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Buddhadharma : Fall 2006
buddhadharma| 5 |fall 2006 commentary buddhiSm and the american character The American tradition is to use all traditions freely, and for several decades now American Buddhists have been doing just that. Here on American soil, we’re cultivating a mixture of dharma seeds sown by our various Asian fore- bears, and while the yield from this effort is only beginning to be seen, it surely embodies the native soil – us Americans – at least as much as the seeds. We might pause, then, to consider the American character as it relates to practice, focusing on those traits most likely to challenge us as practitioners. INDIVIDUAL SELF-IDENTITY The subject-object split is part of the human condi- tion, but nowhere is the concept of a fixed, discrete self so entrenched – and so celebrated – as in this country. This obsession with “I,” “me,” and “my” creates a world of trouble in practice as we keep getting in our own way, tripping over all those opinions and preferences and comparisons with others that we count on to secure our selfhood. One of the more pernicious threats posed by the American intoxication with the self is its potential to render practice just another self-enhancement technique. It could be mistaken for the ultimate makeover – “Reshape and buff up that self! New! Improved! Get yours!” This self-interested atti- tude, already second nature to most of us, absorbs steady nourishment from this culture of ours, which is so skilled at appealing to human acquisi- tiveness. Long-term, serious practice with a teacher can transmute this selfish motivation (Roshi Kap- leau admitted that when he got to Japan he had just wanted to “grab kensho and run”), but begin- ners and others who are marginally involved in practice will find their efforts frustrated until their aspiration evolves into true bodhicitta. MORALISM Ever since the Pilgrims splashed ashore in 1620, morality and religion have claimed the attention of Americans more, it seems, than of any other West- ern people. Public surveys consistently reflect this, as do book sales, TV programming, and clamorous public debates on abortion, euthanasia, sex, and crime. Those of us who grew up in the American milieu are conditioned to frame reality in terms of right and wrong, and more likely to interpret the dharma, too, through these constructs. Buddhist doctrine certainly has a well-developed system of ethics, but traditionally it has rested primarily on the law of causation. One really doesn’t need to divide the world into “good” and “bad”; it is enough to understand whether our actions cause harm or not, and go from there. Absolutist notions of right and wrong, coupled with the delusion of a fixed self, can wreak havoc with practice, and lay the ground for what may be the single biggest hindrance we American prac- titioners face: our inner critical voice – those old tapes that tell us we’re flawed or deficient in some basic way. This self-hatred, as some teachers call it, appears to be a uniquely Western affliction (rein- forced for millions, it would seem, by the doctrine of original sin), and one that Americans may spe- cialize in. At a 1993 Dharamsala meeting of West- ern Buddhist teachers with the Dalai Lama, one of the participants asked him about this phenomenon, which was so alien a concept to His Holiness that his translator spent five to ten minutes trying to explain it – with decidedly uncertain success. IMPATIENCE We instinctively reach for the quick fix, an impulse that ethically-challenged teachers are eager to exploit. But just as it took us a long time to get into this predicament called ignorance, it will take a long time for us to get out. Related to this impa- tience is our legendary restlessness (already cited roshi bodhin KJolhede is abboT of The roChesTer Zen CenTer and dharma sUCCessor To The laTe roshi PhiliP KaPleaU. by bodhin kJolhede