Complicating Buddhism in Practice

by Shaun Terry

The story of Ts’ampa Nawang was interesting to me for how it conceived of altruism (Sihle). In a way that appeared to me quite pragmatic, Nawang’s concern appeared to have been more for the daily physical suffering of people than for any higher esoteric or theoretical concern: “In Ts’ampa Nawang’s discourse, it is medicine even more than religious activity that appears as the paradigmatic altruistic activity…” (Sihle p. 243).

In some way, this could simply appear to be common sense: while any of us might have concerns over our afterlives or spiritual wellnesses, staying alive seems to be a nearly-universal goal among people. As such, Nawang’s privileging of his medical practice over his more spiritual practice seems to have reflected the most acute concerns of those with whom he engaged.

Until this point, while I would not have necessarily ruled out such pragmatism, neither would I have presumed that more formally religious practices would have taken a secondary role.

Beyond the practical concerns of this week’s readings, one of the most aspects of this week’s readings that interested me most was how these practitioners managed to synthesize their material concerns with their spiritual ones: in the case of Nawang, his altruism required that he focus on his medical practice; producers and consumers of food have to find ways of dealing with the violence inflicted on animals; the women in the Kashmir were made to escape oppressive men; Chomo Khandru’s remarkable spiritual life was enabled by the Bon custom of dedicating second daughters to religious lives.

On a bit of a side note, something that surprised me in some of the readings was how practices were sometimes presented as apparently contradictory or somehow disingenuous, but there was not necessarily always evidence for this. I bring this up here in part because it seemed as though some of the readings were meant to convey how the local specificities of particular Buddhist practices were perhaps complicated, although the issue that I bring up here confused me, rather than convincing me of the fraught tensions faced by Buddhist practitioners.

To keep this brief, one such moment occurs in Childs’s writings, when he claims “[T]o restrict a calf’s caloric intake so that it succumbs to a death that appears more natural is ethically ambiguous.” (p. 230) I suppose that we should take from this that it is at least “ethically ambiguous” to Childs, but the form of his statement appears absolute. Does he mean to suggest that these Buddhist practitioners, themselves, find it ethically ambiguous? Should we presume that Buddhists do not make a sufficient distinction between active violence and passive neglect such that this ambiguity remains? I would have been interested to have known exactly what Childs intended here (as in other places), and on what he (and others) based his (their) assertion(s).

I am not inclined to privilege Buddhism for the specificity of its different schools of thought or the different practices that correspond with its different localized manifestations. It is clear from the readings that Buddhism looks different in different places, but so far as I can tell, that is a common feature to maybe even all phenomena.

While some Buddhists (as is the case with Tashi Dondrup) practice their Buddhisms in abject poverty—even despite being “good worker[s],” in some cases—some Buddhists are able to see “ample opportunities for privilege and private profit” (not unlike the story of Ts’ampa Nawang), all while many women face circumstances such that they have to provide for their families and, at the same time, perform their religious roles (Childs p. 231; Gutschow p. 266; Sihle; Gutschow). Between the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism—“Gelug, Kagyud, Sakya, and Nyingma”—Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, and nascent Western forms of “Buddhism,” it is clear that differences are plenty (Gutschow p. 264). But, perhaps it could also be said that there are as many Buddhisms as there are Buddhist practitioners, just as something similar could likely be said of Christianity and its practitioners, Islam and its, Hinduism, and so on.

At some point, this appears to be the same semiotics problem that seems to always be encountered when trying to name anything. In fact, is there not something here that simultaneously reflects the thoughts of post-structuralists like Jacques Derrida as well as the concept of anatman? Just as all signifiers are deferred, so it is that there is nothing essential to anyone or anything. All perceptions are referential, all use of language is reductive—there seems to be no way around this. I imagine that neither the post-structuralists nor many Buddhists would object to me pointing out that I am not the same Shaun right now as I am right… now!

That said, it is hard for me to justify singling out Buddhism as unique in its multiplicity. This is true even if the constellations of beliefs and practices that we refer to as “Buddhisms” may appear more loosely tied than do the different segments of other major religions.


  • Childs, Geoff. “Hunger, Hard Work and Uncertainty: Tashi Dondrup Reminisces on Life

    and Death in a Tibetan Village” in Buddhists: Understanding Buddhism Through the

    Lives of Practitioners. Todd Lewis, ed.

  • Gutschow, Kim. “The Delusion of Gender and Renunciation in Buddhist Kashmir” in

    Everyday Life in South Asia, Mines and Lamb, ed. pp. 261-274.

  • Sihlé, Nicolas. “Benefitting the Doctrine and All Sentient Beings: The Life of a Tibetan

    Lineage Master and the Ethos of Altruistic Action” ” in Buddhists: Understanding

    Buddhism Through the Lives of Practitioners. Todd Lewis, ed., pp. 237-245.