Saturday, June 12, 2010

"Twilight Zone of Buddhism"

There's a thoughtful post over at the blog The Dojin Roku addressing some of the many ways people get attached to the forms, rituals, and ceremonies of Buddhist practice. It's an interesting issue that brings up all sorts of madness. Some people want to be rid of all that stuff and just meditate together. Others want to be "perfect" at every form, and can't stand the "sloppiness" that comes with entire sanghas full of people doing the forms and rituals together. Still others are attached to debating the merits or lack there of when it comes to such things as zendo etiquette or oryoki meals during meditation retreats.

However, the thing that struck me most about the post didn't really have to do these issues. Or, more precisely, the stuckness around these issues brought up another set of issues for me. Yesterday, I posted this link to a guest post over at Sweep the Dirt Push the Dust. One of the things Andrea, the author of the post, wrote about was the lack of a sense of welcoming she felt amongst Buddhist communities in the U.S.

She was speaking particularly as a woman of color, but I know that this issue exists to some degree regardless of a person's background. Despite its arrival in pop culture, actual Buddhist centers and temples are still foreign territory for most Americans. People have all kinds of crazy ideas about what we Buddhists are doing, and why. And those who actually are curious and want to experience a Buddhist service, or learn about meditation, often have to make a leap into the unknown. Some will argue this is a good thing. A real taste of the practice if there ever was one, and I partly agree. And yet, if this leap is followed by anything less than kindness and openness to the mixture of curiosity, anxiety, and confusion many people have coming into a Buddhist community for the first time, then what you get is a lot of one time visitors who never return.

So, what struck me about the Dojin Roku post was the following:

I remember when I decided to return to practicing Zen beyond just zazen, I searched for a sangha in my local community and found a Zen center. I was thrilled and contacted them right away. I was informed I would need to attend a mandatory class before I would be able to attend and sit with the group. Thinking that was for people unfamiliar with zazen, I let them know I had been practicing meditation for a minimum of 20 years. “It doesn’t matter. You have to come to the class, and we aren’t doing another class for a couple of months.” I wondered what could be so incredibly critical about sitting as to require such deep instruction. Had I crossed into the Twilight Zone of Buddhism? I wondered. Through the years I have heard similar stories from many frustrated zenners. “I was so panicked about making sure I was doing everything just right that I couldn’t meditate!”

I've heard stories like this about other centers across the country. They are, in my opinion, extreme examples, but they cause me to pause every time I hear them.

My own sangha has made many efforts around manifesting welcome-ness. We have greeters at the door during all services and events. We have introduction sessions that are open to all, but not required of all who walk in the door. We offer beginning level classes on a regular basis to support the budding practices of newer members and others in the community. And we have been more recently expanding the social element of community through all sangha events like camping weekends, and through individual members kindly opening their homes to have others over for meditation and socializing. I'm sure we could come up with other ways to enhance what we're already doing, but it's a far cry from the exclusiveness that the Zen center mentioned above seems to display.

In my opinion, having places that are open and welcoming to all are vital to developing a lively lay Buddhist community, which is what most of us will be a part of for better or worse. There just aren't that many people who can, or will, become monastics, and you have to have a thriving lay community to support the monastics anyway.

So, this is our work as I see it, to be more open and welcoming in whatever ways we can. Cause the Twilight Zone might have been fun to watch on TV, but I doubt many of us actually would want to go and spend any time in a place like that.


Ven. Lawrence Dō'an Grecco said...

This is a very important issue to highlight. I do think that some Buddhist centers have way too much build up around the practice of meditation and make it seem inaccessible and daunting for a newcomer. Fortunately the vast majority of centers (at least here in NYC) do offer a free introductory class in meditation.

Brikoleur said...

This is tricky stuff. How to be welcoming without being overbearing? Ideally, it should be as easy to walk into a zendo as your living room. How to achieve that is another question altogether. If you're too welcoming, you'll seem creepy; if you're not welcoming enough, you'll seem stand-offish. A Middle Way, yet again...

Nathan said...

It's partly an issue around the goals of an organization. If you want to be solely about a monastic-like approach - or if you are a monastery - then certain barriers are probably fine.

But for the majority of places that are really about lay practice, it should be about opening and welcoming.

Oh, yes, and I totally agree Petteri that "creepy" isn't a good idea. This might be the difference between being attractive in a certain way - i.e. having an active community that offers lots of entry points - vs. selling and promoting everything like Genpo Roshi's place seems to do.

Ishu Kinshu said...

Thank you for your comments. I'm glad you took the other topic that was hinted at but not addressed in this specific post. I have been quite saddened at the number of people who have walked away from a center or sangha feeling it was elitist or unwelcoming as well as when I hear comments that someone hasn't been through jukai because it requires monetary support of a center, among other things.

I feel we often lose sight of the Buddha's most powerful lessons of simplicity. The koan of a sunrise is often a better teacher than all the myriad forms and trappings that hundreds of years of cultural impressions have created. Not that they don't have their place, but not at the sacrifice of other things.