WE COULD STOP PUTTING LIDS ON OURSELVES
It is as if we were extraordinary children, possessing all sorts of genius, and we were being undermined by the society around us, which was dying to make us normal people. Whenever we would show any mark of genius, our parents would get embarrassed and try to put the lid on. I don’t particularly want to blame our parents alone; we have also been doing this to ourselves. When we see something extraordinary, we are afraid to say so; we are afraid to express ourselves. So we put lids on ourselves—on our potential, our capabilities. But in Buddhism we are liberated from that kind of conventionality.
The Heart of the Buddha: Entering the Tibetan Buddhist Path by Chögyam Trungpa, page 6
But in Buddhism we are liberated from that kind of conventionality. How I wish this were true. It’s another one of those things Chuggie said that never gets lived out in real life. I’ve been with Buddhists of various kinds, mostly on the East Coast. I knew a few in western Massachusetts, only two personally, and one in Boston. I know about a dozen in Fredericton, NB, and have met hundreds in Halifax. My experience thus far with Buddhists is that they are highly conventional, fearful, repressed, over-controlled and controlling. There is little of the sense of unconventional play and imagination that Chuggie so gleefully describes. Most of the Buddhists I’ve met are quite bourgeois, obsessed with professional success and social status, trying desperately to appear as normal as possible. Those of us who choose not to appear normal, or who couldn’t even if we tried, are treated like errant children or the mentally ill—shunned, chastised, pushed aside. This is a typical problem in many Buddhist communities that I’ve participated in.
But enough complaining. I propose a solution, one that I am trying to enact in small ways. It’s the practice suggested by Dzogchen Ponlop’s Rebel Buddha: see the path of Buddhism as a path of questioning, of challenging convention and the status quo. Very few members of the group who supposedly follow DPR’s legacy, take this challenge seriously. Few of the practitioners I’ve met so far seems to have a clue as to what “rebel Buddha” really means. Or what they think of as “rebel Buddha” and what I think it means are glaciers apart.
So I’ve started to question, question, question everything; push back against conventionality, repression, the obsession with social status, hetero-normativity, white-male dominance, and the intense desire to CONTROL EVERYTHING and everybody. That’s one desire that never seems to be challenged—the desire to CONTROL. We Buddhists are good for tackling desires for pleasures of the flesh, like sex, food, and entertainment, but we utterly fail to even notice the high-octane drive to control, to succeed, to pass (for normal), to achieve, and to be accepted and liked by the mainstream. That’s where Rebel Buddha comes in, not to save the day, but to fuck shit up. Break the barriers of conventionality, repression and control. Talk about sex. Loudly. Be openly, defiantly queer. Go ahead and fail at being a Buddhist. Practice Buddhist tantra in the sangha by performance of the abject—the deliberate violation of social norms as a spiritual practice.
I’ve heard sangha members complain in anguish about the homogeneity of their membership: no young people, no people of colour, no queers, no working class, no immigrants. They always attract more of the same: older (and I mean “near retirement” older); white, anglo, upper-middle class, professional, straights or homonormative gays. Well, I’ve got one of those handy-dandy 12-Step clichés for ya’ll: “Keep doing what you’ve always done and you’ll keep getting what you always got.” We have to break down the culture of conformity within sanghas. That sends a message to others who visit your sangha that “difference is accepted and cherished here.” Allow difference to surface and flourish; allow non-conformity, challenge your own status quo, renounce your incessant urge to CONTROL EVERYTHING. Loosen up a little. Let shit happen. Be the “extraordinary children, possessing all sorts of genius” that Chuggie says is our legacy and our birthright from Buddhism.
As DPR has said repeatedly, we have to get away from directing everything toward shrine rooms and retreat centres. That attracts a certain kind of person—straight, white, middle-class conformists—and we have enough of those already. The Buddha “met people where they were at.” He didn’t preach the same message to everyone. He had different teachings for different people depending on what they needed and what their capacities were. Want to attract the working class? Try mindfulness bowling. Want to attract immigrants? Ethnic groups coalesce around their ethnic food (just ask my Italian relatives). Want to attract young people? Go to the next free punk show, stand near the mosh pit and chant along with the band. Want to attract queers? Go to a queer sex workshop and talk about queer tantric practice. Want to attract creative young adults? Go to the next Reclaim the Streets protest and hold an in-the-street meditation session. Meet people where they’re at. Speak their language. Instead of trying to get them to the shrine room, make wherever they’re at “the shrine.”
But first and most importantly, liberate yourselves from conformity. DPR patiently tries to teach people that social conventions are the most rigidly solidified forms of delusion that we suffer from. Every moment that we become aware of and challenge these rigid social norms—of class status, racism, sexism, materialism, and other social conventions—is a moment of awakening. And yet we barely notice them and never challenge them as Buddhists. Blow off your own lid. If you don’t see the need to challenge your own social conventions and free your own mind, you’re never going to liberate anyone else. And you’re never going to have any kind of compassion or solidarity with marginalized people who really do challenge the status quo.
To top it off, Reggie Ray, a life-long student of Chogyam Trunga, takes this teaching to another level:
“Our mission is to take the lid off our own life, and then to bring the living water to other people now. The more the lid comes off our own life, the more we are for others. It’s not that we’re helping people, but we’re pulling them into the dance. We’re pulling them into the circle of joy.” — Reggie Ray
[Note: I’ve been listening to the Beatles’ experiments with psychedelia while writing this, especially George Harrison’s Indian raga.] Oh, and this, “Take the skinheads bowling” by Camper Van Beethoven: