Insight Journal welcomes Sebene Selassie & Brian Lesage to talk about how “spiritual bypassing”, as coined by the late John Welwood, can also be applied to culture. Sebene and Brian will be teaching What Gets Left Out?: Issues of Cultural Spiritual Bypassing, March 6-10, 2019.
Insight Journal: The name of your upcoming course is “What Gets Left Out?: Issues of Cultural Spiritual Bypassing.” Can you describe what you mean by cultural spiritual bypass?
Brian Lesage: The term arose out of a conversation between Seb and I that we were having for an online course for BCBS called Self and Not-Self . The idea is that just as we can use our spiritual practice to “spiritually bypass” or avoid addressing psychological wounds and unresolved personal issues, we can also use our spiritual practice to bypass unresolved collective/cultural issues as well. This is what we are calling cultural spiritual bypassing.
IJ: Can you tell us how the idea of this course came about?
Sebene Selassie: Yes, as Brian said, this was in the context of an online course on anatta that he was spearheading. We were exploring how to use these teachings to understand our present reality — grappling with how to talk about self and not-self and include the pressing issues of identity and social justice that are surfacing in so many western convert Buddhist communities and in our world.
We realized we needed to examine our collective/cultural biases and assumptions. Not only do many of us in these Buddhist communities want to bypass issues of cultural difference and injustice but we can use the dharma to justify it. At the same time we use science and logic to dismiss many practices like devotion and ritual. In doing so, we often miss that all language is metaphor and that our “logic” can never get at what is ultimately ineffable. Both Brian and I have been influenced by the writing of Linda Hueman and her work around reconciling Buddhism and modernity. As moderns, we can, as the French philosopher Bruno Latour puts it believe that others believe. That is, we bypass the fact that scientific materialism and the whole enlightenment project is itself a belief system and this is the lens through which many of us come to the dharma.
IJ: Can you share some examples of cultural spiritual bypassing?
SS: In this course we explore some areas and practices that tend to be dismissed in many convert Buddhist communities including ritual, devotional practices, the body, musicality, the feminine, and unseen beings/mystery. In some communities it’s assumed that these are unnecessary practices, that there is some element of belief involved that is cultural baggage, unscientific, and/or irrational. While we are not telling anyone what they have to believe, we are inviting them to explore these practices and in doing so also examine how the dismissal of these practices are related to forces like patriarchy, colonialism, racism, and capitalism. You know, light stuff!
But the course is not only theoretical — in fact the course is largely experiential. We engage in different forms and explorations to feel into what’s been left out because being in our heads and only intellectualizing these things has been exactly part of the problem of modernity.
BL: And to expand on what Seb is saying here, part of the course is to begin to see that whatever practice we do is culturally situated. Just the act of sitting in meditation with a group of people in silence and paying attention to the breathing is shaped by culture and history. I have found this exploration so helpful in creating a dimension of cultural humility in our communities of practice. Rather than getting lost in claims of “this is what the Buddha really taught,” or “this is the best way or highest way of practice,” we can enter into communities that can hold a multiplicity of views both for ways of practicing and ways of understanding practice. I have personally found this so powerful for undermining such rigid views in my own mind.
IJ: I am curious about the learning intention for the course related to devotional practices. How are those practices supportive for this kind of work?
BL: Devotional practices, and I would include ritual here as well, are important arenas to explore. They have often been excluded from our understanding of possible ways of practice because of this dynamic, which we are calling cultural spiritual bypassing. From a modern cultural view, it can feel like we are entering into a world of superstition when engaging in devotional practices or other forms of ritual. As a result, one of the ideas that arises out of modern Buddhism is the misguided idea that the historical Buddha offered a spiritual path that was devoid of ritual. Richard Payne wrote an excellent article pointing out how we have “bypassed” ritual as a result of this cultural view entering into Buddhism that traces its roots to modernist ways of seeing the world.
For me, engaging in ritual practices of devotion that include chanting and bowing have offered a fully embodied experience that, with repetition, have transformed my heart in ways that inform my understanding of this spiritual path. For example, through bowing I continue to learn about the visceral feeling of surrender in a way that doesn’t have the same flavor and depth I have experienced in meditation solely based on stillness and silence. Also, in the Kuan Yin devotional practice, when I give myself over to the act of bowing and chanting and allow the heart to be moved, a whole different dimension of the experience opens up for me. I have experiences of compassion washing over me, or sometimes enter into a field of compassion through this act of surrender and devotion. As you can see, this isn’t the language of science or reason but it is a realm that can be deeply transformative for practitioners.
At the same time, Seb and I are not trying to convince people that they absolutely need to be doing devotional practices, rather we are opening the door for practitioners to explore them so that they can decide for themselves if it feels resonate. It’s an opportunity to approach practice with curiosity and step out of a narrow cultural view that dictates what is valuable and what is not.
IJ: I understand that there will be affinity groups. Can you speak a little bit about the intention of these groups?
SS: Because colonialism and racism have been so intimately tied up with the whole project of modernity and with the spread of the dharma to the west in particular, we have found it helpful for people of color and white people to have space to process the practices and the content separately. There is still a lot of time for whole group interaction through chanting/bowing, conversation, interactive exercises as well as down time. In fact, the conversations that happen in the dining room and in between sessions have proven just as valuable as anything Brian and I might offer. Maybe more so!
IJ: Is there anything else you would like to add?
SS: I’d just like to emphasize that this may seem a bit heady and, it’s true, Brian and I can nerd out at times, but the intention of this course is really as an experiential space of exploration. We spend much of the first day landing and meditating in silence and stillness. We have found it very powerful and transformative to practice together in silence and stillness but also in voice and movement. Nothing we say about this course will replace actually experiencing the impact of these practices. We have a number of people who return and bring friends and sangha members and also some who continue the practices with each other when they return home (some even virtually).