Open Source Buddhism with Al Jigong Billings

Picture courtesy Aaron Logan

Many Disinfo readers have probably seen Hermetic.com. Maybe you even got your first taste of Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare or Hakim Bey there. What you might not know is that the site’s founder, Al Jigong Billings has given up the site to focus on what he calls “Open Source Buddhism.” In this interview Billings talks about what Open Source Buddhism is, how it differs from other contemporary Buddhist and mindfulness movements and how he gravitated from Neopaganism to Buddhism.

Via Technoccult:

Klint Finley: I know readers can check out your blog post explaining what you mean by “Open Source Buddhism,” but can you give us a quick “elevator pitch” for the idea?

Al Billings: Yes, I can do that. The basic idea is that if you are not part of a traditionally Buddhist culture or one in which Buddhism plays a role, you are not part of an inherited complex of ideas surrounding what is or is not “Buddhism” or the “Dharma.” This leaves those of us, in the “West,” for example, in a bit of a quandary. What is Buddhsm? What is the Dharma? What is essential to it? What is optional? What does Buddhism in the 21st century here in America look like if you haven’t inherited it as part of your culture?

My proposal, or really just an idea or thought experiment, is that we embrace aspects of the open source ethos, as exhibited in software projects like Linux or Firefox, in how we approach the Dharma. We don’t need to model ourselves or the Dharma as we practice it necessarily on how Japanese, Chinese, Tibetans, Thai or anyone else does it within their context. That evolved there over hundreds and thousands of years. While many folks make themselves, to some extent, into faux Tibetans, dressing in Tibetan robes, taking Tibetan names, adopting elements of Tibetan culture (to pick on one group as an example), this is not really adapting the Dharma to our situation. I propose that people collaboratively receive teachings and techniques and even texts and recombine or use them as makes sense, as a kind of skillful means, even if it means going across different Buddhist cultures or even traditional kinds of Buddhism or lineages of it that often seem incompatible in ways. The end result is a Dharma that works in our culture (hopefully).

Read more at Technoccult.

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  • Jin The Ninja

    “While many folks make themselves, to some extent, into faux Tibetans,
    dressing in Tibetan robes, taking Tibetan names, adopting elements of
    Tibetan culture (to pick on one group as an example), this is not really
    adapting the Dharma to our situation.” (or faux japanese, or faux chinese, or faux thai….)

    very well said, and your conclusion is totally correct, western buddhism is not ‘cultural buddhism’ and therefore must be adapted to the appropriate context.

    • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Jigong Billings

      Amusingly, I raised this issue with Klint as a point of irony when he posted the interview. Klint chose to put the picture of me in robes in the piece. It wasn’t part of the interview and I didn’t expect it either. Those pictures exist largely because I have a friend who is a semi-pro photographer and my mother and others wanted pictures of me in formal robes.

      I only wear robes when I’m on retreat and only because my teacher requires all of us who are ordained to wear them during formal functions on these retreats. During my day to day practices, even the open retreats that I’ve led locally with people, I never wear more than a rakusu.

      As to my name, it has been a common custom with many of us in various American groups of Zen folks to do that. This is an example of us creating our own customs. Sure, it is ironic given some of my comments, perhaps, but my point is that we’re not trying to turn ourselves into Korean (or Japanese or Vietnamese) folks with white skin, dressing the part, remolding our lives on the model of another culture.

      We could have a long conversation about appropriation on a number of levels. Buddhism is coming to us from Asia. Which parts are reverently taking the tradition and which parts are aping another culture? It is a funny line and that was one of the points I made in the interview.

    • Calypso_1

      Even if there are many who might try their hand at elements of another’s culture only as a form of immature fashion, some may in fact take more from such explorations.  Of all the sins that abound in this world, of these I am inclined to see slight harm, hoping that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  At least it is an acknowledgment that there are others worthy of knowing outside their own culture.

    • Alturn

      Tibetan Buddhism has a special allure due to its strong connections with the Spiritual Hierarchy.  The main lodge of the Masters of Wisdom is the Trans-Himalayan Lodge which includes Tibet. Before the fall of Tibet, it was indicated the number two teacher in the Hierarchy, Kuthumi, taught at Lhasa.  The Tibetan that disseminated the teachings of the Hierarchy through Alice Bailey, Djwhal Kuhl, was head of a Tibetan Buddhist lamasery in Tibet.  The head of the Spiritual Hierarchy, the World Teacher Maitreya, lived at 20,000 feet up in the Himalayas prior to leaving this ancient retreat center in July 1977 to re-enter the everyday world and live in London.  All the Masters teach the Ageless Wisdom Teachings which Buddhism reflects most accurately of all the world religions.  It is not about what you wear outside, it has always been about what you are within.  The light that shines from within and then can be seen without is the most important robe any adherent can put on.

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    despite the religion that has grown-up around the Buddha
    Sid was about everyone finding their own “salvation”

    i was a Buddhist monk for a short while
    it was great experience
    but i couldn’t drink the koolaid
    and had to travel on

    The Buddha Story Paraphrased
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W-QfF1m6HYE
    Buddha: The Wise Man
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCiyUuyQ4hU

  • http://buzzcoastin.posterous.com BuzzCoastin

    Buddhism, especially Mahayana Buddhism
    is about as open source as you can get 
    and has been since the beginning

    the various Buddhist sects represent the various operating systems
    Theravada, Mahayana, Tantric, Chen, Tibetan, Pure Land

    a Japanese friend of mine had a Buddhist monk father
    I asked what brand of Buddhism his father followed
    his reply: “Protestant.”