Monday, April 9, 2012
My Struggle with Cosmology
I have a love/hate relationship with cosmology. I suppose it's a chicken and an egg kind of thing, at least in part. Some people seems to believe you need to develop a cosmology before you can decide what you believe. I tend to believe your cosmology grows out of your beliefs. For those who don't know, and I could hardly blame you if you didn't, cosmology is the branch of philosophy dealing with the origin and general structure of the universe, with its parts, elements, and laws, and especially with such of its characteristics such as space, time, causality, and freedom. In other words, it's how stuff works. It is not, and I am sorry to disappoint some of you when I say this, the study of cosmopolitan martinis, no matter how much you wish it were.
I mention all of this because I have had occasion to study with a somewhat controversial Tibetan Buddhist teacher. I like her very much, and some of her most senior students are quite wonderful - although some of her less senior students are profoundly immature, which concerns me - but my biggest problem is that I just can't get close to Tibetan cosmology, which she emphasizes. Tibetan Buddhism emerged when, oddly enough, Buddhism traveled to Tibet. As Buddhism enters a new country, it adapts somewhat to the local culture. In Tibet that meant that it absorbed some of the local, shamanistic practices. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, except that it leaves Tibetan Buddhism with a cosmology that's very hard for Westerners - or at least this Westerner - to access. There are also differences in the way Tibetans tend to do mantra practice or chant from the way just about every other Buddhist - and even some Tibetan Western Buddhists - or Christian does mantra practice or chant and I struggle with that, as well.
All of that having been said, I love the teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lama Surya Das, Lama Sumati Marut, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and a host of other Tibetan teachers who don't emphasize cosmology in their teachings to Western students, at least not on the level of their books, videos, public talks, and podcast teachings. What I am trying to sort out is whether we need a particular cosmology in order to understand the teachings of a tradition. I suspect not, because clearly the cosmology of the time of the Buddha (India in 2500 BCE) was not the cosmology of the time (or now) in any of the countries into which Buddhism traveled. What's more, the cosmology of First Century Palestine is hardly the cosmology of Twenty-first Century America, but that doesn't stop the teachings of Jesus from being understood and practiced.
In my more cynical moments, I think that many of the people attracted to Tibetan Buddhism are attracted to it because of the esoteric nature of the cosmology. All of that "secret knowledge" has great appeal to people who want to feel they are special without necessarily doing the difficult work of personal transformation. I have been trained to be nice to people no matter the circumstances, and that has not always served me well in life. I am much better than I used to be at walking away from people and situations that are harmful, but recognize that I have a harder time walking away from nice people who mean well but who offer something that, while it doesn't hurt me, doesn't really benefit me, either. On the other hand, I am not getting any younger and am not particularly inclined to give my time away just to make people happy.
One of the drawbacks of living in the Milwaukee is that there aren't many practice centers. There are plenty of Zen centers, a Shambhalla center, a Diamond Way center (don't get me started) and that's about it - but I am not really a Zen guy, and though I love Pema Chodron I am not so sure about Chogyam Trungpa, who had some pretty major personal issues for someone who was supposedly enlightened. If I lived in Chicago, or Madison, or Minneapolis, I could attend local Insight Meditation Centers - which is probably my true charism, as they work to establish American Buddhism - but with gasoline just under four dollars a gallon I really can't afford to make the one hundred fifty mile round trip journey to sit meditation with a group on a regular basis.
To be sure, this has been a bit of a rambling entry, but I suspect it reflects a struggle that many of us occupying the Buddhist/Christian spiritual space and don't live on either coast may be forced to confront. At what point does the benefit of sitting with a local group get outweighed by the eccentricities of that group and therefore listening to teachings from remote teachers and sitting alone (my practice) become most sound. I suspect I know my answer, and I also suspect that answer may be different for each of us.