The Demon's Sermon

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2021-03-31 21:00:00 No comments

Brad Warner has a video up on his channel about a subject he's discussed a number of times before, the notion of "the world of demons" in Buddhist study. It helped batch together a slew of thoughts I've been having about this stuff, so buckle your belts, this may get bumpy.

First, some background. One of the things Brad has been annoyed about for a long time is the way the secularization of Buddhism, Zen especially, has come at a cost that many of its own practitioners are not aware of.

Now, all spiritual practices tend to assume the shape of the cultures they're received into. That's how Zen itself happened: Buddhism fused with the practices and beliefs in China at the time it was brought there, and the resulting fusion found its way to other countries (Korea, Japan) where it underwent further mutation in that vein.

One of the issues that's long dogged at practitioners of Buddhism (and again, especially Zen) in the West is the whole question of what form Zen would take in Western societies. When the practices can be traced to a specific lineage, whether Japanese or Korean or Chinese, they tend to retain a lot of the trappings of that lineage. Some of them, like the lineage of Brad's own teacher Gudo Nishijima, de-emphasize the rituals and trappings in favor of the core practice. The argument for doing this, and I am inclined to support it, is that by doing so we place less emphasis on the cultural accretions around the practices and more attention to what the thing itself is supposed to be. Another teacher put it this way: we don't practice Zen to be Japanese or Korean or Chinese. (I can think of a couple of people right now, including one vestigial early self, who made that mistake.)

To that end, there's been a fair push to make Buddhism -- and again, Zen -- more mainstream by stripping it of cultural baggage. That includes the explicitly spiritual elements long attached to even Zen, such as all talk of "former lives" or "the world of demons" (more on that one in a minute). The rationale behind such a stripping-down is that by doing so, you make the whole package that much more appealing to people who are not inclined to deal with mamby-pamby spiritual stuff. (Or who already have some spiritual tradition, and think these things are zero-sum games.)

As well-intentioned as it is to secularize Zen, it comes at a cost. And that cost is, in some ways, the flipside of attempting to make all of this stuff a relentlessly scientific and rational enterprise, when many people are not in the habits of being those things.

Brad and many other teachers have spent a lot of time pointing out how the things in Buddhism that sound like goofy mysticism are really just metaphorical ways of talking about the experiences people have with it. Much of what the Buddha taught, as Gombrich pointed out and elaborated on in great detail, was couched in the metaphor and terminology of the time and place. For him, that happened to be the metaphor and terminology of Brahmanic culture. It was the language the Buddha's audience could connect with and make sense of, and so he used it to convey his understandings. The same goes for all the other localizations of Buddhism: they were expressed in the idiom of their moment and place. They had to be, because otherwise they would have found no foothold.

This is where "the world of demons" comes in. This is one of those things that Brad encountered in his own Zen study. It's nothing more than a term for the disturbing psychic displacement that many people experience after performing a good deal of meditation work. Most people who meditate tend to not do it for a very long time: they get bored of it and move on to something more interesting like making aircraft carrier models or running for public office. But those who stick with it, despite the initial boredom -- and that initial boredom can sometimes be years! -- eventually experience firsthand the subtle shifts in perception that come with the practice. Sometimes those shifts are not subtle. Sometimes they are disruptive, and without some kind of cultural conditioning beforehand, they can be hard to deal with.

In previous times this cultural conditioning was just the invocation of something familiar to someone in their life context. "The world of demons" sounds mystical and weird to most of us, but to someone from fifteen hundred to twenty-five hundred years ago, it was Something They Knew About. And one of the problems with trying to translate that to a modern-day metaphor like "anxiety attack" or what have you is that it takes something that should be personalized and intimate and turns it into ... well, a medical diagnosis. We don't really have a good modern language for this stuff, and we shy away from the archaic language because it's ... archaic! And so a whole cultural stream that has been refined specifically to deal with these very personal and often difficult issues gets tossed aside.

(It doesn't help, as Brad pointed out, that we have way too many people throwing themselves headlong into advanced meditation practices -- or encouraging others to do them -- with relatively little build-up. One doesn't start by going to week-long retreats.)

Western society is in a weird way spiritually. Word came to me earlier today about a survey that shows more people now don't have any kind of religious affiliation in this country than do have one. Much of that is young people deserting organized religion because they've seen firsthand its hypocrisies and inability to clean house. But people still need the same things that those institutions were originally devised to provide: a social context for our lives that stood apart, by purpose and design, from commerce or politics or leisure or aesthetics or pedagogy. We still need places to be spiritual -- maybe not all of us need that, but enough of us that the presence of the need matters to the rest of us, and so to the bunch of us collectively. We can fill that gap ourselves ... or we can have other people do it for us, and you can look to history to see how well that turned out.

I got involved in Buddhism-generally-and-Zen-specifically (I keep typing that formulation out of necessity) because I felt like it provided a better set of answers, in the form of a practice rather than a belief construction, to a lot of the doubts I had about all the things spiritual institutions were supposed to provide answers to. Most of them felt like they had failed miserably at that mission, and that was why I never bothered with them. I wasn't enough of a nihilist at heart to be a pure Epicurean, either, to just take my pleasures where I could find them and say the hell with everything else. And while it took me longer than it really should have for me to take Zen seriously enough to actually practice it instead of just reading about it or talking about it, better late then never, right?

I think any honest discussions about Zen, and specifically the practices secularized from it, need to take this into account. Zen is still trying to figure out what it needs to look like in its Western incarnation -- how much of the old traditions to keep, how much to drop, what new ones to invent. But that process needs to happen, both to give Zen the firm roots it needs to thrive in any new soil, and to stave off its commodification -- the turning of Zen into "mindfulness" (god, I hate that word), making it just another potted spiritual product to be consumed and eventually discarded. If we can't have this stuff with at least some of the context and tradition that made it so significant in the first place, we're not going to have any of it worth speaking of. Let alone practicing.

Tags: Brad Warner Buddhism Zen psychology