Scoring material goods from Buddhists

There’s some combination of irony and sadness in this story, I can’t really tell you how much of each you should feel.

For a number of months I’ve been listening to the lectures on Buddhist thought from the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City.  I am not a Buddhist, and I share the same attitude towards joining clubs that Groucho Marx had.  But the lectures are very good, devoid of anything resembling religion.  One of my pet peeves is Buddhists (or anyone, including any kind of spiritual people) that start talking about entirely new forms of physics.  Start talking about "karmic winds", "mental energy", and so forth and you lose me, unless you are a physicist.  And physicists are in very short supply when spiritual discussions break out.

So the nearest thing I’ve been able to tolerate spiritually without wanting to throw something are the lectures given by Gil Fronsdal at the IMC.  He mostly focuses on mastering control of your emotions, and recognizing when you’re letting them run away with you.  While it is a Buddhist practice, it’s also valuable for anyone who’s been behind the wheel and lost their cool leaning on their horn, or screaming at another driver, etc. 

Sometimes Fronsdal records both his lecture and the questions afterwards, which I usually find valuable.  In February of this year he gave a talk entitled, "What Can You Let Go Of?" [mp3]  The lecture is short but quite good, and the assumption is that the listener understands that by letting go of something (pride, ego, anger, expectations, bad habits) that you will be happier.  About 15 minutes into it, he asks the audience what they can let go of, and at the 20 minute mark a woman takes the microphone.

She begins a rambling story that covers prayer, "The Secret", "vibrations", curing cancer through nothing but positive thinking, and other New Age claptrap.  She becomes more and more unhinged the more she talks.  Right about the time I start to think she’s a complete kook though she starts to lose it and you realize that she’s an incredibly troubled person.  Somewhere in the middle she refers to the gathering of Buddhists as a "manifestation circle" and admits she came to the lecture looking for an apartment. 

I had to look it up, but eventually discovered "manifestation circles" are something made popular by "The Secret" and the long-held belief in the "Law of Attraction", where if you just think positively about the new truck you want, it will come to you.  It is, in fact, pretty much the opposite of Buddhist thought, which teaches that such attachments are making you miserable.  The more attached you are to having a new truck, the less happy you will be because you don’t have it, and when you have it and it gets into an accident, you will have lost it.  Not being attached to a new truck in the first place is the solution to your happiness.

Sarah humorously refers to this tradition as "Olly Olly Oxenfree, give me some money".

This is where the irony struck me.  Granted, this woman is obviously in need of a place to live for her and her cat, but what kind of person goes to a meeting of individuals whose spiritual practice involves forsaking material goods for the purpose of seeking them?

Is she an opportunist?  Did she think that one of the Buddhists was going to "let go of" an apartment (or a roommate) as a part of their practice and that she would be able to pick one up on the cheap?

Is she just confused?  Does she not understand the difference between the Secret (a guide on how to acquire the things that you believe will make you happy) and Buddhism (a practice that guides you in how to be happy without things)?

The way that Fronsdal handles her disruptiveness is particularly gentle, and particularly effective, and is worth listening to on its own.

In case you’re curious, I recommend the following lectures as some of his best:


  1. ampressman on May 18, 2008 at 8:58 am

    There is a lot of wisdom to go around. Even more bizarrely to me, I find that evangelical TV preacher Joel Osteen has useful things to say even if the Jesus part of his message doesn’t register. I think it all boils down a great quip I once heard Wayne Dyer say: You don’t have any problems — you only think you do.