Post-Institutional: Thriving in the Network

Matt O’Connell at Post-traditional Buddhism interviews Hokai Sobol:

https://soundcloud.com/post-traditional-buddhism/113-imperfect-buddha-guest-hokai-sobol-on-buddhism

Matt: “Hokai Sobol joins us for an in-person chat in Trieste. Our conversation was a second attempt at a podcast episode and this time it all worked out and there was enough content to span two episodes.

Before lunch, we discussed Buddhism in the West. After lunch we tackled the topic of mysticism and practice, which you can find out more about in part two.

Hokai is welcoming questions and queries from listeners for a follow-up episode. So, if you have thoughts, questions or doubts after listening to either episode, please leave a comment or question below or on the Imperfect Buddha Twitter feed so that Hokai and I can discuss them.

So who is he? Hokai is a practitioner, pathfinder and mentor. Besides guiding a local Buddhist group gathered in the Mandala Society of Croatia, he works with a number of individual practitioners around the globe whom he meets regularly over Skype for mentoring. Hokai proposes that deep practice can be pursued in the midst of one’s life, as long as it is clearly distinguished from religious activities and therapeutic transactions.

Both Stuart and I have benefited greatly from Hokai’s approach to mentoring and exploring Buddhism as a pathway. This is his site if you’d like to find out more: www.hokai.info

Music is provided by Vessel from the Young Echo collective. Find out more by visiting their site: youngecho.co.uk ”


Sobol discusses Buddhism, western and eastern, in terms of three institutional forms: as religion, as therapeutic method, and as mystical path.

Buddhism as religion is concerned with tradition, lineage, transmission, and belonging. It defines the inside of the religion in relation to the outside. It is the most closed institutional form, and affords security and belonging to its members, while also tightly controlling them. Its form is hierarchy.

Buddhism as a therapeutic method has emerged in the West primarily as mindfulness, as a technique promising relief from personal suffering and individual happiness. In terms of form it is open to society and thrives in the marketplace.

Buddhism as mystical path does not promise happiness; it offers a path to some kind of transpersonal and existential transcendence. Sobol will speak more on Buddhism as a mystical path in Part 2 of the interview, so stay tuned to Imperfect Buddha Podcast and the Post-traditional Buddhism blog.

A fourth form that Sobol does not discuss, but which has been growing in Buddhism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in both east and west, is Buddhism as social transformation, as engaged Buddhism. I’m not expecting him to have much to say on this.


I found Sobol’s analysis of the three institutional forms to be illuminating and clarifying. It made clear for me why I had such a strong reaction to religious Buddhism. Let me sum up my experience of institutional Buddhism with this:

Buddhism fails as a religion.

Like many people who undertake Buddhist practice as mature adults, I was not looking for a religion. Consequently I was turned off by the hierarchy, the cult of the guru,  the cult-like levels of social control, the conformity imposed by membership, and the constant demand for money.  I was all but excluded from many of its programs because I could not afford them, which were obviously designed to siphon huge amounts of money from rich people.

But there’s an easy solution to that: don’t practice Buddhism as a religion. It’s no longer necessary because you can easily teach yourself most of what you need to know, with the help of a few teachers and friends who are experienced practitioners. As Matt says (quoting Sobol) “deep practice can be pursued in the midst of one’s life, as long as it is clearly distinguished from religious activities and therapeutic transactions.” You can follow a similar life path with the help of many expert practitioners who teach primarily online. These are paths of practice that are post-traditional and post-institutional.

Buddhism is brilliant as a network.

We no longer need to practice Buddhism as a religion because there are so many other ways of learning and practicing available to us. Furthermore, in terms of sangha or community, we are no longer limited to going to a temple or joining a retreat centre to feel connected to a community. We can thrive in the open connectedness of the network, instead of suffocating in the enclosure of the church. As Sobol says of the mystical path (paraphrase),’ its an ironic approach to practice… you feel like you don’t belong anywhere but discover that you belong everywhere. ‘

I belong to three different small-group sanghas: Triratna Gender Diverse Buddhists (online) Queer Dharma Circle (f2f), and a local Sri Lankan temple (f2f). I also participate in many online courses and conferences on engaged Buddhism and other topics. I have many Buddhist friends all over the Northeast of North America. I don’t belong to any Buddhist organization, but I am never without my sangha network.

Where Sobol’s analysis is lacking is his failure to recognize engaged Buddhism as a ‘fourth way.’ It’s a path of connection, a path outside of Buddhism as an organized religion. Engaged Buddhism thrives in the sangha network, and is completely open to and engaged with the local community, the world, the global situation, and the culture. It is a fully socialized path, going beyond liberating and healing the individual to liberating and healing the local community, society and ecosystem. As Maia Duerr said, quoting Grace Lee Boggs (paraprhasing), ‘social liberation was never about critical mass, it was always about critical connections.’

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