Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Saying NO to Various Extremists

I have been pretty cantankerous the past few days, so it's possible that some of what I write will be a bit cranky, or maybe too straightforward for some people's tastes. It's been really interesting to notice how stating clearly where you're at when where you're at isn't so pleasant isn't what many people really want to hear. The old social formality of "How are you?" really gets put to the test when you answer "I feel crazy" or "Not well." Sure goes against the grain of the socially expected niceties.

So, I have been following a few conversations on various blogs that feel linked, so I'd like to comment on them together.

The first conversation has to do with comments made on a few blogs about mindfulness and meditation. Specifically, there seems to be competing narratives between the view that mindfulness is meditation and the view that mindfulness is a good teaching, but can never replace zazen, shikantaza, or just sitting.

Some of this seems to stem from an article in the recent Shambala Sun by Norman Fischer, which suggests that we might need a "Plan B" when it comes to Buddhism in the West. He offers that in his own practice, and teaching, he has developed parallel practices which compliment each other, and which reach different, but sometimes overlapping groups of students. One practice appears to be much more traditional zen. It emphasizes zazen, chanting, and meditation retreats. The other practice is more experimental, and emphasizes things like mindfulness, stress-reduction teachings from Jon Kabit-Zinn among others, and talking circles.

Now, I have to say that I find Norman Fischer's approach to be a very wise response to the many conundrums of Buddhist practice here in North America. It recognizes that some people will respond most readily to rigorous, "old school" if you will approaches to the dharma. And that others are in a place where they are most likely to respond to much more hybrid approaches that push the boundaries of what is and isn't Buddhist practice.

I can say that I sometimes believe that some of the experiments being done in the name of opening the door of Buddha's teachings are definitely watered down, and problematic. One blog I read recently mentioned that some people were suggesting, for example, that mindfully watching TV or turning down the water heater temperature after a shower were both forms of meditation. As the writer of that blog said: this is nonsense! And really we need to be on the look out for anything that is really TV Dinner Zen - those practices that are "sold" as quick and easy and guaranteed to make you feel better.

At the same time, I am extremely turned off by those who damn any form of experimentation and shift away from what was handed down to us as false or wrong practice. Specifically, I am pointing at suggestions that the only "true" practices are zazen (sitting meditation), sesshin (retreat practice), and chanting as accompaniment to meditation practice. I say this as someone who meditates nearly every day, and who loves "just sitting" precisely because of it's profound impact on my life.

Let's face it: not everyone is ready to hack either sitting practice or retreat practice. Let's go beyond that: millions of Buddhists around the world do neither, and yet I would argue find a way to live Buddha teachings in a way that is no less enlightened than those of us who practice primarily by doing zazen. Let's add a third set of variables: money and time. How many low income single mothers or fathers can regularly do meditation retreats? Or even how many parents of little children in general, or adults taking care of elderly parents, can regularly do meditation retreats? Maybe these people can squeeze a half an hour or hour of sitting meditation in a day. But these same people might be able to do other practices that help them dig into their lives, and maybe even awaken to the truth of their lives in ways that are similar to how sitting practice works for those of us who do it.

It frankly seems insulting to suggest to people who have tons of obligations, or who are poor and must work multiple jobs to pay their bills, that their practices are sub-par, and that things like mindfulness practices and simple mantras and chants are "lesser" practices and can only lead so far. I've grown a bit tired of the middle and upper-middle class biases that are prevalent in much of North American convert Buddhism, and challenge all of us to examine those biases, and recognize that we cannot be a "one size fits all" kind of practice if we truly vow to free all beings from suffering.

The way I see it, we are still in a transition phase when it comes to Buddhist practice in the "West." Things have yet to settle, yet to merge in ways that truly reflect things as they are for us. So, I say it's folly to toss out everything that was handed down to us from the past. That includes some of the rituals, chants, and our meditation practices. We need these. But it's also folly to toss out innovations of the present and recent past. That includes mindfulness based stress reduction, talking circles, revised ritual forms, on-line spiritual communities, etc.

In a way, both those who argue for strict adherence to the traditions that were handed to them from Eastern teachers, and those who argue that we should toss out all forms and rituals from the past are playing with fire. They represent two sides of extremism - one that carries with it a fundamentalist view of the dharma, and the other which plays into the worst aspect of modernism (i.e. the make it new and to hell with the past aspect.)

The debates over what practice looks like, and how it might take form, is a very valuable one. If we have a healthy plurality of approaches in the future, some that appear more similar to those found in Japan, China, and other eastern nations, and some which are very different from that, we will be very fortunate. However, if too many of us act like we have THE answers to how Buddhist practice MUST look in the West, we'll eventually be just like many of our Christian, Muslim, and Jewish brothers and sisters, who can't seem to see that in the end, we are all interconnected, and divine.


Anonymous said...

Very well said that man! Wonderful.

Anonymous said...

I agree! If more of us took the time to mind our own practice and less time deciding who isnt "doing it right" then maybe all these 'problems' would take care of themselves.

Im a daily sitter myself and zen buddhism has definitely been my flavor of choice but i try to never forget that most of the buddhist world arent zennies and they seem to be doing just fine.

thank you for your writing.

ZenDotStudio said...

Nathan, did you get bitten by that squirrel ?! (no just joking). Great rant (I mean post). Lots of good commentary. I agree Buddhism is still just coming into form here in the West and because of it's very nature, I think it does accommodate itself to the prevailing culture (at least that is my understanding of it). So who knows how this will all shake down.

I guess when I think about meditation and practice I ask the question "why are we doing this?" Now call me a single cell amoeba, but I think we sit so that we can become present in our everyday life, so sitting is really a means to an end and that end is mindfulness. Are there many paths to mindfulness? Probably. Are some better than others? Probably. Have I said enough. Probably.

Algernon said...

I'm grateful for anybody's sincere effort to wake up in this lifetime. It is unimportant if the formal practice looks different than mine.

There is a lot of "checking" going on in western Buddhism. Years ago, I stopped reading magazines like Tricycle, around the time Robert Thurman was announcing to the world that anyone who did not believe in reincarnation was not really practicing Buddism. That might have been back in the 1990's, so I've been out of the loop for a while.

I love people who do traditional formal Zen in a wholehearted effort to wake up in this lifetime. I love people who do street retreats for the same reason, or do hybrid and experimental forms.

None of these forms are special. Attaching to any of them and making them "the right way" or "the wrong way" is a made-up problem.

I guess we're on the same page.

Nathan said...

"I'm grateful for anybody's sincere effort to wake up in this lifetime."

Yes! This is the heart of the matter, isn't it? Sincere effort day after day.

Oh, and I didn't get bitten by the squirrel, at least as far as I know :)

Brooke Schedneck said...

This is a huge topic in 'Western Buddhism' and the buddhoblogosphere these days. I think your balanced comments are helpful. It is too easy to say that mindfulness is just some kind of cop-out, when it is helpful for some. Although I think this, I still can't help but also think that mindfulness is a kind of appropriation of 'the East' as you wrote on my blog. Western Buddhists took what they thought was the most useful part/practice of Buddhism, and then made it easier/being able to fit into daily lay life.