Maladjusted Buddhism – A Guest Post by Nathan Thompson

Today we have a guest post by Nathan Thompson of Dangerous Harvests. Nathan is one of the most highly regarded Zen practitioner writers in the blogosphere today. In addition to his blog, he also writes for Life as a Human, an online magazine dedicated to “writing on topics such as personal growth, mindful living, humor, spirituality, relationships, social trends, and the issues that bind and divide us.” He is also a yogi and an activist based in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. The original post can be viewed here.

I read this fascinating talk that Martin Luther King Jr. gave during the last year of his life at the American Psychological Association’s annual conference. It immediately reminded me of how married convert Buddhist practitioners are to mainstream psychology, and how that isn’t necessarily a good thing. This passage in particular is worth considering in more detail:

There are certain technical words in every academic discipline which soon become stereotypes and even clichés. Every academic discipline has its technical nomenclature. You who are in the field of psychology have given us a great word. It is the word maladjusted. This word is probably used more than any other word in psychology. It is a good word; certainly it is good that in dealing with what the word implies you are declaring that destructive maladjustment should be destroyed. You are saying that all must seek the well-adjusted life in order to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities.

But on the other hand, I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.

Psychology as a discipline, “social psychologists” notwithstanding, has tended to focus on individuals and their varying levels of adjustment to mainstream norms. Pathology is basically understood as thoughts, behaviors, and patterns which do not conform to the norms, and also are significantly disruptive to the general functioning and well being of the individual displaying them. More often than not, there’s an attendant sense that the pathology also is significantly disruptive in some manner or another to others, and society in general. A person with bipolar, for example, is considered difficult to work with, moody, inconsistent, and a whole variety of unsavory characteristics. Instead of being viewed as a whole person with the vastness of depth of anyone else, they’re frequently reduced to a diagnosis and a certain subset of characteristics (which may or may not be enduring or consistent). It’s as if in order to be viewed as “healthy” and “socially adjusted,” there’s a certain level of “going along” required. A certain necessity to give up, suppress, or refine behaviors and patterns that are disruptive to the norms of society. If I have the impulse or desire to run naked in the streets, it’s probably a good idea for me to overcome that somehow. Lest I be viewed as “crazy” and “sexually perverse,” and if caught by the authorities, subject to all sorts of social penalties (fines, jail, sex offender registration, etc.)

Religions have similar conduct codes built into them, linking the well adjusted person to some form or another of divinity. For Buddhists, the enlightened one or Bodhisattva should quickly come to mind. Of course, anyone who has been around Buddhist teachings and narratives for awhile knows that things are more complicated than that. Well adjusted really doesn’t cut it when trying to describe the qualities of a Buddha. In fact, Buddhas sometimes act in ways that are completely in line with MLK’s “maladjustment.” They’re called to disrupt, sometimes severely, patterns of suffering and oppression. That’s their job in the world. And that’s what we practitioners are vowing to do when we chant the bodhisattva vows, for example.

And yet, I think for many convert Buddhists, a lot of that intelligent, enlightened maladjustment has been erased or downplayed. The aspirations we claim to make frequently seem fraudulent in a certain sense. “I vow to liberate all beings, but only if it doesn’t upset my neighbors, make anyone uncomfortable, or employ actions that aren’t ‘normal.’” The majority of convert Buddhists, in North America anyways, were born and bred middle class or higher up the economic ladder. And regardless of material status, with an allegience to middle class norms and values, including an inherent trust in the teachings and practices of psychology. It’s just a given, for example, that it’s wrong to steal and that anger is always a negative emotion, even if we feel justified in being angry about something.

When I consider many modern, convert interpretations of the Buddhist precepts, these middle class norms are all over the place. And they’re reinforced by concepts and practices of Western Psychology, which up until fairly recently, held the behaviors and patterns of white, heterosexual, middle class males as the highest standard of adjustment. The pole by which all is measured and techniques are sourced from.

While it may appear like I’m rejecting psychology outright, that’s absolutely not the case. I nearly double majored in psychology during my undergrad days, and have spent much of the decade or so I’ve been practicing Zen reflecting on various teachings from psychology and how they might apply to my life. And others. I have no interest in romanticizing psychological disorders, or advocating for some sort of loose, anything goes society. What I am interested in are the ways in which the meld of psychological understandings and Buddhist teachings reinforces white, middle class norms, and limits our understanding both of liberation and how that might unfold into action in the world.

We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.

Let’s consider the economic conditions statement. The majority of convert Buddhist sanghas have adjusted to the economic norms of global capitalism. They traffic in various forms of marketing and “selling” the dharma. They structure themselves in ways that diminish the concept of dana to monetary gifts. And they rarely, if ever, participate in opposing, advocate in favor of opposing, or even speak about opposing economic injustices, poverty, or the like. Taking any sort of deliberate stance on these issues is usually seen as “political,” or not in the realm of practice. It’s as if the Ox Herding pictures end at number 9, and returning to the marketplace is reduced to one’s family, friends, co-workers and immediate sangha.

In my view, the very ways in which global capitalism structure society and our individual lives by default, reinforce all of these issues with convert sanghas and their practitioners. Keeping the doors open requires money, and it’s easiest to just go along with what works for other non-profit, religious and spiritual organizations. Individual members need to work – usually full time – and are used to the dharma as product model of funding the organization. And speaking out or opposing economic injustice and poverty in deliberate, tangible ways can – and often does – cause a hell of lot of discomfort. It might disrupt the perceived harmony of the sangha. Furthermore, it can and sometimes does bring certain social penalities, including “negative” press and perhaps lost revenue from individuals or organizations tied to coporate interests. I think Buddhists in general throughout history have leaned towards being a more quiet presence in whatever society they’re living in. And certainly, there is no end to the list of examples of ways in which Buddhist insitutions have aligned themselves with political and social power brokers who built their livelihood on the suffering and misery of others (and exploitation of the planet).

But that isn’t the whole story. There are plenty of examples of sanghas and individual Buddhists – beginning with the Buddha himself on down to Thich Nhat Hanh’s order during the Vietnam war era and continuing today all across the globe – of Buddhists standing in the face of injustice. Speaking out against warfare, economic injustic, and oppression. And also doing various forms of action, from intimate service to those in dire need of relief to calling out the social power brokers and the structures that support them. In other words, while our practice has a strong inward bent it by nature, active engagement in the world is not an alien concept, nor should it be.

Our head teacher at zen center likes to say that zazen is a radical practice. That sitting down and attending to what is right now instead of remaining busy and hooked by our everyday concerns runs against the grain of our society.

I agree with her. Even with the rise of secular mindfulness programs, the art of stillness and dance of not doing are still very foreign in mainstream. Underappreciated and totally devalued.

Yet, this is only one end of the radical pole in my opinion. The other end being the art and dance of engaging in social concerns fully imbued with the teachings and our practice. The active bodhisattva, as opposed to some unobtainable archetype. As I see it, one of the tasks of my generation of convert Buddhist practitioners and those that follow is to help bring alive both ends of the radical pole. To become exemplars of maladjustment in the spirit of MLK’s teaching above. And part of the process will be to deeply and critically examine the ways in which white, middle class norms and particularly psychological norms have influenced our understanding of the Buddhist teachings in ways that compromise or limit them. And us.

*Hat tip to Nella Lou from Smiling Buddha Cabaret for the MLK speech.

  • Mike

    I really needed to read this today.
    Many thanks!

  • Craig

    “Our head teacher at zen center likes to say that zazen is a radical practice. That sitting down and attending to what is right now instead of remaining busy and hooked by our everyday concerns runs against the grain of our society.”

    Our everyday concerns are precisely what capitalism wants us not to deal with as they are all directly caused by it. To sit and not think is to allow the powers the complete dominance over us. There is nothing radical about it. It’s actually quite conservative and fundamentally capitalist.

  • mitaky

    Any convert not afraid to tackle a maladjusted bipolar “Koan on Capitalism” goto http://conscious-capitalism.blogspot.com


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