charlatans? self-help Buddhism (repost)

REPOSTED–thanks for your patience: I find I’m okay with being a grumpy old man after all…

There are numerous variations on self-help Buddhism. Self-help itself constitutes a cultural modality into which Buddhism has been appropriated. Although sometimes difficult, such efforts should be distinguished from actual efforts at dialogical inquiries, which attempt to create by bridging. (my thanks to Ann Gleig for helping me to draw this distinction)

Such self-help Buddhisms are usually constituted from

(a) some small kernel of teaching, whether presented as authentic/original/pure or essence/heart/core,

padded out with

(b) extensive claims that it has been re-formulated for either the unique needs of our contemporary times, or alternatively, the eternal and timeless quest for wholeness, fulfillment, our true selves, and

(c) quasi-scientific sounding references to the latest research—popular ones being abstruse theories of cosmology (such as quantum or string theory), evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience.

This sounds very much like John Ganz’s discussion of charlatans in a column in the New York Times. Though his concern is more directed to the social and political discourse of our present moment, it applies as well to self-help Buddhism. Referencing the analysis of medieval charlatans by Grete de Francesco, Ganz points out that:

simplistic reductions of social ills function the same way as quack medicine: They seem to provide a cure, but since they only further inflame the underlying fears, they are just driving their own demand.

Like the clowns he shared the town square with, a good charlatan could often juggle, simultaneously keeping up pretensions to scientific rigor and mystical profundity. The most sophisticated mountebanks employed a hodgepodge drawn from science, alchemy, astrology, myth and philosophy.

Central to self-help Buddhism is the reduction of complex issues to simple ones, ones for which there are simple answers. The rhetorical presentation of mindfulness as a panacea exemplifies this dynamic. (see Jeff Wilson’s study of mindfulness for instances of this)

Under the influence of neoliberalism, that reduction of complex issues to simple ones includes making everything personal. By narrowly focusing on the individual’s issues, the social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions of suffering (dukkha) are kept out of awareness. In light of the half-truth that I can only deal with my own life—keep my little corner of the world clean, as my grandmother might have admonished—the truth that the personal is the political has been forgotten.

An extreme version of such individualization of suffering is the transmutation of the teaching of karma into a vehicle for blaming the victim. Blaming the victim is central to the present-day systemic cruelty of punishing immigrants, removing labor protections, eliminating health care, and all the other elements of the current politically dominant mind-set. Converse to blaming the victim, though equally prone to cruelty, is the image of the heroic individual.

Heroic individualism is another almost invisible dimension of popular religious culture. It is taken for granted whenever practice is described in phrases that employ terms like “quest.” The hero’s quest, for example, was treated as the single fundamental form of myth by Joseph Campbell, in his superficial reinterpretation of Jung’s thought. But, Jung was specifically critical of the misappropriation of the technologies of yoga in the service of heroic individualism.

The heroic individual is disconnected from the social and its obligations, and indeed is willing in some cases to sacrifice those for his/her own fulfillment. Charlatans play on the ideal of the heroic individual, or offer a simple cure for whatever ails you. Such motivations, however, are not conducive to living in the complex messiness of one’s actual life.

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