Peter over at living and dying with eyes wide open had a post yesterday which has been hanging with me. The major thrust of the post is a questioning of the ritualistic, highly monastic forms and language found in most convert Zen communities. I appreciate his desire to open the doors to more people, and the wondering of how that might happen, but I'm also a bit troubled.
First, here's his post:
Something’s been troubling me about this thing called practice. When I first came to Zen, my personal likes and dislikes got in the way. I didn’t like chanting lines in Japanese and Sanskrit, thought there was too much bowing, too many robes, too much mumbo-jumbo. Over time that very practice has helped me to see such “obstacles” for what they are, namely ego-based impediments that have little or nothing to do with living a good life. I’m now grateful for the ethical framework that Buddhism provides. It guides me through the chaos of everyday existence and people tell me that I’ve become more gentle and less judgemental. So far so good.
Recent conversations with friends about someone they believe would “really benefit” from meditating but “won’t come for x-number of reasons” cause me look a little closer at what I take for granted. If it’s such a good thing, this practice, why aren’t more people coming to it? What gets in the way? What turns people away from trying and what, should they give it a try, prevents them from returning? What barriers might we remove to provide freer access?
In a practice that stresses non-duality and inclusivity, I’m struck by texts and images that seem clubby and exclusive. In our city (which is anything but a hotbed of Buddhist activities) meditation opportunities are offered in several flavours, including Tibetan, Shambhala, Vipassana, as well as Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Soto, and Rinzai Zen. Teachers sport such arcane titles as Reverend Master, osho, sensei, rinpoche, venerable, lama, priest, and roshi; others are called elders, monks, shusso, benji, doan, ino, or by given names in Asian languages. Websites refer to proper etiquette (such as when and how to bow, and which foot to put first when entering, how to hold your hands while walking, and so on). Pictures show people wearing special outfits (some crown-like hats), burning incense, bowing to statues, sitting on round cushions while facing blank walls, walking lock-step in close formation, ringing bells, hitting wooden boards, and holding their hands in what may well be prayer. Hello !!
All that so people can sit still and pay attention to their breath?
I know of formally trained teachers who have taken off their robes and offer meditation with little jargon, titles, and ritual. In some traditions, Vipassana (as taught by SN Goenka) for instance, the emphasis is on silent sitting and focusing on the breath: no Buddha images in sight. Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), widely used in American hospitals, teaches patients meditation techniques to help lower blood pressure and improve immune systems. Abundant research attests to MBSR’s benefits, its Buddhist roots are rarely mentioned.
I've written plenty about my disagreements with those who wish to strip everything cultural (i.e. Japanese, Chinese, Korean ...) from Buddhism to expose some "core" of practice. It's folly because everything develops within a cultural/societal framework, and although it will change whenever it moves, it still will also contain influences from its native setting. Zen itself is a hybrid - but it would be absolutely silly to suggest that nothing of Indian origins of Buddhism is left in Zen. The search for a "core" in Buddhism is as fruitless in my view as the search for a "fixed self."
What Peter is considering here may contain a bit of that flavor, but I don't think it's driven by a goal of finding some pure essence of Buddhism. Having read his blog for awhile now, I can see the deep respect he has for how he's learned to practice.
The thing I get stuck on when I consider his comments above is that everything seems to come down to meditation. Buddhist practice is more than just meditation though, as even any monastic would tell you. But just as Yoga's arrival in North America, Europe, Australia, etc. led quickly to a very heavy emphasis on asanas (physical body poses), so much of convert Buddhism has has a heavy emphasis on meditation practice.
Look. I practice Soto Zen, whose founder, Dogen, emphasized seated meditation. It makes sense that zazen would be a prominent feature. But if it was only about getting people to sit down and watch their breath, then why in the hell did Dogen write a huge pile of texts concerning ethics, relationships, ritual, work, and awakening, amongst other topics? What's the point of writing an entire manual on how to be a Zen Cook if the core practice is meditation?
The reality is that every major spiritual tradition includes some form of meditation. It's really not unique to Buddhism, and so even though people like Kabit-Zinn (founder of MBSR) took their cues from Buddhist forms of meditation, they might have produced similar results secularizing something like Centering Prayer. So, I think it's important for those of us who are interested in creating "more access" to, or "opening the doors of Buddhism to" more people, to see that meditation isn't what makes Buddhism unique.
A point I made over at Peter's blog in response to his post yesterday is that just as there are many flavors of Buddhism, so, too, are there flavors of Protestant Christianity. And just as there are many ritualistic aspects to Zen, so, too, are there ritualistic aspects to Catholicism. Clearly, this turns many off. But others thrive in it. Different flavors are needed for different people is the way I see it.
Peter writes: "In a practice that stresses non-duality and inclusivity, I’m struck by texts and images that seem clubby and exclusive."
I have been too, but in different ways most likely. Convert Buddhist communities have been notoriously race and class unconscious, for one thing. It's hard not to get a bit cynical when you step into a Zen or Tibetan center and see fifty or seventy five white, middle and/or upper class folks and a hand full of well off people of color in the room. Another thing, which my own center has addressed pretty well in my view, is stepping into a room where there are no children, few elders, no food, and little socializing at all. We have taken steps to develop a more well-rounded community, one that actually feels like a community, and not just several dozen people coming together for a few hours every week to meditate and listen to a dharma talk. We have elders. We have lots of children around. We are socializing more. We even have food to share pretty frequently now.
I love doing meditation in a group. In fact, it would be hard for me to sustain a meditation practice without access to fairly regular group sittings. After several years, I can do it on my own. But it's easier when you have a group to go to and work together with.
However, sangha is more than just silently practicing together, and I suspect that this is something Peter's post is aiming at without directly saying so. Newcomers, who don't know what's going on and feel very out of place, are probably more likely to never come back if a group doesn't have a prominent social element.
So, I'd be interested to know what you all think about this. Is convert Buddhism too clubby and exclusive? If yes, in what ways? Do you feel, like Peter, that there are too many "bells and whistles"?
Even though Buddhism has been in North America over 150 years, it's still true that it's a newcomer, and people are still finding their way. So, it's important to have these kinds of discussions, and consider what we might be leaving the generations that will follow us.