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Western Buddhism: The 50 Year Lessons

Posted: 11/04/2011 12:41 pm

It's been about 50 years since the bulk of the Asian meditation masters arrived here -- Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, Vietnamese and so on. Many of us have spent our whole adult lives trying to practice and absorb what they taught us. I've been thinking recently about the "50 year lessons" that we have gleaned during this time.

Some of the lessons have been transformative, others disappointing. Many of the lessons we learned the hard way -- by making mistake after mistake (which is what my teacher Suzuki Roshi characterized as the basic quality of Buddhist practice, even for teachers). In this and the next post I want to present my 50 year lessons, at least those I have thought of so far.

Enlightenment Is Not What We Thought

In the early days, the '60s and '70s, peoples' notions of enlightenment came from three sources: books, psychedelics and living teachers -- probably in about that order. I have written before about the way that D.T. Suzuki's "Essays on Zen Buddhism" books promulgated the word "enlightenment" to describe an experience rather particular to his brand of Buddhist practice -- the Rinzai Zen of Japan. His description probably wouldn't have been nearly as compelling if it hadn't dovetailed nicely with peoples' psychedelic drug experiences. Asian teachers tried to disavail people of the notion that an acid trip was enlightenment, and we nodded sagely. But those early formative experiences persist as powerful imprints. I talk to many 40 year Buddhist practitioners who still reference their early acid trips -- or even their recent ones -- as an essential aspect of their spiritual understanding.

For the next generation of Buddhists, and even now, the '60s counterculture and its fascination with altered states is ancient history. The younger Buddhists bring their own very different frames of reference to their spiritual quest. Maybe the lesson is simply that "enlightenment" is not something to be understood or experienced as much as to be lived. What I often say to people is that Buddhism is not about what you believe, but about how you live and what you do. Your spiritual experiences, deep though they might be, don't really mean much until you've lived them out. Once, long ago, I wrote an essay called "Enlightenment is Behavior." It was controversial then, and probably still would be today.

Meditation Isn't Good For Everything

I don't know why we ever thought this. Maybe it was because meditation seemed so new and special that felt like a panacea for all our problems and questions. What we have now discovered is that meditation does not cure everything. As my teacher used to say, "Sometimes zazen doesn't help. Sometimes nothing helps." Meditation isn't necessarily good at fixing relationships, at dealing with deep-seated traumas and psychological disorders, it may or may not help with depression (there is some evidence that it does sometimes), it doesn't help us get a job or keep a job. Meditation is unique unto itself, but meditation isn't life. Buddhism is about life; meditation is one of its tools (and only one).

When I was working in the corporate world the warehouse manager came to me and said, "Lew, you know about this meditation stuff. I have a Buddhist on my staff and he just works too slowly. If he doesn't speed up I'll have to let him go." I spoke to the employee and he explained, "I'm just trying to be mindful." I told him to go to a Japanese restaurant and watch the sushi chefs at work. They are mindful too, I said; they work with sharp knives and are very quick. I'm not sure he took my advice. Soon after he was let go.

Of course there are a whole range of benefits that meditation brings; they have now have been validated by scientific testing. Meditation can be hugely beneficial. We just have to remember that it does what it does, and doesn't do what it doesn't do. Meditation is not life, nor is life meditation. They are interrelated but different.

Religious Corruption Is Universal

This is a big, uncomfortable lesson that many in the Dharma world are still learning. The books on Buddhism, and even many of its teachers, often present an idealized Dharma package that leaves out the messy and unsavory reality of how human beings, including Buddhist human beings, really behave. We bring our own idealized dreams and wishes to the Dharma, thinking that it is the cure-all for the messiness of being human -- at least much better than the religions of our childhood! The fact is that Buddhist leaders, both in Asia and in the West, come in all shapes, sizes, degrees of understanding and tendencies to go off the rails.

Even after 50 years, Buddhism in the West is very much the Wild West. The trail of scandals, bad behaviors, betrayal and disappointment, has been long and is still unfolding. Those who stick with their practice regardless can understand that this is just the way it is and learn from what happens. That fact doesn't demean the deep truths that Dharma brings; it is just another one of those deep truths. There are so many pitfalls in practice, and those who study the teachings of the ancients can see that they knew all about these matters, and tried to warn us. Dharma is reality. We have to continually face that, rejecting what is false, and embracing what is true, however painful.

Fifty-year Lessons for future posts: Prejudice Against Women Runs Deep, Conflict is Part of the Path, The Next Generation Will Be Different -- Really Different.

 
 
 

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