Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Fully Enlightened Dharma Heir Required for Establishment of "Western" Buddhism: Film at Eleven

I enjoyed writing that piece on clothing and naked buddhas this morning, but when I looked at it again this evening, it felt a bit too metaphoric. So, I took it down for now. Maybe it will reappear again, but in the meantime, here's a big bone for everyone to chew on, courtesy of today's Tricycle blog:

In Tricycle’s most recent issue there is a piece titled “It Takes a Saint.” In this piece, Tai Situpa Rinpoche shares his beliefs on what it will take for Buddhism to become truly established in the West. He writes,

“I’ll make it simple: One Western person must attain full enlightenment in the same way as Marpa, Milarepa, or Padmasambhava. If one Westerner—man or woman, doesn’t matter—attains that level of realization, then pure dharma will be established in Western culture, Western language, and environment, and so forth. Until that time, dharma can be taught in the West, which is already happening; it can be practiced in the West, which is already happening; and it can be recited in Western languages. But it’s not yet one hundred percent complete.”

Read the whole piece here.

For me, it was love at first sight with this article. I remember reading it for the first time and holding back the urge to cheer while reading certain passages (particularly when Tai Situpa speaks of what would happen if such a Mahasiddha rose above New York City while singing the perfect dharma song for New Yorkers). Yet before long I realized that what was striking me so deeply was not necessarily what he was saying, but where the piece was taking me in my mind—to a West where the Dharma was utterly thriving. THAT is what had me on the verge of joyful cheers. Once I noticed this, I began to question his main point and I realized that while I don’t necessarily disagree, I don’t necessarily agree either. I’m not sure what the answer to the question is.

The writer of the post goes on to interview a few people he knows, asking them what they thought. One said the dharma is established, but just young. Another felt we needed a strong monastic tradition before any claims of established dharma can be made. Neither answer does much for me, but this "established/not established" argument does bring up a question for me. What is behind these kinds of discussions anyway? Are people trying to measure up? Too focused on what has fruited, and not enough on all the seeds being planted? I guess I don't know for sure, but before long - maybe 50 or 100 years - this kind of talk will be history. And then what? Maybe there will be a different issue to deal with - like an "established" dinosaur that doesn't attract anyone's attention.

I personally rather enjoy this somewhat unsettled, often experimental, and sometimes confused thing called Buddhism here in North America. Where else could you have a 100 year old + Buddhist organization be considered both "youthful" and open to major changes? Among other things, said organization, the Buddhist Churches of America, has had an ongoing debate about adding practices like sitting meditation that appeal to non-Japanese practitioners. Now, similar debates and changes are being made in sanghas in places like Thailand, but the difference is that in the United States, the traditional practices aren't really that old. And if you look at the oldest groups, be it the BCA or a place like San Francisco Zen Center, major changes and shifts in emphasis have been more normal than long periods of consistency.

And although it can certainly be a source of confusion, conflict, and sloppy dharma, I have to say that living in the middle of such a flux is pretty damned interesting. Whether or not a viable practice called Buddhism has been established, I'll let the philosophers decide that issue. How about you?

*painting by Rene Magritte


Chong Go Sunim said...

In some sense, I flinch when I hear the word "established" because from the context it oftens sounds like people mean "institionalized."

The Dharma's already here, though a great teacher sure wouldn't hurt! However, if I look at the stories of the great teachers, nearly all of the arose outside of the "system," and were often harshly criticized or persecuted, even within their own cultures.

It seems to me that the laissez-faire scene in the West is a wonderful state, allowing the Dharma to flurish without the restrictions of an institionalized system.

Mumon K said...

The masters of old didn't consciously plan this out; even Siddhartha was reluctant to teach at first.

Unknown said...

As someone who's much more involved in the (American) yoga world, I have to say that I really like that you all in the Buddhist community have these sorts of engaged discussions. Regardless of what answer (or not), each person comes to, I think that cultivating that robust, reflective, thinking element is important. I'd like to see more of it in the yoga community - but on the whole people just don't seem that interested.

Nathan said...

Hi Carol,

I've spent a lot of time in the yoga world as well, and my experience is similar. These kinds of discussions don't seem to happen enough, regardless of where they could go.


Barry said...

If I had to wager on the future of Buddhism in the West, I'd wager that it will go deeply underground . . . in the sense that it will become ordinary, daily activity - like yoga and flossing.

And, like yoga and flossing, people will benefit from it without ever connecting with a great teacher or a sutra.

Our culture - at least in North America - doesn't seem particularly susceptible to the "great man" theory of change.

Sure, there are televangelists who can extract lots of money from their viewers - charisma can take someone a long way in our culture. But the work of genuine human transformation will forever remain at odds with the "I, my, me, mine" mind that forms the basis of Western culture.

I sure hope I'm wrong.

Nathan said...

Hi Barry,

I hope you're wrong too, but in the near future anyway, I think it's pretty accurate that "the work of genuine human transformation will ... remain at odds with the "I, my, me, mine" mind that forms the basis of Western culture."