Technoccult Interview: Open Source Buddhism with Al Jigong Billings

Al Billings

Many Technoccult 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.” I recently talked with Al about what Open Source Buddhism is, how it differs from other contemporary the Pragmatic Dharma movement and the secular mindfulness movement, and how he gravitated from Neopaganism to Buddhism.

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).

How and when did you become a Buddhist? I originally knew you as the webmaster of hermetic.com, and I think that’s how a lot of Technoccult readers will know you as well. But you gave that site over to another curator. Did you give that up to focus on Buddhism?

I was a practicing Neopagan, of various sorts, from age 18 until around age 34 or 35. In many ways, I consider myself culturally pagan still and think of myself as a “Pagan Buddhist” just as there are “Jewish Buddhists” out there. During the first part of this last decade (after the year 2,000) I grew more and more interested in Buddhism. I’d had an intellectual interest since college but had not pursued it.

I got involved with a number of other magicians online who also happened to have connections to the Dharma, such as Jason Miller. When I started attending some Tibetan Vajrayana events, I found a certain resonance in it and took refuge at the Sakya Monastery in Seattle. This was in 2002.

At that time, I was a leader of an Astrum Sophiae/Aurum Solis group with friends and had been helping run a lodge for years. I just found that my interests were not as strongly pulled in that direction. I had also been in the Ordo Templi Orientis for a number of years, mostly socially, which is where I met my wife.

I’ve never been much of a theist, having a hard time maintaining the suspension of disbelief necessary to see deities as lived, objective entities.

Vajrayana was, in many ways, a way of bridging my Neopagan/Occult background to move into the Dharma. With my online magician friends who were also Buddhists, I found a small community to explore this.

Eventually, I just decided that I was going to make an explicit break with my past affiliations. I quit my lodge, which still exists and is run by a friend, and quit the OTO. I am on actually fairly good terms with members of the OTO leadership, who I consider to be, by and large, wonderful and sincere people. I also realized after a while that hermetic.com needed a real owner to update and maintain it, maybe even improve it. John Bell, who took it over, and I knew each other through the old BBS scene back in the day and wound up reconnecting. I wanted to give the site to someone largely unaffiliated with any organizations in order to maintain its neutrality.

Is Vajrayana the main sect of Buddhism that you practice? (I’m not sure how else to phrase that.)

No. I was initially involved with Tibetan Vajrayana but one of the primary aspects of Vajrayana is the Guru/Disciple relationship. This is core to Tantra. Additionally, Tantra is complex in both practical and philosophical ways. I wound up bouncing around between a number of Seattle area groups, where I lived at the time, for a few years but there were almost no groups with resident teachers or training programs.

Because of this, I could not really find a teacher with which to work directly. I felt that I had a “taste” of tantra but no real training in it and books cannot really supply this. I went as far afield as doing week long retreats in Wisconsin with a teacher and group there and in New Hampshire with Namkhai Norbu’s Dzogchen Community, accompanied by Jason Miller. I even did a short retreat with John Reynolds, who has contacts in both the Occult and Dharma communities.

Eventually, I found a teacher who had a similar background to mine but his practice was largely based on a Japanese form of Vajrayana, Tendai. We began working together in 2006 and I’ve been with him ever sinse. In that time, through an evolution of our practice and working with others, we both wound up in the sphere of Korean Zen (or Seon), where we both were ordained as priests.

My practice at this point is largely focused on Korean Zen though I have influences from all over and do maintain some of my tantric practices.

It seems a lot of occultists, especially chaos magicians, end up being very involved with various types of Buddhism (Joel Biraco is one of the most notable examples). Why do you think that is?

I’m not familiar with his situation so I can only speak about the folks I know and my impressions of their (and my) situation. Buddhism is not a unified landscape. There are many different groups, lineages, temples, etc out there. More than most people realize, probably. There is a healthy ethnically based community composed of Asian immigrants and their descendants, which supports the traditional Buddhism of their ancestral homes (sort of like Catholics and the Irish at one point).

Then there are the various communities, like the Vipassana centers and many Zen centers, which are mostly composed of White American converts with little traditional presence.

I think many magicians and pagans are attracted to ritual, energy work, visualization and the like. The “smells and bells” end of things. Because of this, I think and have seen a lot of people get involved with Vajrayana in its Tibetan form, which is common enough in decent sized cities. If that doesn’t work, they move on (and this applies more broadly than just pagan or magician types). I think those of us with a pagan or occult background are used to sampling the waters in places and changing what we do a lot. Staying with one tradition and having a deep connection strikes me as much rarer for that group, as a whole.

I know what you mean about occultists sampling a lot of waters, though it does seem to me that most people end up “settling down” eventually. Buddhism seems to be a common thing to “settle into.”

As to why… well, I think people are looking for a certain depth or feel a certain lack in their practice or connection to the world. I know that I became a Buddhist because the Four Noble Truths, the fundamental teaching, resonated with my experience. I felt there was a certain dissatisfied basis to my experience of the world, that something was missing, even in a Matrix-like way, if you want to be cute. Neopaganism wasn’t really addressing this and occultism and magic, as well as the groups within these camps, didn’t really do so either.

How is this related, if at all, to the “hardcore” or “pragmatic” Dharma movement?

That is an interesting question. I think that they are cousins in a way though they may wind up being the same thing in the end. It is hard to say.

The emphasis in the Pragmatic Dharma movement, as I think they like to be called now, is on awakening as a lived experience possible in this lifetime, not in future lives and so forth as is often taught. To that end, they are willing to use “whatever works” as far as methods. In that sense, I would say it is compatible. In another sense, they tend to model themselves very explicitly on just one model, the one that comes from Theravadan Buddhism. So their methods focus on the maps and techniques from a certain subsegment of that school (and this is not a criticism).

That also sounds like a particularly tantric approach – enlightenment within our lifetime – and that might not need to be the goal of everyone in Open Source Buddhism?

I think that if you aren’t driven to achieve awakening, which I prefer over “enlightenment,” in this lifetime, you are in many ways just wasting your time. Being focused on some kind of “achievement” in some other lifetime misses the very here and now approach that the Dharma offers. It is about lived experience, right now, not some future reward. That said, the Pragmatic Dharma folks seem to be very goal oriented.

What do you think of the secular teaching of meditation and mindfulness in a scientific or clinic context, as opposed to cultural or sacred, context?

I think it is a great idea. The techniques are useful in a number of contexts and I do not think that the techniques, in and of themselves, are Buddhist. They are simply techniques that work with people regardless of cultural content. If they can be used to help people who are suffering or to promote awareness, they should be taught. There are experimental programs to teach such things to troubled youth or even elementary school age children in my area and I think that is wonderful. They aren’t the Dharma but they are useful.

Do you think there are any dangers inherent in exploring these sorts of techniques? I recently linked to an article on a study that found that finding the right style of meditation for an individual is important for maintaining practice, and someone left a comment suggesting that there might be dangers in pushing these techniques in a materialist context – that someone could end up stuck in the Dark Night of the Soul, for example, without any knowledge of what was happening to them.

I saw the same article on different meditation techniques and found it interesting. As to dangers, there clearly are dangers in these techniques as a whole.

One thing I wonder about is whether people are ending up in these sorts of states, in these sorts of experiences, anyway, whether they’re meditating daily or not.

There are a number of separate issues here. I’ll go through them briefly.

Meditative techniques bring up a lot of things that are often buried. In our culture, we’re trained, in many ways, to not be terribly still and reflective. We bounce from thing to thing without dwelling deeply on what is going on. There are quite a few people who will get very distraught or anxious if they have nothing to do or nothing to distract them. Most of us know people like this. They need people around, or TV, or games or they don’t know what to do. When these people are forced to be still and sit and do nothing with their minds, just paying attention but nothing else directed, it can be very anxiety making. All the stuff they are ignoring or hiding from in their minds or lives, well, there it is, bubbling up as they sit.

It is very common on longer (or even some shorter) retreats for someone to have issues. They are often mild. People have crying jags, overcome with emotion, that sort of thing. Every now and then, people have much worse reactions. This was actually something that came up a bit in discussion at the Buddhist Geeks conference last Summer.

Now, in the secular techniques, these same things could probably happen. They aren’t terribly different, just having a different setting or context. It is important that people, especially if they are a bit unsteady, to have others to help them, to act as guides or support, for when this kind of thing may happen.

I generally wouldn’t tell people to “go read a book and do these things without ever talking to anyone.” It might be fine. In fact, it will probably be fine. If it gets too intense, people would back off on their own normally.

The thing is that, in the end, you have to find a way through that. You can’t run away from your mind after all and all of that intensity is in there somewhere. You can’t bottle it up forever. So, secular or Buddhist, that doesn’t make much difference. In both cases, you’ll usually have a community and a teacher or guide, a sangha.

That’s sort of what I was getting at – even if you’re not taking up mindfulness or meditation or whatever, you’re going to end up being confronted by, for lack of a better word, psychological ugliness at some point in your life and you’re going to need to find a way through it.

Absolutely.

I’m a secular meditator (and “ex-occultist”) myself. I sit daily. I honestly don’t know much about “real” Zen Buddhism (and of course there are lots of different types of Zen Buddhism), but to my limited understanding there’s not a lot else to Zen practice other than, well, zen. In other words – how dangerous could zazen be as a secular practice?

Or, put another way, what are secular meditators missing out on that a “religious” Zen Buddhist is getting?

Well… it can have the same problems and not all Zen is zazen, to be pedantic perhaps.

If you sit, say in zazen, and you are still. You are aware, hopefully, and paying attention. That’s zazen in a nutshell. Many people will have a reaction to that if they aren’t comfortable with what they aren’t acknowledging. My retreat experience these days is mostly with people doing sitting meditation and koan (or kong-an) work. Kong-an work is a different sort of frustrating.

As to what secular meditators are missing, it is a difference in goals. The goal (and I don’t care for that word) of Buddhist practice is the realization of Buddhahood or, to be less cute, to wake up. The goal of secular meditation is, usually, to deal with pain and stress. These are not unrelated but one is a bit broader than the other and I think you know which I would think of as the broad one.

Sitting to deal with stress. That’s very good. I think most people could really use that. I think that can act as a bridge to going “Now what? What’s the point of all of this?”

This is leaving aside that there are probably a half dozen “other” meditative techniques as well (or actually many more).

So Open Source Buddhism still deals very much with awakening, while secular mindfullness is focused more on day to day goals like managing pain and stress and improving concentration.

Yes, I think so. My idea of Open Source Buddhism as a kind of proposal or thought experiment is still, at the end of the day, the Buddhadharma. It is rooted in the Buddha’s teachings. The problem of the dissatisfactory nature of human experience, the cause of this problem, and the ways of solving it.

The Tibetans have a useful teaching that I learned from Namkhai Norbu in his popular Dzogchen book but which I’ve heard repeated elsewhere. I believe it is a Tibetan Nyingma school teaching. It is about “base, path, and fruit” or “view, meditation, result” (they are the same thing). The key here is that the view or mindset of practice combined with the techniques of practice (or the path) produce its result or fruit. In other words, you can use the exact same methods are someone else but if you go into this usage with a different mindset or worldview, you will not achieve the same results.

To use the mountain analogy, you will have started your climb at the base of different mountains, even if you climb the same way, using ropes, picks, etc. to get to the top. I think this is an important teaching to keep in mind when talking to people of different schools of thought that use very similar, and probably universal, techniques of practice.

So in this view someone probably wouldn’t “accidentally” achieve awakening through practice?

You can’t rule anything out. I think that people have an innate capacity for awakening and it isn’t trapped in a straightjacket with the label, “Buddhadharma” on it. People can awaken in spite of techniques, using techniques, or with no techniques. Can everyone do that? Probably not.

There is a common teaching in China, which you find a version of in Japan and in Korea. It is rediscovered time and again. The Tibetans teach it as well. This is the idea that we don’t “make” or “create” or “achieve” awakening. We really are liberated beings already. You don’t create the capacity for it. The analogies are made to clouds obscuring the sun or mirrors being polished so they can be clearly used but, at the end of the day, awakening is inherent in all of us and we are simply looking for ways to perceive what is right in front of us.

3 Comments

  1. A commenter at Disinfo asked about why Al is wearing a Seon robe in this picture and whether that’s incompatible with some of the comments he made in the interview. Al responded at Disinfo.

    http://www.disinfo.com/2012/07/open-source-buddhism-with-al-jigong-billings/#comment-598945210

    • I’ll reiterate here since the fact that I’m wearing a robe and have a foreign middle name comes up a bit. :-)

      “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.”

  2. Secular mindfulness teaching can be about more than just stress reduction and relief from pain. Shinzen Young has secularized his teaching as such. See The Five Ways – A Contemporary Toolkit for Classical Enlightenment as one such example:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SE5O9tjqMo&feature=plcp

    Many thanks for a great interview!

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