I’m attending my second course at the FWBO Buddhist Centre in the anonymous town where I live. I have an allergy to certain aspects of organised religion, mostly from my experiences with evangelical christianity some years ago. It is something to do with the way that the habits and often unthought-through views of certain groups get tangled with the religious teaching. Last week the topic of our course on Ritual was confession and celebration. The idea is a kind of emotional progression in the ritual: we see a far off beautiful snow-capped mountain top; we become acutely aware of its distance from where we are; in spite of this we strive to reach that lofty height and resolve to set out on the journey. The mountain top is something like the Buddha with his unattainable qualities of wisdom and compassion, so we confess our shortcomings in preparation for our journey. Needless to say, the topic of confession and evil deeds leads to a great deal of conversation. The instructor emphasises the releasing effects of apologising to people we may have wronged and generally acknowledging our shortcomings – the example of eating one too many chocolate bars comes up and gets a laugh (the evangelicals always used this example too). There are smatterings of agreement in the class that acknowledging this stuff can be liberating – though one or two ask whether it might be more useful to investigate our ‘wrongdoing’ and what we get out of it. If we did that we might not need to do so much apologising. But confession is not analysis which seems fair enough – but it is presented as having an emotional therapeutic benefit. A helper gives a testimony about his ill will toward a fellow Buddhist and his confession to an elder.
Discussing this with a friend she observes, ‘so the Buddha is meant to be a kind of superego, a constant reminder of our constant state of failure’. Lacanians, she says, seem to have a more accepting attitude toward ‘wrong-doing’. Out of the lecture group she is a member of about a fifth go outside, between the lectures, for cigarettes. Smoking may embody the death drive, but everyone enacts the death drive in one way or another and smoking is just one of these.
This seems eminently grown-up to me.
What is going wrong in this Buddhist group (in my view something is)? Why does this same old half-baked morality keep re-emerging in these kinds of context? How do the traditions of Buddhism get somehow turned into a kind of pop-psychology? I really don’t know. I know people sometimes look to Buddhism as a kind of therapy and the teachers tend to respond in these terms, describing ritual in emotional terms, in this case. Other Buddhist teaching appears to want to liberate people from the dualism of thinking oin opposites, good and bad, etc. So why do we come back to this place?