Friday, May 15, 2009

Open and Flexible

In the current issue of Buddhadharma, Soto Zen priest Norman Fischer has an intriguing article about the evolution of Buddhism in the "West." Specifically, he proposes that if we do not remain open and flexible in terms of how we teach, learn, and enact the dharma, it's possible that zen, and other forms of Buddhism will either fade,or simply be the province of a privileged few here in the West. (side note: I find the whole west-east language construction problematic, but haven't come up with a better one as of yet.)

Of what Fischer writes, I find this comment fairly provocative: "Buddhism (as Thich Nhat Hanh might say) is made of non-Buddhist elements; that is, while we appreciate and honor Buddhism's many cultural expressions, and recognize their importance, we know that there is no 'core' Buddhism within them that can be extracted and must be protected."

Now, as someone who appreciates many of the forms and rituals of Soto Zen, and feels that they support and inform me in many ways, Fischer's comment is a cause for pause. Not pause out of a fear of attachment to something that developed in another culture, or that I'm simply an American copycating Japanese ancestors. No, the pause is out of the recognition that this statement points to a democractic expression of form and structure when it comes to Buddhist practice. In other words, what it looks like, where it takes place, what forms and rituals accompany it, etc. are really up for negotiation.

The practice we have today, no matter if one lives in St. Paul, MN or in Columbo, Sri Lanka, is different in many ways from the practice that occured during the Buddha's time. This shouldn't come as a suprise for most of us, and yet I do believe that many of us still hold on to a view that somehow things really shouldn't change that much when it comes to spiritual traditions, and that those who innovate and move outside the box are somehow destroying or disparaging the dharma.

It strikes me that the recent "reforms" in the Catholic Church, as led by the ardent traditionalist Pope Benedict, should be a warning to us in western Buddhist communities. There has been a strong effort to eradicate or at least marginalize liberal and progressive Catholics in general, and to remove or demote those Catholic leaders who suggest anything that remotely threatens the hierarchy and patriarchy that runs the Church as a whole. In addition, such long discarded structures as papal indulgences and Latin mass have been reintroduced and promoted as more true espressions of the religion, never mind that they, too, were once new kids on the block. It's one thing to unearth old and forgotten teachings and rituals that might serve people in current times - I'm all for that. But it's quite another to suppress any and all innovations in the name of "keeping the tradition pure."

For those of us in Soto Zen land, it's absolutely important to remember that our founding teacher, Dogen, was something of a rabble rouser back in 13th century Japan. He abandoned what was considered to be The Practice in Japan, and went off to China to discover something more vital, more true to the calling he was experiencing. And upon his return, the emphasis he placed upon zazen, sitting meditation, as the main path to enlightment was fairly unique, and definitely not the norm in those days. Or even now.

It's fairly easy to suggest that things like Jon Kabit-Zinn's mindfuness-based teachings, or sanghas that have dispensed with robes and Japanese rituals, or Buddhist talking groups, or wacky teachers like Brad Warner, or even blogging are expressions of false dharma. But if you go down that route, without an awareness of history, then how can you really point to what is a true expression of dharma?

If we truly believe in Buddha's view that there are 84,000 dharma gates - in other words that there are innumerable ways to awaken - then it's best to remain open and flexible as to how Buddhism should unfold here in the West. This is not to throw out the critical eye that can thwart simplistic and incomplete innovations and expressions, but to recognize that what is skillful and enlightenment producing today may be very different from that which was in the past, or that which will be in the future.

Ah, good old impermanence.


Barry said...

I appreciate this post. When I read Fischer's article, it seemed to me that he was implicitly pointing to the subtle attachments that infest our conceptions of practice. These attachments will, of course, hinder our awakening to the full meaning of Buddhadharma. Thanks for your discussion of it.

zs said...


Robyn said...

great post - thank you!

Raymond said...


Very interesting post. I guess if this form of zen that Norman Fischer is alluding to would be more democratic, it would also be more Western in the sense that our culture is built upon this egalitarian sensibility.

I am intrigued. Internally, I have felt more and more compelled lately to strip myself of some of the more Asiatic rituals attached to zen and instead just sit, perhaps in the sense that a Quaker might sit - absent of all of the other things we associate with "zazen".

With traditional zen understanding it seems there is always this tension between what am I doing out of ego and what I am doing to legitimately and bravely take it upon myself to tailor the dharma the ever-changing conditions it interacts with - one aspect of which is its practitioners.

Thank you for the post.