the buddhist syndrome

There is one, indeed. And anyone who’s hung out for any length of time in buddhist circles knows what I’m talking about…

Tibetan teachers talk about it too. The other day I watched the first talk in a weekend program given by Khandro Rinpoche in 2007, and she spends a good deal of time on it there. I was pleased to hear her thoughts about it and am transcribing some of the relevant moments for another post.

Khandro Rinpoche

The talk in general concerns the “four karmas,” ie the four kinds of enlightened action. Nearly always these are taught with regard to their outward manifestations, which is to say: how to work with them in helping others. But Khandro Rinpoche turns this around and treats them as aspects of self-work. “Pacifying” then becomes the cultivation of stillness, “enriching” the practice of virtue, “magnetizing” (or, as she also terms it, “empowering”) as the development of confidence (in the tremendous power of the mind) and courage, and “subjugating” as the process of taming the mind.

She introduces this approach by discussing what I’m calling “the syndrome.” Another phrase I sometimes use for it is: “using the absolute to beat up on the relative.” She talks about this as a tendency for buddhists to feel they need to suppress intentions and motivations that are self-directed. So there is a lack of honesty operating, which is quite destructive.

Far better, she says, to be truthful about the fact that, yes, we do wish to become realized beings, free from all fear, living embodiments of wisdom-compassion powerfully able to help many many beings. And at the same time we don’t wish to suffer ourselves: we would like to live long and healthily, fulfill our potential, feel useful, and everything else.

But by suppressing our hopes for ourselves a kind of phoniness can creep into the way buddhists relate to each other. It’s long been pointed out – and is quite true! – that buddhists often treat non-buddhists far better than they treat each other. Conversation can become – in Khandro Rinpoche’s words – quite “fabricated,” “pretentious.” Tricky, ungenuine.

There is a constant underlying sense of something like guilt operating – because we tend to feel we ought to be more “advanced” than we actually are – so the relationship between relative reality and absolute reality is not understood properly, leading to much confusion. And then, worse still, that confusion gets projected out at others – generally at fellow buddhists – in the form of unkindness, lack of generosity, even cruelty.