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Buddhadharma : Summer 2009
37 summer 2 00 9 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly In the 1980s, two emi- nent Asian Buddhist teach- ers appeared on the Western dharma scene: Thich Nhat Hanh and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Each made early visits to the San Francisco Zen Center and astounded us by delivering exactly the opposite message. They had no wish to spread Buddhism or to convert anyone. Both wrote appreciative books on Christianity, and said that Buddhism’s mission in the West was not to establish a beachhead, but rather to help Westerners return, with renewed spirit, to their own religions. Among the early voices that introduced Buddhism to the West (people like D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and Christmas Humphreys) there was a point of view that Bud- dhism was beyond religion. All the trappings, all the Asian cultural stuff—the chanting, the robes, the incense, the piety, the family tradition— was extra, and even a corrup- tion of what was originally a purely rational, psychological, almost scientific, approach to the mind. Meditation was the heart of this Buddhist approach. According to this view, if you sat down in meditation, with an honest effort to investigate the mind deeply, you would eventu- ally, given enough time and energy, achieve enlightenment, a non-conceptual transformative experience that was the basis of all religions, though most had become corrupt and had lost track of it. So when the early American Vipassana teachers came home from their Asian sojourns in the late 1960s and early 1970s it made perfect sense to them to abstract pure meditation prac- tice from its Asian Buddhist contexts and teach what they saw as a “secular” form of dharma that anyone could participate in, regardless of tradition or circumstances. The idea that Bud- dhism and Buddhist meditation was nonreligious drew many thousands of Americans to the dharma, in spite of the fact they never had any intention of joining an Asian religion. This view of Buddhism is considered completely incorrect by most contemporary Buddhist scholars I know and have read. They maintain that there is no way to strip religion from its context, and that without its texts, rituals, customs, and traditions, it isn’t Buddhism at all. Moreover, they maintain that whatever good might come from meditation practice as a so-called secular activity is pretty superficial. It won’t last. Or, if it does last, it will be so watered down, so unmoored from any cultural ballast, from any actual substance, that it will eventually be subsumed into the general American con- sumerist madness (as, they feel, yoga has been). I have been considering these various perspectives about what Buddhism is and what it has to offer in the West as I try, through no intention of my own, but because I seem to have had no choice, to apply Buddhism thoughtfully and flexibly to life in post-modern Western culture. Recently I participated in a Buddhadharma panel discus- sion on the future of Buddhism in a post-baby boomer world. The moderator, an old-timer like myself, asked whether there were enough young people coming up through the ranks to sustain healthy Buddhist communities. The other panelists were much younger. One was in her early twenties, just beginning her practice. As it turned out, I was more a listener and a learner than a wisdom-spout- ing elder, and my impression was that for the most part these younger practitioners were not interested in doing what I and many other boomers had done: throw ourselves into an Asian tradition, give our lives over to it, and to one extent or another live on the margins of mainstream American society. These young people seemed to be insisting that Buddhism speak to them as post-modern Americans. They seemed to feel that Buddhism was going to have to be more flexible, more open, lighter on its feet, if it is to survive in the world in which they’re living. Depending on your view of what Buddhism is or should be, you will either be cheered up or discouraged by this point of view. It will seem either self-centered and naive, or refreshingly honest and expansive. It will either mean that Buddhism in the coming generation is doomed to fade away and disappear into mainstream culture, becoming nothing more than another “brand” (and some say it already has become that), or it means that Buddhism will thrive and develop in as yet undreamed of ways. Pick one. Or both. (Facing page) Norman Fischer leads a discussion group at Spirit Rock's annual retreat for lawyers and others working in the legal profession, including judges and law students. The retreat is co-sponsored by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. (Below) Fischer (in background) and the late Rabbi Alan Lew (in foreground) during a retreat at Makor Or, a Jewish meditation center they co-founded in San Francisco in 2000. Makor Or offers Jewish meditation but draws its technique from basic Zen meditation practice. Marilyn Heiss (center) reads from the Torah. MakororarchiveSWaltopie/Spiritrock