19 July 2010

Aloha Amigo! or, hypertrophical eclecticism

Earlier this summer I was making the drive from Moscow, Idaho (my adopted hometown) across the Palouse and the Plateau to Portland, Oregon (my hometown hometown). I stopped for coffee in a well-dressed town called Hood River. And I found this item, laminated, and pinned to a cork board in the stylish and well-appointed cafe:

I do not know Adi, and had not heard of him or her before encountering this notice; I don't even know Adi's gender, so I'm being careful with the pronouns. This is a link to Adi's blog, for those who might be interested. I am sure Adi's intentions are pure and I make no claims about his or her teaching practice. The coffee in Hood River was fantastic and the service, superlative--let the record show it.

On with it. Adi's program presents a really interesting paradox. On one side, you have a singular, unique intersection of diverse and divergent spiritual practices: Zen, the "Fourth Way" of G.I. Gurdjieff, yoga, and the ancient Chinese oracle of the I Ching. Any one of these disciplines could take a life well spent in committed practice to master; Adi suggests him or herself capable of all of them. (Teaching Zen in individual and group settings alone is very demanding work...). So one side of the paradox is uniqueness, singularity, and to be direct about it a very bold claim to advanced spiritual accomplishment and attainment.

On the other side is the perfect banality of the item. Everyone on the "Eastern Spirituality" guru book tour circuit, from Esalen to Kripalu, is doing it or has done it. This kind of gesture is so ordinary that we have had a term for it in Buddhist circles since the mid-1970s: Aloha, Amigo! The earliest written reference I could find to Aloha Amigo was published in 1974 in Loka, a kind of yearbook for the Naropa Institute's summer events of that year. In it, a Hindu monk and anthropologist named Agehananda Bharati offered an essay called "The Future (if any) of Tantrism." The sum (page 129):

I can say there is one cultural disease in this country [the United States], and that is what I call hypertrophical eclecticism. To give you an example, in a record store the other day, I saw an LP named "Aloha Amigo." This is all wrong. Deep down, many of you think it is nice. But it isn't. It's either "aloha" or "amigo." Now, just because something is different from Mommy and Daddy, and different from Richard Nixon and Billy Graham, that alone doesn't make it good. Just because it has an Indian accent doesn't make it good. There have to be other criteria. The trouble here is that anything that's different from home is put together and looks like something real. Unfortunately, in a very refined and sophisticated manner, this tendency is even represented in what I saw in your program print-out here. Weaving and karate and T'ai Ch'i don't have to appear together just because they are Asian. There is a tradition, there is a rule, there is a lineage that you must be able to trace. But sitar and tabla and saxophone and escargo and tatami--that's just Aloha-Amigo. I don't think it leads anywhere.

You don't hear Oprah asking questions about lineage. And you don't hear many monks referencing old Arthur Lyman records. "Bim Bam Boom!" More directly to the matter: recall this thing on Western Buddhism where I observe in some of the sanghas a tendency to dismiss methodological or doctrinal aspects of Buddhist practice, which makes a gap that is immediately filled in with other stuff (C. Jung, C. Castaneda, or whatever else is on the tube)? Well, here it is in Adi's flier: no belief system is needed, but the whole thing is predicated on things you have to believe in, a "self," a "Source," and the credibility of the person who is making all these claims. Aloha Amigo! is about filling in that gap. A remedy would be to attend responsibly to methodological questions in Buddhist practice: not too loose, not too tight, but enough to keep the moving parts clean.

My point is that Adi's advertisement at the cafe, surely earnest and posted in good faith, is one of many many many artifacts of a broader cultural phenomenon that has a name: Aloha Amigo. My purpose in bringing it up is to encourage those of us who engage in Buddhist practice or identify as Buddhists to think critically about such claims as these, and to ask the very important question about lineage, about any particular teacher's relationship to his or her teachers and temples, and so on. I ask you not to be hostile or aggressive, but to be curious and to ask probing questions. Remember, a good student has "an active edge."

And yes, I'm willing to stand fire with whatever questions you may have of me, with the understanding I may ask you a few in exchange. Fair is fair, yes?

I will be returning to this theme because it is the cause of much needless confusion about what Buddhism is and does.

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