Off the Program

Reading The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry, I’ve been having a little trouble with the “buddhism-ness” of some (though by no means not all) of the poems. Well, the title of the book (albeit the first word refers to the publisher) puts me off a little too. Like, oh, you’re dispensing “Wisdom” right off the bat. Just so we know. Using that editorial structure to frame poems by Buddhists seems to set up a program that’s not useful, I think. If I were to edit a book like that I would go far out of my way to cut out that first word. Because (and I think Basho might agree) sometimes being a Buddhist is about being a fool.

It’s why I like the poems of Philip Whalen, Harryette Mullen, and Norman Fischer (all included in the anthology). They surprise, they embrace contradiction, and they come directly from lived experience, without spouting the jargon.

My take on this is that the Buddha was a guy who had discovered an important route by which humans could gain insight into their condition and greatly reduce suffering, but that he probably didn’t espouse all the hierarchical and baroque permutations on his teachings that many of his followers developed decades and centuries after his death. Glenn Wallis says something useful about this that questions the practices and assumptions of a lot of contemporary Buddhists:

Two aspects of employing a Buddhist framework are particularly disturbing to me. The first is that it usurps the practitioner’s actual, lived, experienced, process. That is, time and time again I have heard people use the same formulaic, doctrinal vocabulary to talk about meditative practice and the meditative life as a whole. Some see in such speech patterns evidence of “entering the stream” or maturing on “the path.” I see it, rather, as a disturbing symptom. I see the employment of borrowed language as a sign of evasion, of taking comfort in the warm embrace of community at the expense of the very purpose that that community is (ostensibly) meant to serve, namely, the combustion of delusion. I see it as a sign that someone is prescribing to a program, rather than engaging a potentially excoriating – and, to a great extent, lonely – practice of self-and-reality-knowing.

That is why I encourage people, as Thoreau put it, to keep language close to the bone. Let the language come out of the knowing – out of your bodily experience – and not the other way around. Because each of us has a particular perspective on “the knowing,” our language will be, at least to some degree, unique to each of us. It will be fresher, richer, more vibrant, and more honest than the borrowed language of Buddhism or any other pre-established framework allows.

Yet, still, I have to talk about these things. What language should I use? One possibility is the language of poetry.

So it comes back to poetry again. Why? Maybe the arts–poetry, visual arts–take you back to the body, to corporeality, which, in all its pain (I write this as my migraine slowly winds down to blessed relief), beauty, and complexity, says so much. Personally, I don’t have a problem with community — it has important functions; some point to the fact that communities can sometimes become insular, its traditions and habits inbred. But Wallis notes that one of community’s functions is to “dispel delusion.” I do think that American culture and religion (especially adopted or adapted religion) has certain programmatic elements to it that generally go unacknowledged because we assume that our ethos of individuality saves us from that. Well, it doesn’t; and when programmatic behavior goes under the radar, our best intent can be subverted.

Read more of “Making Decisions” by Glenn Wallis HERE.


  1. Thanks for your comment, Leny. Buddhism’s latest scandal on the ordinance (or non-ordinance of female clerics is one rather glaring example of such a mindset, which goes to show that it’s not just a Western thing, but a problem with institutionalized religion, generally. I somehow missed that post on CFBS (looked for it & couldn’t find it) but if it’s based on Mariana Caplan’s “10 spiritually transmitted diseases,”, yes, I think she covers it pretty well.

  2. thanks for this post, Jean. links well with the recent post on CFBS about the 10 spiritual diseases, don’t you think? well, been thinking about this topic lately but i don’t know yet how to approach it.

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