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A dark night of the Buddhist Soul

I was listening to my podcasts on the way home from a weekend in Devon. Daniel and I are both avid podcast consumers and I have a bunch downloaded for long car journeys like that.

Since they’re arranged rather randomly on the iPhone I never know which is coming next. So I was rather startled to hear the voice of Vince Horn the host of “Buddhist Geeks” come onto the speakers. Buddhist Geeks has been a staple of mine for many years. Combining as it does two passions: technology/social media and Buddhist practice. It’s an eclectic potpourri of interviewees from all different strands of contemporary dharma. All being enthusiastically questioned by the ‘geeky’ host, Vince Horn.

The sound of someone having a Buddhist dark night of the soul

Usually, he has a bouncy, puppy-like reverence and enthusiasm for his theme but here he sounded sombre and as if he were recording late at night, all on his own, baring his soul. Indeed, he does indeed bare his Buddhist soul in this episode which is (slightly dramatically) called “Glimpses from the Bardo”. (The bardo being the Tibetan Buddhist space between one life and another.) To my surprise – since I last tuned in, – it seemed that Buddhist Geeks had come to an end, last year and this recording was a message from beyond the grave.

It’s worth listening to if only to hear what the sound of someone having a Buddhist dark night of the soul sounds like. Because all his years of geeky enthusiasm for Buddhism seems to have curdled completely. He was unremittingly critical and down on “Buddhism” and, by extension, quite a number of Buddhist practitioners. With a slightly irritating sweep (one that podcasters – myself included – are prone to), he spoke of the failures of Buddhism and Buddhist meditators as if that were a coherent entity and not a projection of his own experience.

Kill the Buddha, if you see him in the road

The truth is, however, that there is no such thing as Buddhism. The very word is a Victorian coinage. The technicalities of ‘lineage’ and protocol that so disappoint Horn have actually always been one of the targets of true dharma practice. Almost all schools of Buddhism highlight the danger of solidifying “Buddha” or “Buddhism” into a brittle thing. And towards the end of the path, they all recommend jettisoning any idea of “being a Buddhist” or even the concept of “enlightenment”. Zen famously counsels practitioners to “Kill the Buddha, if you see him in the road”. Theravadan dharma clearly states that clinging to any concept of a path or an idea of becoming enlightened is a hindrance along the path of liberation.

So it seems a little over-dramatic for Horn to be announcing his disillusion with dharma as if he had just discovered Mars. It’s also rather patronising to assume that all the other millions of dharma practitioners around the world have got caught on the same conceptual (and I might add, egoic) thorns as he has.

Wrestling with the demons along the path

Despite his Debbie Downer tone, later into the 1-hour podcast he does talk about a return to practice. Unsurprising under the auspices of my teacher, Reggie Ray, (who has a lot to say about the redundancies of traditional Buddhism). But I think the most valuable thing about the podcast is the permanent record of this. Undoubtedly really intelligent, committed and thoughtful – young man’s wrestling with the demons along the path.

I’d love to know your thoughts about Buddhism. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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