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I've been meditating on-and-off for years.

However, the non-attachment preached by the Buddha conflicts with the environment around me. I'm in a large urban center in North America.

Achievement is valued; I feel like I'm contributing to the world in a small way.

I feel like it makes me better at my job to dream big and get attached to goals big and small, whether it's mentoring someone junior or committing years to a project that has an uncertain payoff.

This puts me at odds with my meditation practice, where "letting go" is emphasized.

The best resource I have found specifically addressing this question is Stephen Batchelor's book "After Buddhism". In it, Batchelor lays out one possible interpretation of the scriptures, in which the Buddha and his disciples are very much 'in the world'---businesspeople, merchants, town doctors, etc.---this was refreshing to read and made me feel more at ease.

Am I asking to eat my cake too? I value Buddhism and meditation, but I also value my Western individualist roots and feel egoistic achievement is necessary for progress in science and technology.

Thank you!

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Firstly, I am very much against this pop-culture Buddhism where too much emphasis is given to letting go and not that much emphasis on Bhavana and development of wholesome qualities. Letting go of what, exactly? Definitely, check out Thanissaro Bhikkhu's talks on YouTube who shares a similar opinion. There are many things which we need to let go: anger, jealousy, rage, covetousness, stinginess, delusion etc. There are many things we need to develop or "acquire": Metta, Compassion, Euqanimity, Mindfulness, Patience, Humility, Wisdom etc. Knowing which qualities are wholesome and developing them and which are unwholesome and letting go of them is practical wisdom.

Why does achievement need to be egoistic? Why not process and vision driven? We can always frame "achievements" as something bringing long term happiness to ourselves and the people around us instead of something "I" have added to my shining Resume. If that is the case, then no need to hesitate in pouring our energies into it; unless you realise later that this is not really the case.

A very interesting Theravada list is the four Iddhipada (four bases of mental power) cultivated for success in spiritual practice but equally applies in lay achievements. They are Chanda (Desire or Aspiration), Viriya (Energy), Citta (Keeping the Goal in mind), Vimansa (Review or Investigation of results to adjust). So, the Buddha is not against being competent, efficient and energetic in achieving your goals. Quite the opposite, he encourages it.

Also, don't worry about ego too much. Even third path Anagamis have conceit. It is a very deep fetter. So, don't be too worried about it as long as you are aware of it. Even, Ananda the Buddha's attendant once mentioned that we use conceit to overcome conceit (for example to be regular in practice), and moderation in eating to overcome sense desire. Otherwise, you would be going to the extreme of self mortification, which is ignoble and of little benefit.

Hope, this helps.

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In my opinion, it is totally reconcilable. Not just "reconcilable", Buddhism is the best part of Type-A attitude taken to its logical conclusion.

If you think about it, Siddhartha himself used to be a typical Type-A person: highly ambitious, driven to success, unhappy with status-quo.

In my opinion, the more a Type A person optimizes his or her behavior to achieve their own definition of success, the more they will look like an enlightened Buddhist. And vice versa, the more a Buddhist realizes the teaching in practice, the more they will behave like a (purified, enlightened version of) a good business leader - strong, happy, confident.

Per my live teachers, non-attachment in Buddhism IS NOT cultivation of meekness. It is cultivation of unsinkable optimism and wise flexibility of mind.

(Mahayana) Buddhism is not against achievements either, it just offers the ultimate, more meaningful Achievement for those who are up to the challenge. My teacher said, this world is a perfect gym to train our Enlightened Mind qualities, so take it as such.

Buddhism may be at odds with small-minded, egoistic, fearful, greedy, aggressive attitude of some people - but these attitudes are not approved by the modern civil society either. So we are in complete sync with the spirit of times, I think - and should not be afraid to expose our Buddhist values to the public. IMO to be an open Buddhist would be beneficial for society these days.

  • I think this is a good answer. To my mind it seems entirely consistent with avoiding the eight worldly concerns. For instance, how can one generate true confidence while worrying about reputation or trying to avoid criticism? – Yeshe Tenley May 13 '18 at 17:30
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You will have to be very distinct whether your attachment is towards: 1. Your positive influence to the world; 2. Your reward, no matter big or small; 3. Your egotistic sense of success; and/or 4. Your self/improvement, enlightenment, etc.

If you are towards 1-3, you are not achieving enlightenment. If you feel you are towards 4 but you are not reducing any suffering, you are not achieving enlightenment either.

Remember, enlightenment is not just about letting go, but void of suffering. Are you following the 4 noble truths? and the 8 folds paths in what you do?

And by the way, egoistic achievement is NOT necessary for progress in science and technology. You can say it is a motivation for some people, but it is not the only possible motivation. Therefore, the "individualistic roots" are neither permanent nor necessary.

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Here is Acharya Nagarjuna's advice:

.... Don’t have as objects of your mind the eight transitory things of the world: namely, material gain and no gain, happiness and unhappiness, things nice to hear and not nice to hear, or praise and scorn. Be indifferent (toward them).

Your question strikes me as wondering if it is possible to make progress towards liberation while maintaining the same level of attachment to the Eight Worldly Concerns. I'm afraid the answer is no. What are the eight worldly concerns?

  • Hoping for material gain (money, things, materialism)
  • Fear of material loss (not wanting to lose your stuff)
  • Striving for worldly happiness (many forms, but all temporary and ultimately unsatisfactory...)
  • Fear of wordly unhappiness (not getting what we want in terms of above...)
  • Desiring people to say nice things (aka, how awesome we are)
  • Aversion to receiving criticism from others (how dare they!)
  • Wanting others to like us (our reputation is so important)
  • Fear that others won't like like us (being shunned)

Can progress be made toward liberation without requisite decline of the hold these concerns have on us? Here is what Lama Zopa Rinpoche has to say:

It is very easy to do Dharma activities such as reciting mantras, saying prayers, making offerings and things like that with the thought of the eight worldly dharmas. That happens. But in reality, the holy Dharma, which includes all these activities, actually means renouncing this life. Therefore holy Dharma and worldly dharma can never be done together. Nobody can do these two things—renounce this life and seek the happiness of this life with the eight worldly dharmas—at once. We can do one and then the other but never both together in the one mind at the same time.

Emphasis mine. Merely becoming aware of the eight worldly concerns and familiarizing with the idea that these are hindrances to be overcome is itself some progress. Which is to say that one mustn't completely eliminate attachment towards these concerns before one can start to make any progress! Rather, you shouldn't fool yourself into believing that progress can be made while ignoring these hindrances or worse thinking these hindrances aren't in fact hindrances.

Making progress in eliminating attachment to these worldly concerns is concomitant with making progress towards liberation.

It is a hard answer, but hopefully worth considering.

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However, the non-attachment preached by the Buddha conflicts with the environment around me. I'm in a large urban center in North America.

In North America & in the West, some people even treat Buddhism itself (and teaching Buddhism) as a business (for making money). I would suggest to not take to heart everything you might hear and read, because the heart of Buddhism is beyond the reach of the average person.

Achievement is valued; I feel like I'm contributing to the world in a small way.

Worldly achievement is required to earn a living or livelihood.

I feel like it makes me better at my job to dream big and get attached to goals big and small, whether it's mentoring someone junior or committing years to a project that has an uncertain payoff.

Sure. The attitude above shows why you should not allow Buddhist theory to confuse your ordinary & natural thinking processes. Buddhism used inappropriately in the wrong contexts may lead to confusion. It is best for us to avoid getting confused & illogical. This also leads to not harming Buddhism.

This puts me at odds with my meditation practice, where "letting go" is emphasized.

Buddhist meditation is for ending suffering rather than for achieving worldly goals.

The best resource I have found specifically addressing this question is Stephen Batchelor's book "After Buddhism". In it, Batchelor lays out one possible interpretation of the scriptures, in which the Buddha and his disciples are very much 'in the world'---businesspeople, merchants, town doctors, etc.---this was refreshing to read and made me feel more at ease.

Stephen Batchelor is I think an example of what I described above; of trying to commercialise "Buddhism" in a way which harms the Buddhist teachings, by attempting to make Buddhism relevant for people that Buddhism is not actually relevant for.

Am I asking to eat my cake too? I value Buddhism and meditation, but I also value my Western individualist roots and feel egoistic achievement is necessary for progress in science and technology.

I would suggest to simply give up any trendy aspects of your interest in Buddhism, including that book of Stephen Batchelor's.

For example, if scientists find a cure for AIDS or Cancer, there will be a great celebration in society. It will become the most trendy news. However, if this occurs, this does not mean you should take the AIDS or Cancer medicine cure if you do not have AIDS or Cancer.

  • Thanks for your comment–I understand you disagree with Stephen Batchelor's book, and similar "Western Buddhist" thought. Do you have a resource or recommendation where I might learn what you find valuable in Buddhist thought? Of a better framework for thinking about these kinds of things? My interest in Buddhism has been valuable personally and to those around me, so I'd love to hear more about your perspective before giving up my interest :) – lifer May 12 '18 at 5:03
  • Buddhism has teachings for laypeople and teachings for monks. The teachings for laypeople do not revolve around "non-attachment" or four noble truths. Therefore, it is not necessary to pervert the teachings of non-atachment, four noble truths, etc, so they somehow suit lay people. This link summaries the teachings for laypeople from the Pali suttas: mahidol.ac.th/budsir/Contents.html – Dhammadhatu May 12 '18 at 5:57
  • Voted down for the ad-hominem attacking on Stephen Batchelor and the general disparagement of entire sangha jewel in the West. At a minimum, the answer should be clarified to use less absolute language regarding the motivation of Buddhists in the West and the ad-hominem on Stephen Batchelor. – Yeshe Tenley May 12 '18 at 6:59
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    @Yeshe, you're technically right, but over the last few years we kinda noticed it works best to be somewhat tolerant to intolerance. Meaning, it's good to stop someone when they are being a total ass, but sometimes it's almost better to leave it be, especially when it comes to people's opinions on what is right dharma / wrong dharma, you know? I value your participation, but let's try and make sure our efforts toward reducing conflict are not inadvertently increasing it, if you know what I mean... I think Chris softened the language enough for it to be a passable opinion. Let's move on? – Andrei Volkov May 14 '18 at 1:31
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    I'm going to let this sit for awhile and think about it. To me this goes to a question of whether site moderators should correct harmful speech when it is flagged. I personally would like to have it pointed out if/when I am speaking harmfully and given a chance to correct. Moreover, if I'm incapable of seeing the harm my speech does I'd consider it a kindness for others to prevent that harm or help mitigate it by removing it. I have personally witnessed the harm that criticizing teachers (even if seemingly warranted) can have on a student of that teacher and lead away from Dharma @AndreiVolkov – Yeshe Tenley May 14 '18 at 20:36

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