by Judith Simmer-Brown
My topic is Buddhism in the 21st century, the legacy we are leaving our children. My first concern is a housekeeping concern. Have we set the American Buddhist house in order? Specifically, if our children wish to continue the traditions of Buddhist practice, what are we doing to make that possible? Have we created the ground of a truly American Buddhism which can sustain practice, community, and culture into the new millennium? Have we, the baby boomer generation, created a legacy which will nurture the hearts of the practitioners who are to follow?
Almost 30 years ago, in graduate school, I was introduced to what seemed arcane then, but relevant to me now. They were four classic criteria developed by Western Buddhologists, which predict the resilience of Buddhism in a new cultural setting. Specifically, what factors must be present if Buddhism is to survive beyond a single generation? While these criteria were developed from observation of Buddhism moving through Asia, with certain adjustments they may be of relevance for an assessment of American Buddhism.
These are the four criteria-elements of Asian Buddhist tradition necessary to assure the continuation of Buddhism in an American setting.
The first is, have the key sutras, commentaries, teachings, practices and liturgies been translated into English? And are these translations usable for the practice communities themselves? Excessively scholarly translations will not do - and translations which strip away all tradition dilute the richness of our Asian heritage. Access to these texts is a priority, and we must continue to work on this monumental task. The Tibetan tradition, for example, is most fragile: the situation in Tibet itself shows little improvement, and the great exiled masters of the traditions grow old and pass on. We know that we cannot translate these texts without their supervision and commentary. I must ask you this - have your communities worked with this? Are you training and supporting your translators and their translation projects?
The second criterion is, have the essence teachings been transmitted to American dharma heirs and students? Are these heirs trusted and respected by their Asian lineages, and have they received everything, with nothing held back? We must realize the incredible auspiciousness of our place in history. To receive these teachings requires sincere, heartfelt practice, fervent and sustained devotion, and unfailing communication. My teacher, Ven. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, passed on 11 years ago. I and others have dedicated ourselves to carrying on his heritage, his transmissions, his instructions. Do we understand the preciousness of human life, that our teachers will not live forever? How might we more fully receive the transmissions which they offer us?
The third criterion is, has a strong base of American patrons been established? In Buddhist history, this was accomplished by royal patronage, for if the king supported the dharma the people would as well. Obviously, it is somewhat different in 21st century America, but we need financial support and cultural sympathy in order for the dharma to thrive. Here, we court Hollywood, Washington, and Silicon Valley. Rockefeller, Ford, and Lilly. Patronage is an important chance to communicate something fundamental about the dharma and it is an acknowledgement of the ordinary practicalities of power, influence, and prestige. Without American patronage, there can be no sustained American Buddhism. What are we doing to ensure the future of the dharma through appropriate patronage?
And the fourth criterion is, has monastic ordination been fully passed to American monks and nuns? This category also reflects Buddhism's Asian history, in which monasteries served as preservers and propagators of the tradition. Where the monastery did not continue, there was no place where dharma could remain powerful outside of the whims and intrigues of cultural and political life. For the American context, we must preserve and nurture the monastic traditions which have fostered Buddhism in this way. But in the American context, the lay tradition is destined to play a major role in the continued development of Buddhism. Are there also strong places of practice for lay people, for the yoginis and yogis of our culture? Can we preserve the tradition, established in our "boomer" generation, of strong commitment to practice for everyone, both monastic and lay?
All of these criteria merely suggest the heart of our dharma connection. As first generation American Buddhists, we made practice our link, and it is practice which brought us here today. Practice has given us a new lease on life; practice has conquered the hopelessness and depression of our generation; practice has opened us to the suffering of the world without embittering or hardening us. Do we have the fundamentals of our practice established so that we can continue? Do we have the texts, the transmissions, the financial support, and the institutions and places of practice? And can we, above all, commit ourselves to continue to practice? Can we commit ourselves to teach our children, so that they can practice as well?
We must always remember, our practice is not just for ourselves. Of course, we practice for our teachers, out of gratitude and devotion for the precious jewel they have given us. We practice for our children, for all children, for all people in the next seven generations. We practice because this is how we are most alive. We practice because we don't know how not to practice. It is the only way to be who we are.
Most importantly, we practice so that we do not remain merely Buddhists. We cannot solidify our identities as Buddhists. We know that to hide in Buddhism is not the way to honor our teachers and to nurture our descendants. If the three refuges remove us from the suffering of the world, we have not understood them. American Buddhism must serve the world, not itself. It must become, as the 7th century Indian master Santideva wrote, the doctor and the nurse for all sick beings in the world until everyone is healed; a rain of food and drink an inexhaustible treasure for those who are poor and destitute.
Social Engagement in the World
This leads to the next level of reflection about my children in the 21st century: the importance of socially engaging in the world. My children, Owen and Alicia, will increasingly encounter suffering; we can only imagine the kinds of suffering our children will encounter. Even now, we see the poor with not enough food and no access to clean and safe drinking water; we see ethnic and religious prejudice that would extinguish those who are different; we see the sick and infirm who have no medicine or care; we see rampant exploitation of the many for the pleasure and comfort of the few; we see the demonization of those who would challenge the reign of wealth, power, and privilege. And we know the 21st century will yield burgeoning populations with an ever-decreasing store of resources to nourish them.
Fueling this suffering is the relentless consumerism which pervades our society and the world. Greed drives so many of the damaging systems of our planet. The socially engaged biologist Stephanie Kaza reminds me, in America each of us consumes our body weight each day in materials extracted and processed from farms, mines, rangelands, and forests-120 pounds on the average. Since 1950, consumption of energy, meat, and lumber has doubled; use of plastic has increased five-fold; use of aluminum has increased seven-fold; and airplane mileage has increased 33-fold per person. We now own twice as many cars as in 1950. And with every bite, every press of the accelerator, every swipe of the credit card in our shopping malls, we have left a larger ecological footprint on the face of the world. We have squeezed our wealth out of the bodies of plantation workers in Thailand, farmers in Ecuador, factory workers in Malaysia.
The crisis of consumerism is infecting every culture of the world, most of them emulating our American lifestyle. David Loy, in The Religion of the Market, considers whether consumption has actually become the new world religion. This religion of consumerism is based on two unexamined tenets or beliefs:
1) growth and enhanced world trade will benefit everyone, and
2) growth will not be constrained by the inherent limits of a finite planet. Its ground is ego gratification, its path is an ever-increasing array of wants, and its fruition is expressed in the Descartian perversion - "I shop, therefore I am." While it recruits new converts through the floods of mass media, it dulls the consumer, making us oblivious to the suffering in which we participate. "Shopping is a core activity in sustaining a culture of denial."
Now that communist countries throughout the world are collapsing, consumerism is all but unchallenged in its growth. As traditional societies become modern, consumerism is the most alluring path. Religious peoples and communities have the power to bring the only remaining challenge to consumerism. And Buddhism has unique insights which can stem the tide of consumptive intoxication.
How do we respond to all of this suffering? How will our children respond? It is easy to join the delusion, forgetting our Buddhist training. But when we return to it, we remember-the origin of suffering is our constant craving. We want, therefore we consume; we want, therefore we suffer. As practitioners, we feel this relentless rhythm in our bones. We must, in this generation, wake up to the threat of consumerism, and join with other religious peoples to find a way to break its grip. We must all find a way to become activists in the movement which explores alternatives to consumerism.
Three Kinds of Materialism
As American Buddhists, we must recognize the threats of consumerism within our practice, and within our embryonic communities and institutions. From a Tibetan Buddhist point of view, consumerism is just the tip of the iceberg. It represents only the outer manifestation of craving and acquisitiveness. Twenty-five years ago, my guru, the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, wrote one of first popular dharma books in America, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Its relevance only increases each year. He spoke of the three levels of materialism which rule our existence as expressions of ego-centered activity. Unchallenged, materialism will co-opt our physical lives, our communities, and our very practice.
Physical materialism refers to the neurotic pursuit of pleasure, comfort, and security. This is the outer expression of consumerism. Under this influence, we try to shield ourselves from the daily pain of embodied existence, while accentuating the pleasurable moments. We are driven to create the illusion of a pain-free life, full of choices which make us feel in control. We need 107 choices of yoghurt in a supermarket so full of choices we feel like queens of our universe. We go to 24-Plex movie theaters so that we can see whatever film we want, whenever we want. We need faster pain relievers, appliances to take away all inconvenience, and communication devices to foster immediate exchange. All of these create the illusion of complete pleasure at our finger-tips, with none of the hassle of pain. When we are ruled by this kind of physical materialism, we identify ourselves by what we have.
But this is just the beginning. On the next level, psychological materialism seeks to control the world through theory, ideology, and intellect. Not only are we trying to physically manipulate the world so that we don't have to experience pain, we do so psychologically as well. We create a theoretical construct which keeps us from having to be threatened, to be wrong, to be confused. We always put ourselves in control in this way. "As an American I have rights. As a woman, I deserve to be independent from expectations of men in my society. I earn my own salary, I can choose how I want to spend it. As a Buddhist, I understand interdependence..." Psychological materialism interprets whatever is threatening or irritating as an enemy. Then, we control the threat by creating an ideology or religion in which we are victorious, correct, or righteous; we never directly experience the fear and confusion which could arise from experiencing a genuine threat.
This is particularly perilous for the American Buddhist. In these times, Buddhism has become popular, a commodity which is used by corporations and the media. Being Buddhist has become a status symbol, connoting power, prestige and money. His Holiness' picture appears on the sets of Hollywood movies and in Apple computer ads; Hollywood stars are pursued as acquisitions in a kind of dharmic competition. Everyone wants to add something Buddhist to her resume. Buddhist Studies enrollments at Naropa have doubled in two years, and reporters haunt our hallways and classrooms. Conferences like this attract a veritable parade of characters like myself, hawking the "tools" of our trade.What is happening is that our consumer society has turned Buddhism into a commodity like everything else. And the seductions for the American Buddhist are clear. We are being seduced to use our Buddhism to promote our own egos, communities, and agendas in the American marketplace.
This still is not the heart of the matter. On the most subtle level, spiritual materialism carries this power struggle into the realm of our own minds, into our own meditation practice. Our consciousness is attempting to remain in control, to maintain a centralized awareness. Through this, ego uses even spirituality to shield itself from fear and insecurity. Our meditation practice can be used to retreat from the ambiguity and intensity of daily encounters; our compassion practices can be used to manipulate the sheer agony of things falling apart. We develop an investment in ourselves as Buddhist practitioners, and in so doing protect ourselves from the directness and intimacy of our own realization. It is important for us to be willing to cultivate the "edge" of our practice, the edge where panic arises, where threat is our friend, and where our depths are turned inside out.
What happens when we are ruled by the "three levels of materialism"? The Vidyadhara taught that when we are so preoccupied with issues of ego, control, and power we become "afraid of external phenomena, which are our own projections." What this means is that when we take ourselves to be real, existent beings, then we mistake the world around us to be independent and real. And when we do this we invite paranoia, fear, and panic. We are afraid of not being able to control the situation. As Patrul Rinpoche taught:
Don't prolong the past,
Don't invite the future,
Don't alter your innate wakefulness,
Don't fear appearances...
We must give up the fear of appearances. How can we do this?
The only way to cut this pattern of acquisitiveness and control is to guard the naked integrity of our meditation practice. We must have somewhere where manipulation is exposed for what it is. We must be willing to truly "let go" in our practice. When we see our racing minds, our churning emotions and constant plots, we touch the face of the suffering world and we have no choice but to be changed. We must allow our hearts to break with the pain of constant struggle that we experience in ourselves and in the world around us. Then we can become engaged in the world, and dedicate ourselves to a genuine enlightened society in which consumerism has no sway. Craving comes from the speed of our minds, wishing so intensely for what we do not have that we cannot experience what is there, right before us.
How can we, right now, address materialism in our practice and our lives? I would like to suggest a socially engaged practice which could transform our immediate lifestyles and change our relationship with suffering. It is the practice of generosity. No practice flies more directly in the face of American acquisitiveness and individualism. Any of us who have spent time in Asia or with our Asian teachers see the centrality of generosity in Buddhist practice.
According to traditional formulation, our giving begins with material gifts and extends to gifts of fearlessness and dharma. Generosity is the virtue that produces peace, as the sutra says. Try it. Every day give something to someone. Notice what happens. Give something which is hard to give. Give money or gifts. Was it hard, and what was hard about it? Give emotional support or comfort. What happens when we genuinely make ourselves available to others? Generosity is a practice which overcomes our aquisitiveness and self-absorption, and which benefits others. Committing to this practice may produce our greatest legacy for the 21st century.
Judith Simmer-Brown is professor of Religious Studies at The Naropa Institute. This article was adapted from her keynote address given at the Buddhism in America Conference in San Diego in 1998.
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“Sariputra, if there are people who have already made the vow, who now make the vow, or who are about to make the vow, ‘I desire to be born in Amitabha’s country,’ these people, whether born in the past, now being born, or to be born in the future, all will irreversibly attain to anuttarasamyaksambodhi. Therefore, Sariputra, all good men and good women, if they are among those who have faith, should make the vow, ‘I will be born in that country.’”
~ Amitabha Sutra
When I obtain the Buddhahood, any being of the boundless and inconceivable Buddha-worlds of the ten quarters whose body if be touched by the rays of my splendour should not make his body and mind gentle and peaceful, in such a state that he is far more sublime than the gods and men, then may I not attain the enlightenment.
~ Amitabha Buddha's Thirty-Third Vow
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
by Judith Simmer-Brown