This excerpt is from Ethan Nichtern’s book: The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path. Order your copy here.
Be sure to listen to Ethan’s new podcast series, The Road Home, on the Be Here Now Network here.
I was present once while Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche offered refuge vows to a small group of his dharma students. In many lineages, this refuge vow is the formal ceremony of commitment for becoming Buddhist, a proclamation that you are on the path of awakening for life. At this ceremony, you stop saying, “If I’m anything, I am a Buddhist,” and you start saying, “Umm . . . I guess I’m a Buddhist now.” Again, when you take such a step, you have to determine for yourself what it means, in terms of what other spiritual traditions you might study or how you will integrate the Buddhist practices and teachings into your own life in a meaningful way. No matter your individual circumstance, becoming a Buddhist is a commitment to living within awareness and working with these teachings, befriending yourself, and proclaiming your mind as your true home.
When he spoke about the meaning of the vow, Ponlop Rinpoche reminded us that, traditionally, students would have a tiny bit of their hair cut during the ceremony by the teacher presiding over the vows. His explanation for this ritual struck me as somewhat ironic. He said that hair was a way to distinguish ourselves, to feel special in our style, and that when we take on the path of awakening, we should feel like we are no big deal. He said, “there should be no sign” that we are Buddhist.
THERE SHOULD BE NO SIGN
I have often thought of what it really means to be a student (and also a teacher) of Buddhism in the modern world. As Buddhism becomes more and more popular, as the so-called mindfulness movement evolves into a more robust social movement that includes the humanistic study of ethics, psychology, philosophy, art, and politics, those who practice dharma become more heavily scrutinized for how we live our lives. Sometimes this scrutiny is very fair (who doesn’t want people to practice what they preach?) and sometimes it holds us to impossible standards of robotic perfection, where even the smallest mistake causes someone to sarcastically comment, “That’s not very Buddhist of you.” The other night I was watching an episode of the popular animated show Family Guy, where one character jokes to another that Buddhism is a religion of “annoying white people.” That made me smile, and I quietly thanked Family Guy for the shout-out. At the same time, it made me cautious about the cultural role that Buddhism is adopting in our world.
The cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek has an interesting critique of Western Buddhism. He argues that because Buddhism teaches us how to be accepting of what is arising in the present moment, it is actually the perfect spirituality to be co-opted into the consumer capitalist framework as a way to make ourselves feel spiritually protected while the world goes down around us in the flames of greed and aggression. Zizek’s view seems to be that acceptance (i.e., learning how to rest in the gap between our karmic conditioning and our reactive impulse) equals some kind of passive acquiescence to the status quo. Of course, anyone who practices meditation knows that acceptance is not about acquiescence. Acquiescence is about numbing out, but acceptance is a profoundly difficult practice of resting with the intensity of the gap. We cannot make different choices for our future, either personally or collectively, until we intuitively understand the psychological forces that have shaped the present. If we try to alter the future without fully understanding the present, we simply re-create the habitual problems of the past. This enslaving circular motion of habit is what it means to be lost in commute, caught up in samsara. This is why we practice “acceptance.”
It’s not really clear that Zizek cares much about the fate of Western Buddhism or even knows much about meditation, because his general analytic style is to use many different cultural phenomena as foils for his playful provocations about modern society. It’s quite possible that his analysis of Western Buddhism is just on par with Seth MacFarlane’s Family Guy mention, a provocateur’s method to gain a few easy laughs and stir people up. I understand this playful impulse completely, because I make fun of my own tradition all the time, too. Believe me—the only way to dedicate your whole life to something is to never take it, or yourself, too seriously.
But Zizek’s critique of the potential dangers of Western Buddhism becoming co-opted into a materialistic and privileged mindset should be very well heeded. To avoid the danger of Western Buddhism becoming a new form of spiritual materialism, we need to always place the practice of self-awareness within the context of being a decent and engaged citizen of our community. If we always open our eyes to the truth of interdependence, our personal practice will remain grounded in a larger human vision of a compassionate society, a vision to conquer greed and aggression as structural institutions of communal life. If we closely examine our own experience, we will cease using lazy arguments about the selfishness of human nature to accept confusion and human degradation as foregone conclusions. When Buddhists become known for being at the forefront of action regarding the larger social justice issues facing their communities and societies, only then will we have a meaningful response to accusations of self-obsession or spiritual narcissism.
Meanwhile, when I contemplate Ponlop Rinpoche’s teaching that “there should be no sign” that one is a Buddhist, I think he meant that we can try to live our life as a model example, without any cultural trappings. To do so, we need to stay relevant and fully involved in the communities in which we live, fully steeped in our own cultures, willing to embody our own time and place on this earth. For me, the teaching that “there should be no sign” that I am Buddhist means that normalcy and decency, grounded living, are the highest priorities. Spiritual accouterments are optional and are most likely just a distraction.
 *A May 28, 2014, article in Bloomberg’s Businessweek carried the deeply ominous headline “To Make a Killing on Wall Street, Start Meditating.”