Three Buddhists Walk into a Bar

By Kiera Van Gelder

Three Buddhists walk into a bar. A Hinayana, a Mahayana, and a Vajrayana. The Vajrayana demands the highest stool, the Mahayana offers her body as a stool and the Hinayana sits in the corner breathing, ignoring the disparaging looks thrown his way.

Another three Buddhists come through the door. And then another three. And yet more. One is Cambodian, another Thai, Nepalese, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese… until the bar is filled with fluttering robes, shaved heads, incense, chants and prayers in a cacophony of languages.

The door opens again and a whole new group of practitioners arrive: the Western contingent. Seekers, therapists, physicists, hippies, scholars, anthropologists, doctors, recovering addicts, plumbers, artists. Most are disillusioned by the canned products or shifty shopkeepers at the Mall around the corner.

They sort themselves out among the robed teachers, receive the wished-for and varied drinks of ambrosia. Some of the therapists are prostrating to the Rinpoches, the recovering addicts are sitting cross-legged meditating, and the scholars are recording and translating the words of sacred texts. Some Westerners begin to build new stools, with more comfortable padding. Welcome to the bar of Buddhisms, where East meets West and all are seeking enlightenment.

Things seem to be going fine until unenlightened behavior begins seeping through the cracks of holiness. One teacher amasses a fleet of Rolls Royces while his students live in poverty. Another drinks himself to death while his students extol his virtues. Between the chanting and the silence arise whispers and secrets. Fragrant incense carries the whiff of rotting sanctity.

There is a tremendous potential for abuse in this idea of trying to see all the behavior of the guru as pure, of seeing everything the guru does as enlightened. I have stated that this is like a poison. – HH the Dalai Lama

Rinpoches seduce and bed pretty young girls as means of enlightenment. The Zen masters demand women show their breasts as a way to shed ego clinging. Molestation mudras and koans of sexual submission baffle genuine student intent. Can a Buddhist master be enlightened and still willfully harm others? Questions of ethics are met with authoritative accusations:

These Western students lack commitment and faith in Buddhism’s authenticity. Their relativistic minds cannot grasp the means of transcending ego. These students should have known what they were getting into.

For someone from the West entering traditional Buddhist practice, we all must walk into this bar. And unfortunately for most of us, we get drunk and go home with the first teacher we meet. We hope that someone in that room can offer us a clear path out of the overwhelming suffering and confusion of life. We hunger for the “authentic” and the “legitimate” in a world progressively deteriorating into façade. Feeling disempowered, we receive “empowerments” from teachers who proclaim a pedigree traced unbroken to the Awakened One.

Walking into the bar, we carry a deep, vulnerable need: we want that drink, the pure elixir of a fix, to repair ourselves, our lives, the word we live in. We want to go home with the person who will make us all right. And it’s overwhelmingly appealing and seductive, when these Buddhisms greeting us promise delivery through practice and trust, when they promise freedom, liberation, peace of mind, and happiness by unquestioningly following their paths.

If we were to imagine at this juncture the historical Buddha walking into the bar, what would he relate to? What would be an accurate reflection of his teachings and experience?

Would he support the Tibetan Rinpoche’s status as an enlightened reincarnate? Would he admire the acclaimed master’s perfidy as “crazy wisdom”? Would he condone some practitioners’ wholesale withdrawal from worldly affairs for the sake of non-attachment? And perhaps the most pressing question: Are any of the truths he experienced sitting alone under that famous tree practiced in the Bar of Buddhisms?

The issue, if a student goes deeply into the historical tradition of the Buddha’s life and the original Pali canon, cannot be so simplistically resolved. The Buddhisms in the bar all contain the foundations of his wisdom, but it is equally the case that each Buddhism has been brewed in a particular culture, swirled into an already established world view and social structure. Buddhism ferments with time’s progression.

Though considered by many as immutable, the Buddha’s teachings cannot escape the effects of time and place. To say otherwise denies an experiential foundation of the Dharma itself: The fact of impermanence. Buddhist practice prompts us investigate and know firsthand that all things change. So a question must be raised: Is Buddhism immune from the truths it helps reveal?

When we go into the bar looking for a significant relationship and end up taking home the first “Master” we meet, it would be in our interest to know more about where he (or on the very rare occasion, she) comes from; what cultural mores will be reflected in his status and structure of teaching, if his world view includes women as equal to men, spiritually and otherwise; if the Buddha’s eightfold path and ethical accountability of behavior is bypassed or embraced.

It would be well to question whether all the bowing, chanting, offerings, visualizations, detachments, meditations and personal surrendering of reason and logic are part of the Dharma. We must start to ask- are those who practice Buddhism truly honoring their vows of non-harm, to themselves and to each other? For we know, deep in our hearts, there was no secret 9th path legitimizing Dharma teachers to harm those who trust them. We also know, despite the many injunctions placed on sangha not to “gossip” or “speak badly of the teacher,” that silently witnessing abuse is not a spiritual practice. Allowing abuse and practicing compassion cannot co-exist.

An often quoted, and just as often contested, teaching of the Buddha is found in the Kalama Sutra. The Kalama seekers asked the Buddha how to discern the truthfulness professed by so many teachers. His answer (translated variably but with much consistency) is this:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them.

Have I, in practice and seeking, heeded these words? I have not. To my own determent, I didn’t question my teacher’s behavior because I wanted him to lead me to liberation. I was drunk with a seduction, and not simply by the teacher. My thirst eclipsed common sense. Caught in the bar, seeking answers, I rarely left the room to sit under a tree and open myself to the deep inquiry beyond all human construction. My drunkenness fed off the rituals, the bows, the sitting at the feet of a man who “knew” and when the Rinpoche touched me sexually, with his promise that “the closer you are to me, the closer to awakening” I wanted to believe him, even as my body and mind rebelled.

It’s been a painful detox for me. And for many years, I felt like the victim of a cruel hoax: That teachers and communities claiming compassion and wisdom as their highest aspiration could inflict such pain on others. I eventually walked out the door. Or rather I half stumbled, half fled away from the cobbled stools, cut from trees meant for us to sit beneath. Back inside, my teacher reached for another young female student.

The Buddha’s teachings were all based on experiential awareness. Sitting in awareness, walking in awareness, relating in awareness: he achieved this realization alone. Perhaps that act will be the greatest challenge to all Buddhisms.

Just as Buddhism cannot escape the truth of impermanence, its essential practice destroys the structures seeking to hold onto inherited knowledge and authority.

While some will say “I have the most authentic drink,” and remain in the bar, I am learning to take my seat under a tree. “I have learned to be ordinary,” another woman who left the bar told me. “Buddhanature is who I am. No one can give it or take it away from me.” Perhaps that is why, upon awakening, the Buddha touched the ground as witness. His gesture was not ritualistic. His awakening brought him fully into life.


Kiera Van Gelder, MFA is the author of the memoir “The Buddha and the Borderline.” She has studied Vajrayana, Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism. She lives in Ojai, California, surrounded by trees.

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