Ecstatic Buddhists… or Hell’s Angels?

Once a rebel, always a rebel, apparently.

Being a preacher’s kid, I was duty-bound to kick and scream against the religious institutions into which I was born and raised.

As a preacher’s kid who manifested charismatic phenomena at an early age, I learned better than to talk about my “attainments.” For one thing, there was no place for the ecstatic in my Presbyterian church. For another thing, what church leader wants some little kid telling him or her about the unity of all being? Maybe you know of such a person, but I certainly never ran across one.

Not until a few years ago did I find a spiritual home, a place through which I could connect with others who’d spent a lifetime wrestling with various manifestations of charismatic phenomena, having been stymied in their search for support and guidance at every other stop along the way.

Some members have been thrown into the loony bin, pumped full of pharmaceuticals and branded as lost souls. Others have histories of falling into descending spirals of drug abuse. Some lucky few found a level of support within their families, artist/musical communities, or from some free spirit teacher who passed briefly across their range of influence — but they’ve lacked a sustained, practice-oriented support system within which to flourish. Most of us, I’m sure, have done the best we can, relying on our wits to get along in the world despite a general sense that life holds no meaning. Personally, I found more succor amongst the bikers I grew up with in my neighborhood than I ever found with most of the well-meaning folks I’ve since encountered along the spiritual path.

Imagine my happiness and excitement, then, when I read these discussion forum words from a new friend in the Sangha (sorry, no link — you’ll just have to trust that I didn’t make it up!):

Throughout the history of almost every world religion there have been those that, by their own actions and thoughts, have been considered rogues / recluses / rebels by their respective cultural / spiritual communities. This is not a new social phenomena whatsoever.

Whenever someone does not conform to the “norm” of established religious dogma, they are generally perceived as not playing by the rules and for the safety of dogma preservation are kept at a friendly distance.

These spiritual rebels are of value in that they offer new and sometimes innovative insights into the overall understanding of that particular religion. They can be a reminder to both clergy and lay followers to think outside the box, to not allow their spiritual tradition to stagnate. They can help clarify and provide historical perspective in regard to a religion’s timely literature.

Those persons who are fortunate through their own efforts to obtain a degree of “attainment” should be respected and referred to when needed. But human nature being what it is, their “difference” and “intensity” may cause the unattained a degree of secular and spiritual discomfort. They appear to have the “keys to the kingdom” and even priesthoods can react as well as they feel short changed. “Why them” kicks into play.

If the spiritual community cannot find an approach to incorporating “attainment rebels” into the flock then maybe a respectful “keep them at a short distance” truce needs to be acknowledged. Unfortunately that more often then not isn’t the case.

As I read these words from my new friend, it occurred to me that I never consciously “broke the rules” or sought to overturn existing dogma. It’s just that, in my world and according to my kamma, I could never find guidance for the skillful use of ecstatic phenomena. In Fresno, California, you’d be hard-pressed to find a guru of any sort, let alone one who’d attained any level of Samadhi and could teach from a place of genuine attainment. Even when I moved to Boulder, which is situated along the “guru circuit” and affords the spiritual seeker all manner of spiritually-expansive opportunity, it took ten years before things fell into place.

Part of the journey involved connecting with the local Sangha, doing meditation retreats with established Dhamma teachers and immersing myself in Dhamma books propounding official doctrine — much of it based (I now know) on commentaries and “official” material written long after the Buddha’s time. While I fell in love with the Theravada tradition (and have an equally warm spot in my heart for the various Mahayana/Vajrayana expressions) — to the point of thinking seriously, along with my wife, about taking lay vows — I finally decided that an open, ongoing support dialogue around attainment — based on the Buddha’s actual teachings found in the Sutta Pitaka — was more important to me than adopting yet another religious practice that does not fully reflect my experience as a spiritual being.

Like many members of the Great Western Vehicle, I feel at home on the fringes of the wider Sangha — if, indeed, the wider Sangha conceives of an “ecstatic Buddhism” on the fringes of its spiritual domain. Speaking for myself and probably for a sizable bulk of the GWV, we are willing to plug along on the margins of the Buddhist world, where we are free to “break the rules” to our hearts’ content. We (assuming there are more like me — and I know there are!) would be even more ecstatic, however, if, like my new friend above, more brothers and sisters in the Sangha could find there way to a place of tolerance, acceptance and validation of the ecstatic community — who, after all, venerate the Phala Nikaya (and, indeed, the entire Sutta Pitaka) above all other meditation teachings — so that we may add our time and energy to the overall effort to bring enlightenment to all beings.

In any case, I thank my new friend in the Sangha, for walking the Buddhist talk while arguing for inclusion rather than exclusion, and for doing so with a great deal of skill. I can’t even tell you how this makes my day.


3 responses to “Ecstatic Buddhists… or Hell’s Angels?

  1. You know Michael I think you are destined to make a fine religious rebel-rouser. Maybe that is what the GWV is, the rebel-rouser of the sangha, who will point out time and again, if it is not bliss, joy and ecstasy, then it is not Buddhism. If only the Buddhist community could allow for an ecstatic form of Buddhism, then maybe we would not have to be rebel-rousers.

    Love to all, Jhananda

  2. Howdy Ma,

    Having made a good connection with my teachers, I am content to practice with family and friends and have no ambition to have myself or my group recognized or approved by any other worldly or spiritual authorities. This shameless, dope-smoking hippie has no desire to be invited to anyone’s table. I have the teachings in my heart, the freedom to practice and personally experience the graceful unfolding of realization. Like Milarepa, Patrul, Shabkar and thousands of hidden yogis in every generation, I have been given everything I need and feel nothing but overwhelming gratitude toward my lineage teachers. From this perch, desire for acceptance by this or that group looks like just another attachment, an ego-wound irrelevant to the business of liberation. Such validation seems more like an invitation to the eight worldly dharmas and Mara’s tricks; an object of questionable value to a real yogi, an endless source of complaint, distraction and dharma-politics. It is historically true and still not uncommon that some Buddhist schools deny the validity of other ‘buddhist’ paths. Despite this, a wide variety of schools has evolved. To account for some of the contradictions between approaches, the Nyingmapa have outlined nine basic vehicles in recognition that there exist a variety of valid paths for different mindsets.



  3. Hi Craig,

    It’s amazing how, when I read what you’ve given us here, I feel almost 100% in accord with you.

    I am the most contented person I know (mainly because I know so few others at this point in life’s game), with zero ambition for this or that worldly aim. I’ve been like this as long as I can remember, although Lord knows I’ve chased after Mara in many of Her forms — always knowing in the back of my mind that the pursuit is ridiculous, that the Void can never be filled.

    This stuff about seeking validation from the Sangha comes out of an ongoing experience within an ecstatic community that has arisen along the lines described in this post. A bunch of ragamuffins we are, with a single common trait: one way or another, bliss, joy and ecstasy have either arisen, or there is an unfathomable NEED for this platform to arise. This is my spiritual family, having come together inexorably over time, filled with beings I would never have expected to run into this lifetime.

    Most of these past 15 years or so, I’ve been living in a cave. I have not given a damn about any religious tradition, teacher, group or movement. Right now, however, I notice that it’s “my time,” and for the first time in my life I’m saying yes to a Calling — or at least I think that’s what’s happening here! It’s not even about me, Craig — I would be happy and contented in my little house with my wife, my books, our meditation room and our crappy little jobs. But that’s not what’s happening anymore.

    I figure that things won’t change any time soon in terms of mainline Buddhism recognizing the reality of an ecstatic movement on the fringes. I suppose it’s not that important; most of the GWV is used to living without validation or recognition, and it doesn’t matter a whit — other than the fact that ecstatic Buddhists actually do exist, the Buddha actually did teach an ecstatic practice, and it’s probably not such a bad thing for this perspective to be made available for those who would benefit from it. After all, what’s to lose by putting availing ourselves of Destiny, if Destiny decides it’s time for bliss, joy and ecstasy to re-emerge as the cornerstones of Buddhism?

    Man, I am soooooo happy to have met you in this life. You’re a good egg….

    Un abrazo,

    So be it, yes?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s