Hmmm, the hits to this blog are in sharp decline. This is certainly because I have rarely posted in recent weeks, and in fact intend to do no writing until after vassa (rains retreat). Lest this blog realize final liberation before the rest of us, I have come up with the idea of serializing my ebook, Growing the Dharma. So here begins my serialization in bite-size perhaps weekly segments. Much of this material has appeared on this blog before, which will lead some loyal long-time readers on a walk down memory lane, though never in such a polished and integrated form as in its present re-embodiment.
Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework
“I’m spiritual but not religious!”
We’ve all heard this statement, generally along with an off-hand dismissal of “organized religion.”
Westerners often see polarity between the personal and the social. We love the lone individualist, including the spiritual virtuoso who boldly takes the path less traveled. We love it when Buddhism exalts that spiritual virtuoso, the light unto himself, the one who retreats from city or village life to explore in solitude life’s questions, an ideal well represented in the life of Buddha himself, who after much travail shattered the constraints to which the common person is subject. We love these guys but we have trouble reconciling them with temple life, the chanting, the bows, the hierarchy, the postures, the robes.
I wrote this booklet because I have become convinced that we Westerners often have little sense of the relationship between the spiritual and the religious, and that we have been limping along in a kind of disembodied Buddhism as a result. In fact the Buddha was not only a great psychologist but also a great social thinker whose vision of the ideal society resulted in what has become the oldest human institution on the planet.
Our misunderstanding begins with a failure to appreciate just how radically different this lone individual who has broken free is from the rest of us. He has broken through not so much social constraints as his own human nature, bursting the limitations of hundreds of millions of years of evolution that have otherwise produced frightened, greedy, hateful and confused beings, and has instead entered the rationalized and ethicized awareness of the Noble Ones. In our misunderstanding we then fail to appreciate the critical importance of the social context necessary, both to produce the conditions in which Noble Ones might arise, and to carry their civilizing influence into the world at large, a social context born with the Awakening of the Buddha and taught by the Buddha, our great teacher, as the Sasana (roughly, Buddhist movement) that has carried the flame of what he discovered to light one hundred generations of Buddhism.
I wrote this little book in order to develop readers’ appreciation of the reach of the Buddha’s thought, to provide a more complete and organic view of what Buddhism subsumes, to describe the groundwork of Buddhism that is all too commonly dismissed in the West as “just religion” even while it is so intrinsic in the East that it hardly bears mentioning. At the same time I hope to develop tools for critically assessing Buddhist traditions, to see at what point the flames they carry begin to sputter, sometimes choked by the accretion of too much religiosity or by the incursion of many other popular notions.
It took me many years to come to the viewpoints represented in this book. As a Westerner, a former academic, not religiously trained as a child, I came to Buddhism initially in its Western manifestations with a rational secular mindset. The supernatural has never been a draw for me. Alan Watts and Stephen Batchelor were early influences on the Path. My early exposure to Western Soto Zen showed me a ritual world that initially made no sense to me at all.
In the end I was curious and open-minded enough to want to get to the experiential bottom of this ritual world, held my nose and jumped in bodily. I trained in the Suzuki Roshi tradition at the San Francisco Zen Center, lived at its monastery, Tassajara Mountain Center, was a founding member of its offshoot in Austin, Texas, where I subsequently ordained, learned almost all the ritual ins and outs and ceremonies, and came with time to appreciate the roles of these things in a particular form of Buddhist practice. Established as a Zen priest, very much concerned with the future of Buddhism in the West, my curiosity and modest reserve of open-mindedness extended to the many ethnically Asian temples found in Texas, California and elsewhere, which felt to me intriguingly different from Western centers.
Somehow innately interested almost from the beginning in monastic practice I also began studying the Vinaya, the traditional monastic code that goes back to the Buddha and a recognized pillar for Buddhism throughout Asia – except in Japan, in whose tradition I had ordained. I considered ordaining in a Vinaya tradition for many years but still clinging to worldly ways had many doubts about my own capacity for living a celibate life. The deciding straw arose after much study and contemplation with the realization that the Monastic Sangha is, by the Buddha’s design, the lynch pin of the Sasana. The conclusion seemed inescapable to me that without real monks and nuns practicing in the traditional way Buddhism was not going to make it in the West! It never has anywhere else, it will not here.
I resolved to myself, “It’s a clean job, but somebody has got to do it!”
I ordained as a bhikkhu (full monk) in Burma, lived there for over a year and have been living here at a Burmese monastery in Austin, Texas now for a number of years. Living embedded in a devoutly Buddhist Asian culture and one that is decidedly pre-modern, inhabiting a world full of magical forces and tree spirits, has given me an appreciation for Buddhism’s rare ability to blend with elements of folk culture, and yet at the same time retain its full integrity, particularly in the minds and lives of its most adept and respected representatives.
Were this an academic work I would at this point in the Preface thank the various foundations and institutions that have supported me during the process of research and composition. As a monastic that support is constantly there along with the freedom to structure my time and energy as I feel benefits the Sasana. Therefore I would like instead to thank the many donors and supporters of the Sitagu Buddha Vihara in Austin, Texas (USA), and of the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara in Maplewood, Minnesota (USA) and the Calgary Myanmar Temple (Alberta, Canada) and of the monks and nuns who have lived there. Your devotion inspires me. I want to thank Alan Cook and Kitty Johnson for proofreading and Prof. Tom Tweed for commenting on earlier draft and encouraging me to extend and consolidate certain metaphors.
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Austin, Texas, USA