It says I specialize; I have arrived at that place. If I say “I’m a Buddhist,” it’s a description of a route named after the guy who first mapped it. It’s not the destination he reached, the way action painting is a destination (or outcome, more accurately).

    The religious aspect of the thing is what people do to make the thing easier to ‘get.’ They weave stories, ascribe powers, assign divinity. Buddha himself probably did that, dressing up a fairly straightforward exercise in achieving states of un-needing and so forth with mystical trappings. It makes sense; his culture was steeped through and through with religion. It was inherent in the language and pattern of his time.

    This is probably why I dig Zen forms more than others — it’s about practice of being, mostly, rather than praying and chucking beads around. Ultimately Buddha, whoever he was, would not have been offended if everybody told him to fuck off. So it’s a pity his followers so often feel the need to be devout. Sometimes people insist on buying something even when it’s not for sale.

  6. Man, of course it takes an artist to cut through my flustered wordy crapola and present a luminous image of what this blog is all about. Thank you, Ben!

    The kinds of cognitive and affective acts that I am mapping out with my (intentionally) rococo language seem to come naturally to you. That is to say, I doubt it took exceptional efforts for you to “cancel the warrant” or “mute the vibrato” or “deflate the postulates” on the shrill modernist apotheosis of, say, Pollock or Picasso. Really, all that I am up to here is encouraging people to experiment with the approach that you present here. I love the ideal of approaching Buddhism aesthetically. Can “Buddhism” be seen as a style? Can one’s “practice” of, say, rituals or meditation be seen as akin to one’s practice of action painting or embroidery? in what ways the same, in what ways different? I think that there is a musty field of potential in the questions you raise here.

    Your statement that “the religious aspect of the thing is what people do to make the thing easier to ‘get.’,” astutely sums up the complex theories coming out of the cognitive science of religion (see the post on Justin Barrett). These theories ask, for example, how supernatural or “optimally counter-intuitive” beliefs arise, are transmitted, and are preserved. Their answer is yours: that’s what “religion” is for. “Scripture” is literature in drag. “A temple” is a building in drag. I suspect that you’re right that the Buddha himself employed such cognitive tricks to grow his community. My suggestion to “transgress the thaumaturgical refuge” and to “become exiles from Buddhism’s vallation,” and so on, are intended to help us get on with the work of dismantling the trickery, better enabling us to see what is actually there. Again, something that artists are naturally adept at.

    “Sometimes people insist on buying something even when it’s not for sale:” a great line! Can you not recast your entire comment as a Dada poem, or perhaps as a:non-Buddhist koan?

    I think that if you told the Buddha to his face to “fuck off,” he would guffaw, slap you on the back, and say “let’s go have a beer.”

    Where can we see your art? Thanks, again, Ben.

  7. Glenn,

    Glad you appreciate the spirited words. We’ll all have to be patient to see where this settles. It may take at least another generation’s time to sort out and agree what is extraneous and what to leave in. And this will only be true for the more mainstream threads. Maybe Amod Lele’s Yavanayana will pick up the strongest thread – I like the propriety and ancient connection to this wording. However, there will never be a unified message, no agreed-to canon for western Buddhism. That is a fantasy. I believe there will be a multiplicity of teachings, maybe one for each of us! The time is ending for universal religion that has any dogma associated with it.

    Thanks for the challenge to report back later – a good assignment out here in the hinterlands.

    Your comment that Ashvaghosa may have completely made up the Buddha’s life story jolted me. I haven’t gone there before. However, like all myths that are created over time (or in a short burst) there is likely some or many elements that did have a historical basis. Then again, I am of the opinion that the person of Jesus was a complete fabrication. Who really knows about Buddha? I suppose we’ll never know how much truth there is in the story telling. That one will have to be a personal choice.

    The Tricycle affair was a shout. I saw your post and got on the bandwagon. It struck the same chord for me. I love those guys, but they’re goofing around and soft-peddling. They did address the issue in their way, but hey, take it up a notch.

    It’s hard not to get personal when your ire is up. It’s part reckless, part a crying out, and part a strong desire to make a connection to something that’s really important. When I see people going over the same stuff the same way, again and again, it’s crap. How about speaking from the heart and exploring a controversial issue? The trouble is that most people are invested in their role-playing. Because it involves livelihood, they don’t want to stray too far outside the boundaries – that’s why they need us to point out the bullshit!. It’s not really bullshit, it’s just laziness and playing it safe. I don’t have a career to jeopardize, so I’m letting it rip.

    Yeah, it is tricky to put yourself out there and make accusations. I too have to watch it. I am finding that the partial anonymity of the web gives my ire an added punch. I’m not sure this is who I am, so I need to be careful. This is a new frontier – we better be sure who our avatars are. Looking forward to your next post…..


  8. Glenn,

    It is with this passage from your post that I was most personally moved:

    “The figure of the Buddha as handed down to us is not really a man or a human at all, or, if he is, barely so. Certainly, he is no life-guide. Who can keep up with him? If he is great, he is too great. He is too much the Enlightened One, the Blessed One, the omniscient Sage. This Buddha reveals too few of the qualities that you and I—real people—possess. What, for instance, became of his desire, hope, cynicism, disappointment, loneliness, sadness, regret, uncertainty? What became of his pleasure, his longing, perhaps even lust, for the beautiful people and things that surrounded him? In short, what became of his humanity, of his connection to our world?”

    When “the Buddha” was first presented to me, it was as ‘simply a man, a real human.’ Then, of course, I started reading and studying ‘his’ teachings and about him and found that the texts present him as way more than a ‘mere man.’ From the very beginning, for instance the account of his birth as “pure and unsullied, free from blood and mucus” etc. didn’t sound like any of the births I’d attended! Worse, it seemed to devalue the rawness, the fleshiness and bloodiness of the reality of my/this life.

    I’d read the passage where he is told of the death of his two senior students,

    “As he surveyed the silent Sangha seated around him at the banks of the Ganges, the Buddha addressed them thus: “Now the assembly seems to me as though it were empty. The assembly is empty for me now that Sariputta and Moggallana have attained final Nibbana. There is nowhere that one can look to and say, “‘Sariputta and Moggallana are living there.’”

    and I’d hear a bit of real humanity, some sadness, a poignant pulse of nostalgia even. And then it would be ruined for me by the following line with the Buddha asserting that it is wonderful and marvelous that the Perfect One neither sorrows nor laments when his greatest pair of disciples has attained final Nibbana, and oh, so rationally saying: “How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed, and bound to fall, should not fall? That is not possible.” I mean, he had just learned of the death of one of his senior students and THIS is his response?!?! To my ears, such a response sounds pathological!

    Why do so many seem to want and require such exceptionalism from their “great men?” (to quote from Emerson). To my mind, such idealization and deification detracts from the relevance to my life by creating an unbridgeable gulf — and quite frankly, one I’m not all that keen to bridge! I don’t want to live a life without — as you put it — “connection to our world?”

    Thanks again for asking such questions and for providing this forum for their investigation!

  9. Glenn, Excellent blog, wonderful post, and interesting comments all, thanks for doing this. Singling out meditation as the one thing that, for you at least, will likely survive this exercise in non-buddhism is an interesting observation.  The teachings of the buddha speak to  a mode of life, a cultivation and a practice, they are not just interesting points of view or arguments for argument’s sake.   It’s a path. Meditation is pretty central to this.  So far we have talked a lot about all that we can and should do without, maybe we should list the things that we feel should survive.  I nominate meditation and the notion of path informed by meditation.  And everything that distracts from that, out the window it goes, yippee!  

  10. The Buddha can only inspire if he’s another human being like you and me. If he’s not a viable role model and we can’t emulate him, what’s the point?

    Nevertheless, I came to Buddhism with dreams of intoxicating enlightenment and foolish escape, and the bodhi message systematically dismantled my illusions. No matter that I was stupid, it helped. Right view has little to do with faith or intelligence; it’s all about integrity.

    That’s where this blog is at — fearless integrity. Go for the jugular, Glenn!

  11. Thanks for this fascinating post. I agree that we don’t know if the Buddha existed and, if he did, he certainly isn’t always correctly characterized in the Pali Canon. But from my personal experience, I do think that the answers to the problems of living that the Buddha came up with are the path to peace: the cooling of greed (or desire), hatred (or anger), and delusion (or ignorance). Every once in a while, I get a taste of the experience of the absence of these three while meditating and I feel (this is a just my personal “feeling” remember) that if I could sustain that experience, I’d be free. I’d be at peace with myself and the world.

  12. I’m not absolutely certain as to what I may add to the discussion but after reading “Glassenheit”, “eudaemoia”, and “adamantine” in one paragraph, perhaps I might jump in.
    One attraction that Buddhist has always had for me is that like many ancient religions, phenomena deemed essential to the modern simply are not. Thus, as Egyptians could readily believe that creation took place in Heliopolis, Memphis, Hermopolis and Thebes, and each was not only the oldest, but also the first, on a practical level who the Buddha was in reality (what the 19c German historians called, “as it actually was”) is not important. What is, is that the system works. It does not work for all, but then again, it does prepare a mental template remarkably able to accept getting along with each other and even modern science. And perhaps most of all, it can produce “settled” individuals, moreso than other sects I have seen. And with the rapid changes now underway amid Buddhist groups, it seems like the best creed to reach the stars–if that is desirable.

  13. Robert, I agree completely with 1) the need to say what “should survive,” and 2) the nomination of meditation for winning that prize, and 3) performing defenestration on the rest and 4) declaring “yippee’ when our work’s done. More to come. Thanks.

  14. Hi Toni. Thank you for your comments. And congratulations on your book award!

    I certainly do not want to foreclose on the teachings we find in the Pali texts. Like you, in my own estimation (and I think my wife would second this!) I am a living testament to the value of applying some of those teachings to real life. I am just wondering what price we must pay to perpetuate “Buddhism” as the progenitor of these teachings. You say, for instance, that you get a taste of the absence of desire, anger, and delusion when meditating. I do, too; and that’s why I continue to sit in stillness and silence and non-activity, hovering my attention close to my breathing body, on a nearly daily basis. Is what I described “meditation”? Is it “Buddhist”? What makes it either? And, most importantly, wherein lies its value–as something Buddhist or as an apparently effective, if simple, human practice, like sleep? It might be that someone comes to such a practice or such teachings via “Buddhism” or “MBSR” or “yoga” or Christian “infused contemplation.” Doing so, that person might place the effectiveness, the value, the power, or whatever in the “Thing.” Therein, in my experience, lies the danger. I started this blog because I see current Buddhaphila–east and west–as yet another crazy-making activity. Now, cooling the fire of infatuation, etc., the integrating function of sitting still and silently, etc., is not. I hope the difference is clear. I think I will write up a post on this issue. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Peace to you, Toni.

    Toni’s book:

  15. I love this blog. Thanks Glenn and everyone for their creative honesty.
    Where are we left without the Buddha story? I like it. Like you say Glenn, It is closer the the bone. I am left with myself and my own experience, which is all I can really know. Of course this comes from years of being inspired by the stories. At this point in my life, I take what resonates with me and makes me a happier person.
    Letting go of the story, also keeps me closer to the present moment and action comes out of a knowing as opposed to thought. Right now, waking up is being present against all odds.

  16. Hi Glen,

    First of all let me say that the Buddha, whoever he was, would likely applaud your project here. I recently came across it as a result of your rather bold post over at Tricycle. And while the part of me that is still, say, intrigued, by the (Tibetan) tradition’s “charism” as you’re putting it, met it with caution, my more inquisitive side is definitely happy you’re pursuing this, and that people are responding.

    I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that what often attracts the more intellectually-minded to Buddhism is its realism, and its pragmatism, at least in its most basic forms. There is suffering, and meditation helps. These are really the only two things I have confidence in, but they’re enough for me to call myself a Buddhist, at least for now. Where we run into problems, I think, to pick up on your interesting discussion with Brad above, is just how far the “solutions” and even the “problems” themselves seem to be able to extend, under the hood of the more esoteric teachings. While on some levels I understand the pitfalls of looking to Buddhism as something that with the right level of dedication will solve all your worldly problems (one has to give up, to get anywhere), I’m equally skeptical of being so focused on, say, other-worldy concerns to the point of perpetuating the worldly ones. There’s a generation of Buddhists in the west now that have been exposed to the highest teachings, and not much evidence, it seems to me, of their realization. Perhaps just the opposite. There are a lot of alcoholics and womanizers. Maybe that’s just my limited perspective, and lack of experience. Maybe it’s too early to fairly judge. I’m not ruling anything out. But it also seems like there are some rather convenient explanations for some pretty strange, destructive, “enlightened” (?) behaviour.

    To put it another way, and go back to the question of Guru Devotion that first brought me here, and to echo another of your recent posts, the real question it seems to me is whether there’s actually something going on behind the curtain. Is it really so necessary for the highest realizations to be so secret? Impossible to relay one’s experience? If not in words, then in action? Don’t show me the money. Show me the peace. (And in this lifetime, if possible.) It doesn’t have to be my own. Maybe another problem is that it’s easier to see the wheat from the chaff from the perspective of history. There have always been charlatans. Likely more now than ever. And the Buddha, whoever he was, wasn’t likely to suggest you go knocking on the door of an institution to get your answers. He knocked on his own door, and realized he didn’t exist!

  17. I don’t know if this is pertinent to the discussion but I think it might be. Thomas Merton wrote an article in 1964 concerning Zen Buddhism that was later published as a pamphlet by The Buddhist Society of London under the title The Zen Revival. I haven’t been actively involved with Buddhism in over 40 years, but all those years ago I found this essay of Merton’s to be the most profound few pages of commentary on the subject of Buddhism that I ever came across. It might be informative to the issues that you have raised. And by the way, what ever happened to chopping off the Buddha’s head if you meet him on the road? Don’t Buddhists roll that way anymore.

  18. I thoroughly agree with Robinson that the quest for the historical Buddha is doomed to failure. And thus so is the quest for his original teachings before they were distorted, changed, misinterpreted or whatever narrative of decline one wishes to choose. But the nostalgia for trying to recover all that points to a greater dilemma for those seeking to understand Buddhism and speculate on non-Buddhism. The deeper aporia is the dream of recovering the point of origin in general – whether that is refracted through the teacher, the teachings or the community. Which is to say, the quest for early Buddhism is doomed to failure as well. But few seem willing to accept this, even within Western Buddhism. One understands why Asian Buddhists find this so threatening – it directly undermines established models for delineating legitimate authority via lineage. Western Buddhists are famously cavalier about lineage, but not about origins. Thus the perpetual efforts to reconstruct what the original Buddha taught. Thus the perpetual need to fix a point of origin against which all subsequent developments, deviations and changes can be mapped. Western Buddhists are obsessed with early Buddhism. I sometimes wonder whether Asian Buddhists cared about early Buddhism before encountering the modernist Buddhist imaginary in the colonial era. They certainly didn’t seem to care about it as a point of historical emergence, rather than soteriological rupture, in the way we (and they) do now.

    And yet the existing historical scholarship seems to make clear that we cannot know Gotama and originary Buddhism before its tragic fall into the mythological Buddha and historical Buddhisms. All we have evidence of is Buddhism after the rise of sectarianism, after the rise of diversity, after the mythological elaboration. Wouldn’t a truly speculative non-Buddhism simply no longer care about these dreams of origins, these dreams of the beginning, these dreams of singularity?

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