You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. We now begin the last chapter.
Chapter 8. Navigating the Sasana (1/2)
The Springdale Buddhist Center held a lavish banquet for its members, and offered the whole fare, from hors d’oeuvre to dessert. To their great dismay, few seemed to eat lavishly. The festival committee (Bob, Carol and Skipper) asked around and discovered that most guests who were failing to eat well were doing so for what they felt were unreasonable reasons, and as a result failed to benefit fully from what was offered.
“Is this the future shape of Buddhism in the Land of the Fork?” they thought collectively.
They identified the following feeding patterns, which they put up on a white-board, each with its own bullet:
Some guests were “●simply uninformed” about food. Some people, Bob observed, would ignore items simply because they did not recognize them or they misperceived them or they were unsure about the proper manner of eating them. They could have asked, but most of the people around them didn’t seem to know either.
Some guests were simply “●stuck in the familiar.” Fish eggs or lychees, or octopus would make them cringe. These mostly ate rolls, cold cuts, and cole slaw.
Some guests exclusively “●seek out the exotic.” One or two people, as Skipper identified, will not intend to stay long, but will maybe take some reindeer paté on a rice cracker or something likewise exotic or appealing. They could be heard sharing the recollection of their experiences with friends the following day.
Some guests seem “●more analytical than daring” in their approach to eating. These people, Carol explained, are always quite informed of recent incidents of salmonella poisoning, tainted shellfish, misidentified mushrooms, typhoid. They know all about trichinosis, cancer, and how all of these relate to the food we eat. They also carefully calculate calories; fat, protein and carbohydrate levels; and the amounts they are getting of each vitamin and mineral. They eye unidentified foods with great suspicion. All of these people are terribly skinny.
Some guests can only stay long enough to “●grab something to eat,” as Bob observed, generally a sandwich or couple of egg rolls because they have to rush to put in some overtime at work, or they are on their way to the opera or a lecture and have just come from a workout at the gym. Even in the buffet line they talk on their cell phones. These are busy people, people with lifestyles.
Some guests whether they eat a lot or not, nonetheless “●eat but do not help with cleanup.” Some could be seen slinking past the wash area, others seemed to think they were at a restaurant with paid bus staff, in one case even imperiously asking another guest, who happened to be clearing some tables, to refill her coffee cup.
But then there were some guests who “●try everything,” and even take great pleasure in the cleanup. Skipper pointed out, there are still rare individuals who come with big appetites, know their foods, have let go of all destructive preconceptions and are curious and daring about the what they’ve been invited to enjoy, capable of savoring the sublime and valuing the simple. Furthermore, these people generally give themselves ample time to enjoy food and company.
“They have a fork and they know how to use it,” Carol added with regard to the last group.
The following year the committee met to consider again holding a Second Annual Buddhist Banquet. There were different opinions about what to offer.
At one extreme was Bob’s suggestion. Bob’s proposal was to offer the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to Realization, exactly as they had done last year. However, before the banquet they would send out abundant information on the various foods, along with detailed descriptions of how to eat lobster and some of the more difficult dishes, with photographs and diagrams. Guests would be asked to arrive by 5:00 pm, after which the doors would be locked from the outside and not reopened until all the food was eaten. Also pocket calculators, cell phones and other electronic gear would be collected at the door.
At the other extreme was Carol’s suggestion. The other two members of the committee could not determine if Carol was more forgiving than Bob or not. Her proposal was to offer spaghetti, marshmallow salad and dinner rolls. And beer.
“The greatest common denominator,” Carol called it.
Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork
Let’s get personal: What does this all mean to me, as a navigator of the Buddha-Sasana? What choices do I make at the buffet?
For consistency with the running metaphor – which has served well in this book I’ve almost finished for explaining doctrinal, historical and sociological aspects of the Sasana – I would expect to personally encounter what has evolved, been cultivated, grown and harvested, in a flower shop, but the buffet counter is an even more familiar realm of personal attention, the gastronomic realm. However, for many in the West who first step up to Buddhism and survey the daunting range of options on the buffet table, it is easy to see how they might throw their hands up in despair and perhaps entertain the hope that the menu at a cafeteria or pizza restaurant might be easier to sort out.
An appropriate strategy for navigating any buffet table depends on my aspirations: taste, health, unique experiences, sharing with others, putting on or taking off weight. As I graze along the various counters I might look for the adept or the folksy, the Path dishes or the Sasana, for challenging or simple, foreign or native cuisine.
For a while, at least, I can anticipate that my understanding will be a rather folksy, blended with partial and mis-understandings, along with notions of no Buddhist pedigree whatever, but I might nonetheless align myself toward an adept understanding by taking Noble Ones, along with the Buddha and the Dharma, as my primary influences and the most reliable source of knowledge. I might also find hope in some defined folk tradition, trusting that it will develop in me wholesome qualities capable of taking me at least half-way toward becoming a Noble One myself. Almost any folk tradition is at least consistent with the understanding and practice of the Noble Ones. I might choose to seek anything from complete Awakening to pleasant abiding in relative psycho-therapeutic comfort.
The Path practices will be more challenging, like putting a lobster or an artichoke on my plate. Devotional practices like chanting nembutsu or mindfulness of the Buddha as a way of strengthening Refuge are more like pudding or chips. After reading this book, which has infused in me both gratitude and a sense of responsibility, I realize I fully determined to give appropriate attention to the non-Path dishes, to become a supporter of the Sasana.
I also now understand that it is a mistake to limit my grazing range on the basis of accustomed tastes, for even Adept Buddhisms have come through foreign cultural filters, but that others’ Folk Buddhisms might in their abstruseness serve little to improve my understanding. However, I might personally like exotic cultures for their own sake, or a particular culture, whose exploration can be as expansively illuminating for me as mastering foreign tongues. I think I’m willing to try anything at least once.
I am prepared to eat sumptuously but with discrimination, to consider the full Buddhist fare without upsetting the stomach. My personal accustomed feeding patterns may hinder or help me. Let’s review these:
I feel quite “in the know” at the samadhi counter, quickly picking out a couple alternative objects of meditation for my dinner plate and moving on. I have a bit of trouble telling a perception from a formation as I pass by the aggregates of clinging. But then I get to the area where I am to seek admiral friends, most of whose attire is mortifyingly out of fashion, and the alleged best of whom won’t even watch a football game with me, nor share celebrity gossip nor investment advice nor even a drink. Then I am supposed to take refuge in, and bow to them? Won’t they get lodged between my teeth or give me heartburn?
Living in the West I have an unprecedented quantity of information about Buddhism readily available, but it is lopsided. I understand that this book that I have almost finished, was written to correct this deficit. Most particularly, almost everything available in the West is about the narrower Path perspective, almost nothing about the broader Sasana perspective, with its leaves and roots, blossom and sources of nutriment: sun, water and soil. But without a strong basis in refuge and in community I will be ill-prepared and hardly inspired to take up the Path. With a strong basis in refuge and in community, I will develop many wholesome qualities, gradually, starting at a tender age and already long before even considering entering the Path; I will help to sustain and promote the Sasana, generously and for the benefit of many; and, hey, I will commune with Noble Ones of radical and subversive influence almost on a daily basis, who stand as a persistent reality check for all of my samsaric inclinations.
Stuck in the familiar
One morning the abbot of a Burmese monastery in Texas announced that the monks were to appease the tree spirits who had happily inhabited two trees until said trees had been cut down during an ongoing construction project. They were to chant a bit of Pali and then the abbot would talk to the spirits. It seems that the nats had been up to some mischief, since losing their homes, at the expense some members of our larger community. Your author, an American monk, had never heard of such a thing, but after several years in Burmese monasteries nothing surprised him. Nonetheless, a cloud of skepticism passed over his face on this particular occasion:
“When you talk to the nats, are you going to talk to them … in Burmese?”
“Well, this is Texas. They are Texan tree spirits. How can they understand Burmese? They probably have names like Dusty, Clem and Pedro.”
“I think tree spirits can understand any language. But just in case, … you talk to them in English as well.”
I like dinner rolls, cold cuts and cole slaw. But then I live in a comfort zone, disinclined to step beyond the preconceptions, the views, values and patterns of thought and behavior I grew up with, into that realm where people are a bit weird an unable to think so freely as I. I find myself, as I scan the buffet, thinking things like, “Rules are for stupid people who don’t already know how to do the right thing,” or “There is no such thing as karma,” or “Buddhism is about discovering your true self so that you can act natural.” For I am a freethinker.
Generally we do not recognize that we are conditioned by our folk culture any more than we recognize that we speak with an accent. I don’t yet fully realize the tacit and undiscriminating trust I place in my own folk culture. Any culture has its gems of caprice waiting to be discovered. In ours we believe in an innermost heart that seeks to express itself unhindered by, uh, cultural constraints. In someone else’s they have equally equally fanciful notions. This mandates Refuge. Without grasping the lifeline of the Triple Gem I have almost no chance to reconsider the bias of my upbringing, to place my trust instead in the Buddha, in his teachings and in the Noble Ones. Trust in something is unavoidable. Discrimina-tion in my trust is nonetheless an option. Freethinking is, alas, very rare thing.1
My comfort zone is likely to be violated, I understand, in two ways. One is an almost inevitable result of deeper Buddhist practice. Once I enter the path with full determination, begin to explore the deep and previously unacknowledged regions of my own mind and experience, and discover that many of my most deeply held assumptions and habit patterns don’t hold water, the world becomes like a foreign land, much less substantial than I had thought. This can be scary, like the floor suddenly giving out under me. More than ever I will need the Noble Ones to hold me, the ones who warned me that this might happen.
But I’m not there yet. The other violation of my comfort zone is the encounter with those very exotic cultures that have been the caretakers of Buddhism in the course of the last one hundred generations, the cultures that have brought the peculiarity and anomaly to the practices and beliefs of the local traditions, to the garb of the monastics, to the style of the liturgy, to the presence of unfamiliar figures in temple statuary, to unfamiliar rites at temple altars, to unknown scriptures on temple bookshelves, ant to hocus pocus all around.
I did not intend to become Indiana Jones in pursuit of my spiritual aspirations, but the most worthwhile artifacts are to be found in exotic places, even on geographically Western soil. I think of the beatniks of San Francisco who first sought out “Zen Master” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at the Sokoji Temple and were quick to peg him as “like, squaresville.” Fortunately they, at least some of them, revised their first impression and dared to place their trust beyond the familiar when they returned to the temple. I too will venture into Asian temples, because 99% of the world’s adepts are there and particularly because examples of a fully functional, sustainable Sasana are still extremely rare outside of Asian communities, the kind of place in which my kids, for instance, can play among the leaves and be nourished by sun, water and soil.
Nonetheless, it makes almost no sense whatever for me to learn someone else’s Folk Buddhism, unless I happen to be an anthropologist, since someone else’s Folk Buddhism is an attempt to harmonize with someone else’s folk culture, which cannot help me in mine. I need only to respect someone else’s Folk Buddhism, with all its cultural accretions, not to make it my own. On the other hand, while Adept Buddhism can seem remarkably modern, it always has culturally-conditioned factors of its own, such as anjali – present from the time of the Buddha – and the intensely ritualized conduct of Zen.
As someone stuck in the familiar, my first inclination is to try to expunge my Buddhism of all foreign cultural influences, but I see how this will unnecessarily and arbitrarily lead to to throwing out the Buddha with the bathwater. A bit of Indiana Jones’ daring is called for, at least a willingness to explore exotic places. Playfulness is also apt. My kids will love it.
Seeking the exotic
There are days in which I seem to swing in the opposite direction, to reach out for unfamiliar contexts and unique experiences, to eat of octopus or of mountain oysters, to sip of kop luwak coffee, or of bird’s nest soup, to seek mystical and peak experiences or simply, through Buddhism, to enter into exotic cultures.
Like many others I might in my relentless search for special experiences flit around from one opportunity to the next, attend a seminar one weekend in which an initial Awakening experience is promised in a comfortable group setting, and a Sufi dancing workshop the next, chanting nembutsu the weekend after that. Unfortunately, I am a bit of a sucker for snake oil.
What is in danger of being lost in the quest for experiences is the well-rounded development of my complete human character. The bread and butter of the gradual path taught by the Buddha do not come with peak experiences attached; they are more humdrum than that. I do best to begin with Refuge, generosity, kindness and renunciation and move on from there. Higher attainments, which do often involve uncommon experiences, are generally reserved those who work at it full time for many years, particular those who take advantage of the monastic path. Slow and steady wins the race. Lining up unintegrated peak experiences that do not have a history of working together will produce something like a centipede who is unable to coordinate its myriad feet. Wriggle as I might, I will make no progress along the Buddhist Path.
To make matters worse, I live in a consumer culture which markets not products and services but experiences. I do not simply buy an iThingy or a potato chip, but a special experience, one that will transform me into one of the gleeful smiling models in the ads. This is dangerous where it intersects with Buddhist practice. As noted, Folk Buddhist movements already have a bit of a history of extolling experience. With the help of modern marketing it is bound to create the kind of acquisitiveness that Buddhist practice is intended to overcome. Rather than renouncing one thread of samsaric life after another as we make progress along the Path, we end up adding one marketable product or service after another to an already karmically overburdened life.
What I will pursue is a middle-way between the familiar and the exotic, swinging too far neither to the one or the other extreme.
… Continued next week.
1 I think I may have experienced a brief free thought just last month, albeit the content of which I cannot seem to recall.