'Organised Buddhism' is the term that I seem to have settled on to describe the phenomenon that I am in the process of exploring right now. It is 'organised', not to distinguish it from 'disorganised Buddhism' or the like. No. It is to suggest how Buddhist practice in this case comes within a framework of a collectivity with agreed principles, practices, approaches, and the rest. My purpose in this writing is not to give anybody a hard time, or to apportion 'blame'. It is to examine my own life, where it has gone and why; and what lessons can be learnt from all this, so they are not repeated. When I turn to the phenomenon of 'organised Buddhism' it is instructive to see how the original naked pure motivation of liberation of the individual can - and often does - so easily become subsumed under an umbrella of collectivity, with its norms, rules or guidelines, its 'this is the way to do things and not to do things'. How the collectivity insidiously takes on its own identity, with survival and aggrandisement as priority over everything else; its promotion of its own goodness, excellence, uniqueness.
In 'The Buddhist Inventory', April 28th, I illustrated the theme with the Hierophant, Tarot card number five, from the Rider-Waite deck as embodying the essence of organised religion, organised spirituality even. The Hierophant manifests orthodoxy, conformity, the established order, tradition in a sense. So much so that the card is sometimes referred to as the Pope.
I have a problem with the Hierophant: this is one way of looking at the some of the underlying themes of these pieces. A wander around the internet quickly showed me that I am not the only person with Hierophant issues. Nevertheless, there it is, a card in the Tarot, one aspect of the totality of experience to be undergone on the sacred path, should we read the Tarot in this way. In order to shed more light on the Hierophant, I decided to check out a different version, that from the Thoth Tarot deck of Aleister Crowley. Good old Aleister,always to the rescue! The Thoth deck is fascinating, as we might expect from a Tarot originating in the uneven wisdom of the Great Beast, and doesn't shy from the darker sides of reality. It is the Hierophant of the Thoth Tarot below.
A short but illuminating commentary on the Thoth Hierophant by Suzanne Wagner, readily accessible on Youtube, points up several salient details of Crowley's depiction. One is that around the head of the Hierophant, behind which can be seen a stained-glass window, is a dead snake. The serpent, as we know, is a manifestation of both sexual and spiritual energies. And in the case of the Hierophant, it's dead, stuck through with daggers. And standing beneath the Hierophant is the Egyptian goddess Isis. Her left hand holds a waning moon: the moon, filled with the energy of the sacred feminine, dwindles under the influence of formal religiosity, of the conventional and conformity. Organised religion, be it Christian, Buddhist, or other, will by its very nature have an uneasy relationship with the feminine, regarding it with suspicion at the least, or attempting to destroy it completely. The Thoth Tarot has the Hierophant's number.
Our true nature, in both its being and its becoming, is perfectly expressed in another figure from the Tarot, the Fool (Rider-Waite Fool shown at the beginning of this piece). The Fool, significantly, does not possess a number: he is zero, out of time, or present everywhere. He kind-of stands at the beginning of the Great Journey, and kind-of stands at the end. If we do the trip right, he is our companion every step of the way. And this, I have discovered, was my error, as I immersed my being more and more in organised spiritual life. I lost my prime identity, my visceral affiliation with the Fool. Or, I didn't lose it, but entered a state of amnesia. In the reality that is Tarot, the glorious Fool heads off on a marvellous adventure, the morning sun on his back. He travels light, with just a few necessary provisions wrapped in the kerchief he carries on a stick over his shoulder. His folly is that he walks with his head in the clouds, heedless of the precipice he is about to fall off - into disaster or freedom, nobody knows. The dog at his heels tries to alert him to the earth beneath his feet, to watch where he walks. Naive yet magnificently wise, the Fool treads his journey of life free - nobody could be further from the vice of organised religion than he.
To repeat what I said above: the problem with organised Buddhism, as with organised anything else, is that it becomes concerned with its own identity, and its own perpetuity, its survival through time. It takes itself too seriously, believes in itself in the wrong way. It is this unspoken agenda that fuels the rigidity, the standards, the do-it-like-this-or-you're-out. My former Buddhist teacher has become preoccupied, it would seem to me, with the preservation of his writings above all else, as a means of continued influence on the world of western Buddhism. He could, instead, trust in the divine and in the integrity of his disciples, and wander free like the Fool. But his chosen priorities are typical, I suggest, of the syndrome I am outlining here.
Were I to take on the mantle of the Hierophant and set up my own religious or spiritual organisation (heaven forbid), I would do it as an ongoing apprenticeship. Every three years, say, the disciple would go out into the wilderness for a fortnight to consider. With no prejudice, no holds barred, they would view their life, their current reality, and ask the question: do I wish to continue beneath this spiritual umbrella, or am I ready to go forth in all my glorious unique authenticity, taking and giving freely whenever and wherever seems fit? Can I walk the face of this magnificent Earth, my home, with the self-knowledge to penetrate its greatest mysteries, live fully its adamantine miracle, its eternal present? If so, I am free to go, with the deepest blessings of all I have struggled and loved and practiced with. It is The Way.
There is more that I wish to write on this theme. But I set out with a central question: how did I falter on my own way, and what lesson can be learned to avoid this repeating itself? In my writing, I have stumbled upon at least some of the answer.