Friday, November 24, 2017

Why I No Longer Study Kadampa Buddhism

Some years ago, while unhappily attending grad school in Phoenix, I picked up this book on a whim:

I chipped away at it each day on my long bus commute and attended a few temple services in town, but neither the book nor the lectures gave me any insight into solving my personal problems. In fact, I felt much worse, so I put those readings and ideas aside for awhile, thinking maybe I would try again later.

Over the next couple years, after I left school and resumed full-time work, I occasionally attended Zen, Kadampa, and Shambhala services in Green Bay, Madison, and Chicago. I really liked the Kadampa tradition's Prayers for World Peace and attended that service every Sunday for months, feverishly scribbling notes and reading more about the concepts.

I'm taking care to specify the Kadampa tradition of Buddhism because there are many Buddhist traditions all around the world, and monks in Tibetan monasteries would probably barely recognize the Buddhism that's marketed to us white middle-class Americans today.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the Kadampa teachings and their focus on inner peace during everyday frustrations, and I felt they were helping me a lot. I had spent two years on the corporate hamster wheel in Madison and Chicago, so when I moved to Florida in December of 2015, the idea of Buddhism on sunny St Pete Beach was immensely appealing.

I decided to study the Kadampa tradition more seriously in Florida. I attended teachings 2-3 times a week, volunteered with remodeling the new temple in downtown Tampa, read countless books on Buddhist philosophy and decision-making, listened to Dharma lectures in my free time, and hung out with other practitioners. My favorite temple ritual was taking the Eight Mahayana Precepts, which is a 24-hour vow to abstain from killing, stealing, sex, lying, intoxication, sitting on high or luxurious seats, wearing cosmetics or perfumes, dancing, singing (except for Buddhist chants), and eating more than one special (preferably vegetarian) meal at 12:30pm. In other words, to sort of live like a monk/nun for a full day. Which was easy for me because I was pretty much born square.

Apparently the Eight Steps to Happiness book mentioned above was intended for the advanced practitioner, so I went back and began reading the beginner books, which were far easier to digest.

Pretty colors and enticing titles by the current Kadampa guru. Image from

The main premise is that humans cling to, crave, and chase impermanent things under the delusion that getting our own way and attaining "stuff" will make us happy, but then we're still miserable once we get those things. If we train our brains to stop clinging, craving, and chasing ("self-grasping"), to stop seeing ourselves as separate individuals and instead see ourselves as one giant soul, and cultivate inner peace and contentment, we'll experience true mental freedom and lessen our own and others' suffering. If everyone trained their brain like this, there would be world peace. There have been hundreds of Buddhas throughout history, not just one, and everyone has the potential to become enlightened (a Bodhisattva or Buddha) if they follow the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddhas) faithfully.

Some methods of brain training include:
  • Slowing down, breathing, meditating ("taming the monkey mind")
  • Practicing compassion ("loving kindness") towards all living things in every instance
  • Benefiting as many living things as possible, or at least refraining from causing harm
  • Accepting things as they are instead of forcing them to be different. (Instead of forcing the world to change to meet your demands, change yourself to be at peace.)
  • Keeping all your daily expectations neutral or indifferent
  • Finding the positive in everything instead of constant fault-finding
  • Seeing your emotions with the same detachment as observing passing clouds
  • Exercising moderation in everything and avoiding extremes of any kind ("taking the middle way")
  • Giving up trying to be right all the time. (How can you be sure your opinion is the best opinion in the whole universe when there's SO much we don't know? Instead of arguing and fighting, "gladly hand your enemies the victory.")

Sounds nice, doesn't it? Especially in a world already overflowing with conflict and anger.

I liked that the Dharma are not authoritarian rules, but simply recommendations for peace and happiness. I liked how they're the total opposite of capitalist exploitation and the "American Dream." I liked that Buddhism is largely secular and does not require belief in any imaginary being. I liked that the central focus is on daily peacemaking and not judgment and vengeance. I liked learning the rituals and chants and the reasons for them, and I liked feeling mentally clean after leaving. I liked taking off my shoes and prostrating--it made me feel like an active, engaged participant. I liked how every Kadampa temple I visited, no matter where, was clean and quiet, the colors were soothing, and the people at Sangha seemed so wise and serene. The outside world was loud and obnoxious and brutal, and crossing the temple threshold was like stepping into Rivendell or something. I wanted to be at temple or Sangha all the time, and wondered if becoming an ordained Buddhist nun at some point would be a good choice.

So there I was in Florida, reading Buddhist literature on the beach all afternoon, delivering pizza by night, and wondering if I should become a vegetarian nun in a religion that said if I happily let go of my ego and devoted all my time and energy to loving kindness, I'd upgrade my angry, frustrated human brain to a peaceful, Buddha-like brain. If I refrained from fighting for change, disagreeing with others, hustling for money or titles, desiring or expecting particular outcomes, or planning exciting things for my own selfish amusement, I would move towards enlightenment and eventually grow into a wise old sage.
I diligently filtered every thought through that perspective for about 5-6 months, believing I would be wiser and happier for it.

What happened, however, is that eventually my energy, inspiration, motivation, and will to live drained to flatline zero.

Buddhists focus a lot on not causing harm--to yourself, to other people, to animals, or to the environment. You're encouraged to carefully think about all the ways you unintentionally cause harm in your daily actions and either stop or minimize those words and actions. They speak a lot about unintended consequences, about forcing "progress" on a situation only to end up trading one set of problems for another--or worse, creating a bigger mess than when you started.

For instance, we feel lonely so we date and eventually get married, but after a while, married couples often hate each other and end up with a bitter, expensive divorce and messy custody arrangements. Net gain: 0. Or we work really hard to get a high-paying job, only to find ourselves exhausted with a bleeding ulcer from the stress. Net gain: 0. Or we invent and drive cars to make transportation fast, comfortable, and easy, but now we've got pollution, traffic jams, road rage, drunk drivers, high obesity rates due to lack of exercise, and bloody, endless wars fought over oil. Net gain: 0.

Inbound to Chicago. Image from

So I often wondered, What was the point of doing anything if pretty much all human activity beyond basic survival was an exercise in dissatisfaction, of spinning your wheels with the end result of trading one set of problems for another? What was the point of getting out of bed if 95% of my activities were supposedly delusional and indirectly causing suffering somewhere in the world? What was the point of protesting injustice if the "solution" would only be a different set of problems? Climate change, corporate greed, political corruption, police brutality, social inequality, street harassment...did my ego really believe I had the best answer to all these problems? How preposterous! I'm just one little person out of billions; I don't know the best way, so my activism will only make a bad mess worse.

I asked a nun-in-training at temple for her thoughts on a book passage I'd read regarding Buddhist "sacred anger." The idea was that it's noble to be angry at things that are harming other beings, and to work towards lessening the source of harm.

This woman literally laughed in my face. Mouth wide open, all her teeth showing, throwing her head back, shrieking and cackling with laughter for several minutes while I stood there like a moron. When she caught her breath, she told me that any form of anger is a delusion that clouds our mind and will always lead to faulty decisions and poor outcomes. The right way is to always act out of love, with a peaceful and focused mind.

Kadampa Buddhists say the brilliant, legendary Maya Angelou is full of shit.

So I kept trying to straighten out these teachings in my head. I decided I wouldn't disagree with or protest anything until I figured out the most enlightened way to address horrible things in the world.

But even small daily actions that used to make me happy, like making art, seemed harmful. I love paper crafts (my own selfish amusement that benefits no one!), but paper items come from trees, and materials like paint and glue are toxic, and pens and markers are made of plastic which is harmful to the environment and often manufactured with unfair labor in punishing conditions.

Another example is reading. I love to read. But books are made from paper, and both paper manufacturing and recycling are harmful to living things. Even library books are covered in plastic sheeting and plastic barcode stickers, and library cards and checkout machines are plastic. But if you give up paper books and use a Kindle instead, well, Kindles and tablets and other gadgets are made from plastic and batteries filled with toxic chemicals from strip mines, all of which are non-biodegradable and make factory workers deformed and deathly ill.

Every action I could think of was harmful in some way, and I second-guessed every word I spoke. Was that statement my ego talking, or was it really truthful, kind, and necessary? Was it really, though? I felt like the worst, most harmful, useless, and worthless person in the world. Eating any non-organic crumb, driving a gasoline-powered car on concrete/asphalt roads, sleeping in a building that was cooled by fossil fuels, showering with water that was heated by fossil fuels, using a phone made of plastic and chemicals--all leading me away from enlightenment. I also couldn't afford to become a nun until my student loans were paid off, and I wasn't sure how I could pay off my student loans without a better job, i.e. grasping for greater wealth by exalting myself and telling employers or clients, "Hire me! I'm better than others!"

My other, more pressing problem with these teachings was that I'm already one of those women who's way too nice and has doormat tendencies. If someone is rude to me for no apparent reason, I immediately assume it's because they're smart and I'm stupid and I deserve to be belittled. If someone seems unhappy, I'm sure it's because I did something to piss them off, and I worry about it all day. If someone points out a small mistake I made, I berate myself about it for weeks. If someone asks me to do them a favor, I say yes and do it right away, even if I don't have time, even to my detriment, and I do it to a much higher standard than they had in mind. I have difficulty saying no and establishing boundaries, so breakups always feel like the best part of a relationship to me--the part where I finally gather up the courage to tell someone to stop mooching off me, assaulting my body, and monopolizing all my time.

I wish I was kidding or exaggerating.

As someone who's struggled with unshakable self-loathing for decades, the daily practice of turning the other cheek and joyfully being the world's punching bag (i.e. never standing up for myself) was not making me happier at all.

It just compelled me to sleep a lot and feel sad and do nothing.

"You're doing it wrong," my three Buddhist chums told me. "This is the way toward happiness, and if you're feeling unhappy, then you're misunderstanding it," one said. These friends were each about 5-10 years older than me, two from the Kadampa tradition and one from Shambhala, and each had been practicing for much longer than I had. They informed me that Buddhists do, in fact, have goals to look forward to. They make art, read, travel, and make plans for the future, but only for the express purpose of studying or spreading the Dharma. They do these things for free, with as few resources as possible, and donate any proceeds from lectures or book sales to charity, all of which brings them great joy. Because the vast majority of your energy should be focused on loving other living beings and doing what you can to relieve their suffering. This will in turn shrink your ego and make you happy.

Do I have a big, out-of-control ego, though? As a working-class woman who has already been socialized my whole life to be small, quiet, subservient, and invisible so that I don't step on anyone's toes or incur the disapproval of Big Important Men, do I really need to be even smaller, quieter, more subservient and invisible? 

The interesting thing was that after a while, of those three Buddhist friends, I noticed that Friend #1 was easily irritated by little things all around him.

Friend #2 turned out to be a manipulative gaslighter who ghosted me.

Friend #3 was a boastful, condescending gossip.

All were completely full of themselves and not good examples of living the Dharma at all.

This is when my "faith," if you want to call it that, really started to crack--when I noticed that the non-Buddhists in my social circle were consistently kinder and more pleasant than the Buddhists. Not to say all Kadampa practitioners are pretentious jerks, but I really started to wonder about the long-term effects on personality and mental states these practices might have. Yeah, these people are imperfect, fallible humans like anyone else and they were trying hard and doing the best they could, but more than once I wondered why my atheist friends were more loving than than my religious friends.

That's when it occurred to me that practicing religion is like dieting. The paradoxes are the same. The harder you try to be skinny--carefully calculating your proteins and carbs and calories and meal times and supplements and whatnot--the more you screw up your metabolism and your relationship to food and the more you struggle with your weight. But if you just trust your natural instincts to eat whatever you want when you're hungry and stop when you're full, you can keep a steady, healthy weight without much effort. Dieting is counterproductive.

Likewise, the harder you try to be a righteous person--carefully monitoring every thought, word, habit, behavior, relationship, and following a structured philosophy and committing to a religion and whatnot--the more you start behaving like a freak and screwing up relationships with friends and family and inadvertently being an intolerable prick, starting armed cults and holy wars and shit. But if you just relax and trust yourself and don't worry about it too much, you'll make more appropriate, sensible, and morally sound decisions. Religion is counterproductive.

The other thing that bugged me was the idea of karma, which according to several Buddhist lectures, Americans in general often have a hard time accepting. Well, probably because there's zero evidence for it. There are much simpler and more substantiated explanations for why some creatures are small, simple, and operate solely on instinct, or why some humans are born very rich or very poor. Any Biology 101 or Anthropology 101 class can outline those details. What really pissed me off is that some American Buddhists use karma to justify their version of the Prosperity Gospel. In response to the Occupy Wall Street movement, one Buddhist lecturer in Phoenix told us that rich people are rich because of accumulated merit. "Don't be angry at the rich!" she said. "They've been through many incarnations to get to the high place they are today! They've done great deeds in previous lifetimes and are now reaping the blessings! We should have great respect for them as wise, enlightened beings!"

Arizona is a red state, but for fuck's sake, do people like that honestly mean to say Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and Donald Trump are some of the most enlightened beings in the world? Or that impoverished children in famine-stricken areas are starving to death because they stepped on a bug in a "previous lifetime"?

I finally just stopped bothering going to temple or reading any more Kadampa books and went to the beach with art books instead. It was during that soft limbo period when I was no longer practicing but hadn't fully rejected the concepts that I was approached by Young Guy. That young, uneducated, unread, untraveled, immature guy who under normal circumstances I would never have associated with at all, much less slept with. But after many months of Buddhist philosophy, which teaches that we shouldn't think highly of ourselves because we are no more important or worthy than the other 7 billion people on the planet, what did it matter that this random gamer guy and I had drastically different world views and disparate education levels, and pretty much nothing in common? We're not separate individuals; we're one big interconnected soul!

Well, as I was sorely reminded, being too accepting, too nice, too loving, too forgiving, too accommodating was a huge mistake. (Funny how political debates don't mention the angry, nasty men who badger women into getting abortions when the women want to keep the baby, huh? Where are the pro-lifers there?)

Anyway, as a woman, the last thing I need is to be kind to men and put their needs first. They instinctively put their own needs first already. They don't need any help.

What I need is to be assertive and blunt and to stand up for myself, especially to men. When some guy blows through a stop sign then screams at me calling me a "stupid bitch," I don't need to be nice. When I point out to a male coworker that he's doing something unethical, destructive, or sexist and he laughs at me, I don't need to be nice. When a date criticizes my appearance out of the blue and offers unsolicited advice on how I can be prettier, I don't need to be nice. When I live in a culture that values fuckability, silence, and servitude in women above all else, I don't need to be nice.

The last thing I need to do, especially in this political climate, is to be silent in the face of injustice. 

The last thing I need is to volunteer to be the world's punching bag. When people see a punching bag, they punch it. And laugh. And tell all their friends to do the same. Which the friends excitedly do.

If you have any sort of background in the hard science of human behavior, you know that peace and kindness are not natural for humans, especially for young males. Peace is a temporary social construct and is biologically unsustainable because humans get great pleasure from conflict. We're bloodthirsty animals and we love romantic songs about warfare and, as a species, we think violence is hilarious and exciting. We support worship our troops--armies of people who are trained killing machines--and turn a blind eye to the immorality of their mission. And what are sports but contrived conflict for entertainment? You can't talk peace into a species that rewards UFC fighters with adoration and millions of dollars.

It's a savage, violent, vicious world out there, and kindness will not often serve you as a woman. It simply doesn't make sense in this culture. Taming humans is about as useful as trying to turn great white sharks into vegans.

Kadampa Buddhism is probably great personal-skills training for narcissists and people on power trips. But I don't think it's helpful to women like me who are struggling to find their voice and establish personal boundaries.

I'm sick of gladly handing others the victory. I'm sick of letting people get away with walking all over me. I'm sick of being used and saying nothing about it. I'm sick of giving and giving and getting nothing back. I'm sick of smiling at people who treat me like shit. I'm sick of giving my power away to stupid people who don't deserve it.


I want to be a formidable opponent.

I don't want to be casually indifferent, either. I want to care deeply. I want to fight for justice. I want to stand up for myself and for the vulnerable. I want to work hard, to hustle and strive and accomplish things. I want to schedule fun things to look forward to. I want to travel and make a lot of art. I want to do scary and challenging things. I want to stay active and busy and productive. I want to learn hand-to-hand combat. I want to punch someone in the face as hard as I can. I want to feel alive!

Again, it all comes back to this extremely wise woman.

I no longer study Kadampa Buddhism because, for me, the age of being too nice has passed.

Watch your back, asshole.