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Buddhadharma : Win 2012
52 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY WINTER 2 0 1 2 T he introduction of Buddhism to the West has necessarily involved comparing and contrasting various aspects of Buddhism with our own religious culture, and Bud- dhism has come off quite well. The earliest interested Westerners saw Buddhism as a refreshingly undogmatic psychospiritual approach that was much more rational than the faith-obsessed Christianity of their day. Actual engagement in Buddhist practice exploded in the West in the 1960s. The dharma seemed in perfect accord with an alienated genera- tion in flight from convention and desperate for a wide-open form of spiritual exploration. Naturally, meditation—personal, colorful, and potentially transformative—was paramount. Buddhism in this period tended to attract adventurous and rebellious types quite willing to sacrifice normal life for the transcendence that intensive meditation practice promised. In the ensuing fifty years, the Western cultural conversation about the positive psychological and health effects of meditation has made Buddhism much more mainstream and respectable. In the West, then, for a variety of reasons, meditation has always been seen as the essence of a Buddhism understood as beyond ritual, tradition, and even religion, a “science of mind” relevant to anyone, regardless of their particular religious com- mitment or belief. “Secular Buddhism” without dogma has become the norm for most practitioners—even those who take up intensive practice in one of the Asian traditions. All of this is in great contrast to Asia, where Buddhism has always been very much a religion intertwined with history and culture and bolstered by beliefs, rituals, clergy, and a long scho- lastic tradition. In Tibet, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, and many other Asian nations, Buddhism forms the basis of national identity, just as Catholicism did for generations in Europe. This difference raises the question: have Western Buddhists liberated Buddhism from its historical trappings, freeing it to be the open empirical practice it was always intended to be? Or have we missed the point, “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” and “watering down the dharma,” reducing Buddhism to a meditation practice made in our own image to suit our contemporary needs? And if we have done this, is this necessarily a bad thing? In Asia, meditation was never the be-all and end-all of the dharma—certainly not for lay practitioners. Even monastics historically tended to be more involved in ritual, adminis- tration, study, and politics. Meditation was the province of the few dedicated clerics who had the taste for it, and even they understood meditation as a religious act rather than a psychological process for self-understanding. The idea that millions of lay followers would seriously take up meditation for personal reasons, without any ritual container or religious faith, probably still strikes many Asian Buddhists as odd. In the 1990s, I saw a film routinely shown to visiting laypeople at Eihei-ji monastery in Japan that depicted the tough struggle dedicated monks must go through in order to practice zazen. It was an effort no non-monastic Asian watching the film would ever have dreamed of attempting. A generation ago, Buddhist scholars studied scriptures and doctrines. Today’s scholars of Buddhism and other religions spend more time studying history and culture. They believe that religion is what religion does, not what it says. And what religion does, Buddhism included, has more to do with cul- ture, history, economics, ethics, ritual, and society than with personal experience. Perhaps we are at a stage in Western Bud- dhism where the subjective experience of meditation is para- mount, but could we be moving to a stage where other elements of Buddhism will take on increasing importance, which schol- ars of religion with their perspective see as typical for religions? It may be that the Western emphasis on meditation over other aspects of Buddhism marks a beginning stage. Maybe as time goes on we, too, will find it necessary to incorporate the range of other Buddhist activities as a natural outgrowth of our meditation. This has certainly been true for me and for many others in the Zen lineage family to which I belong. We have found ourselves bowing, chanting, engaging in precept practice, performing elaborate rituals, and doing many other things we would never have anticipated, all flowing step by step from our meditation practice. But it may also be that Western Buddhism will follow an unprecedented path that bears little resemblance to Buddhism found in its Asian coun- tries of origin. As Buddhism continues to move forward in the West, what will its challenges be, and what role will meditation practice— and the many other practices of Buddhism—play? These are the issues explored in this forum. FORUM SHARON SALZBERG • GEOFFREY SHUGEN ARNOLD • GAYLON FERGUSON INTRODUCTION BY NORMAN FISCHER Is Meditation E nough? ZOKETSU NORMAN FISCHER is the founder and spiritual director of the Everyday Zen Foundation and a senior teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, where has served as co-abbot from 1995–2000.