Thursday, April 1, 2010

Juniper: pragmatic Buddhism for secular seekers?

Juniper's rational. It dispenses with icons. It eschews ritual. It encourages criticism. I clicked on my first Facebook ad ever; I found it.

It was, I admit, the first Buddhist site that's popped up. Based up in Redwood City, in the Bay Area, Juniper opened a meditation hall. Primarily, it reaches out-- given their Silicon Valley locale-- by the Net to explain a streamlined, secularized, and sensible take. It emerges not from a religious sensibility, but as a transforming direction. I understand why some prostrate and bow, but I step aside from such devotional gestures, so I appreciated Juniper's ascetic presentation.

Five founded this effort: a Brazilian-born lama; his assistant, a nun born near Chicago; a speech therapist and her husband, a former CFO of Pixel; a college instructor/consultant. They take their name from the sturdy, humble tree that grows in Tibet. Their mission also reminds me, in the muted earth tones they favor, of that friar who loved St. Francis of Assisi but who once burned the meal for all the brethren. Francis showed them how to charitably eat Brother J's ruined fare. Francis himself sprinkled ashes on all his food, for that matter. Franciscans, as with Buddhists, migrated far from their primitive mendicancy into medieval monasteries, splendid edifices, and incensed pageantry. Jupiter may in its understated manner restore what dissenting Spirituals tried for Francis' radical message: the earthshaking core, the challenge to verities, the reaction to power, the insistence upon simplicity, amid a bit of humor and a lot of gritty discipline.

These five founders present, gently but insistently (to me a characteristic style) a modest array of brief articles that convey their spiritual outlook. I find in reading Buddhist sages that their many years of study and meditation boil down-- as with moral expounders of all opinions at their best-- to a terse, honest statement of clarity and confidence. Their recent one, "The Courage to Reason," concludes:
Reason and inquiry are the fuel that keeps Buddhist ideas authentic. To shape Buddhist thinking in modern life, we should not be afraid to apply them. Instead of holding theories about karma and the mind as unquestionable truths, we should examine them in light of genetics, neuroscience, and other modern fields of study. Instead of accepting a male-dominated hierarchy, we should put traditions to the test of modern norms. Instead of worshipping Buddha images, we should use such imagery as archetypes to empower our potential. To accomplish this, however, we must not fear upsetting the status quo. Instead, following the original impetus of Buddhist thought, we must have the courage to reason.

In "A Second Renaissance,", quoted below, they reflect on "the dissonance between science and religious tradition as the challenge of our age." I hope that you may learn from the final sentence of Jupiter's entry. It jibes with my own perspective.

A friend with no previous background or interest in Buddhist thought reported that when he started sharing with others his interest in Juniper’s work he repeatedly found a wellspring of interest in Buddhist ideas. He said it was as if these people had been on a secret exploration of Buddhist thought and meditation. Why is this, and what is the relationship between Buddhist ideas and this modern dissonance?

Juniper’s answer is that Buddhist training contains within it the seeds to resolve the dissonance between science and religious dogma. With its focus on inquiry, the mind, and inner development, Buddhist training permits us to have a rich inner life without having to accept ideas that have not stood the test of time. Buddhist tradition is not free of dogma; in many instances, it has similar trappings of classic religious traditions. The difference is that Buddhist tradition makes use of inquiry, reason, and critical thought to examine the nature of things. Its own principles give us the tools to free ourselves from old dogmas and to resolve the challenges of our time with inquiry, wisdom, and compassion. By applying this process of inquiry, we can dissect the essence of Buddhist methods of inner development and embed it in a modern wrapper.

Photo: "Jupiter: Buddhist Training for Modern Life"

After I compiled this draft, in a thread on Amazon I've been following about the koan "Does a Dog Have a Buddha-Nature?" this was posted: "Buddha's words are entangling briars to forever ensnare the faithful who cannot let go of clinging, yes, even to the Buddha and the sutras."

Chan Tue Lon's caution blends with Juniper's agnostic approach, which as their reading list shows has been influenced not only by classic science-of-mind Tibetan lamas, but by Stephen Batchelor. Both Juniper and Batchelor urge a Buddhism relevant, clear, and accessible to critical inquiry; karma or rebirth may not mesh with today's science. His "Buddhism without Beliefs" I have discussed last year on my blog. I also added it, after over a hundred reviewers, here on Amazon US. I recommend Batchelor as a counterpart for Juniper's stripped-down mindset. I'm in a library queue to read his new "Confession of a Buddhist Atheist"; given his past appeal for "deep agnosticism" as opposed to "atheism," I wonder if it's savvy marketing or if after another decade Batchelor's shifted his path once more.

(See Barbara O'Brien's spirited review of his new book via her site at ""; Mark Vernon at "The Guardian" confirms my hunch that Batchelor's indeed moved towards a position winning him plaudits from Christopher Hitchens, who in his "god Is Not Great" as I critiqued it on Amazon US seemed all too eager to equate Buddhism with all the religions he lambasted. He conflates Dalai Lama with dharma. It's true and not true in Buddhist parlance, but Hitchens lacks precision and nuance.)

In light of the neo-atheist assault and a widening Western disenchantment with nostrums, I suspect many skeptics might benefit from "Buddhism without Beliefs" with its bracing commentary. Those turned off by guru groupies, a hundred thousand prostrations, or wealth-generating chants. They may yearn for Juniper's less ornamented, more austere, articulation that conveys the richness of Tibetan approaches to wisdom beneath their smoke and glitter. Van Morrison had one record entitled "Enlightenment." Another: "No Guru, No Method, No Teacher." Juniper hosts a Brazilian-born Tibetan-schooled guru and an "Awakening the Mind" method they teach but maybe they-- as with Belfast-Marin's troubadour-- sidle into the not-knowing mystic.

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