American Buddhism

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written by Benjamin Riggs

The Marketplace of Ideas.

 Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. ~ Emma Lazarus

The Statue of Liberty stands as a proclamation of freedom and dignity, welcoming all with Emma Lazarus’ powerful words. This principle is what underlies the ideals of the American experiment. American culture is an amalgamation of other cultures—a melting pot—and fueled by the freedom of experimentation and the primitive mandate or right to express our true self in an open and creative way. America is an open exchange of ideas, information, and experience—a marketplace of ideas.

I am not referring to the “economic” market place. Rather, by free market I am referring to the cultural space that accommodates experimentation and evolution.  Not a man-made market, but a natural, self-existing marketplace based, as Thomas Jefferson once said, “upon the illimitable freedom of the human mind.” The free market of ideas is not guided by fame or profit, but by a practical realization of personal truth. Intellectual speculation is transformed into direct experience through an experimental process guided by the intelligence of trial and error. For, as Jefferson concluded, “here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

Buddhism first entered the American market in the mid-20th century. But for the first time, we are seeing a significant number of American practitioners offer their experiences back into the marketplace of ideas, and something else is beginning to emerge. This “something else” is distinctly our own. However, this “something else” is producing a great deal of friction. There are those who understand that Buddhism is a timeless and culturally universal vehicle of human realization that isn’t in need of modification.

I, on the other hand, think that the insights and practices are timeless, but the forms are culturally relevant. Just as a unique Buddhism has emerged from every country and culture it has entered, America is breathing new life into this ancient tradition. Buddhism is in the midst of a reformation—the evolution of a tradition in search of its Western expression. The Theravadin, Zen, Korean, Tibetan, Vietnamese, and Pure Land traditions are all planting roots here in the West. In addition to the traditional lineages, academia is making a contribution. Intellectuals are evaluating these Eastern traditions from the point of view of Western philosophy and Theology, medicine, psychology, and sociology, and submitting their conclusions. As a result, American Buddhism is emerging as a unique mixture of this wide array of disciplines. This is the American Buddhist experiment.

All experiments seek to produce an experience. This experience is an evolving product, which is dependent upon an open exchange of ideas, practices, and insights. Progressive Buddhism is not a “brand” of Buddhism. Some people call it “Integral Buddhism,” which seems to place the emphasis on the form. I appreciate the term Progressive Buddhism, as it places emphasis on the process. Through experimentation, Western practitioners develop some familiarity with the teachings and practices offered to them by their Asian brothers and sisters, and in turn, they turn around and share their experiences. Their contribution fundamentally changes the landscape, as the landscape is fluid. Over time this landscape changes so much that a distinct form of Buddhist spirituality is revealed. It is still Buddhism, but it is no longer “Asian Buddhism.”

For a lot of Westerners, Asian Buddhism is an approachable practice, but there are reasons why Asian Buddhists developed the cultural relevance seen in the various traditions developed in the east. It is through culture that the practice is made directly relevant to the audience. The union of culture and practice begets ritual and symbolism, which introduces the practitioner to the primordial Truth that sustains the tradition. This is a natural process of assimilation that every religion goes through when it is introduced to a new culture. Padmasambhava utilized the existing Bon tradition when introducing Buddhism to the Tibetan people; Taoism played a huge role in the development of Ch’an;  Shinto had a great impact on the development of Zen; Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche dug deep into the western psyche, utilizing concepts of chivalry, dignity, and courage—all principles associated with the legends of King Arthur and other medieval myths—in order to communicate his Shambhala lineage.

As we, the American people, study these practices and develop our own experiences, we feel compelled to share our insights, humble as they may be. So, we reintroduce the practices to the marketplace of ideas, but this time with a different cultural slant. This slant enables more people to relate to the practice, which enables even more people to participate in the evolutionary process.

As Western practitioners develop autonomous ideas that are verified through practice they cease to be dependent upon their Asian counterparts for validation. So, as the practitioners become autonomous or confident, which is a consequence of practice and revelation, the tradition becomes autonomous within as the tradition is nothing more than the expression of the collective experience.

Why doesn’t the market become flooded with bad ideas?

Buddhism is practical. Eastern Buddhism is immensely practical—particularly for the cultures it grew up out of. People are interested in a spirituality that relates to their daily life. In the long term, it is practical results—not fame or profit—that drives the free market of ideas:

“The defining characteristic of the emerging Western Buddhism is a basic pragmatism, rather than an adherence to some philosophical system or sectarian viewpoint. What most characterizes the One Dharma of the West is an allegiance to a very simple question: “What works?” asks Joseph Goldstein.  “What works to free the mind from suffering? What works to accomplish the heart of compassion? What works to awaken us from the dream states of our ignorance?” This is what guides the progressive Buddhist.

What are these ideas working towards? A fundamental experience of the human condition. Regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, or nationality, there is a tendency to experience ourselves in a narrow-minded and unsatisfactory way. In the west, we tend to be trapped between our ears—we experience ourselves as a series of ideas. From the depths of our being emerges a primitive force that seeks fulfillment—an uncensored and unmediated direct experience of our ever-expanding larger Self. The emerging Buddhism will be a path that provides this force with a relevant and practical way to actualize itself. If it does not strike a chord in the heart of the American people, it will soon be discarded. Charlatans may gain fame and profit in the short term, but only those messages that contain depth and weight will endure.

This allegiance to Truth suggests that Progressive Buddhism will not only be practical, but also non-sectarian. First, practitioners study the dharma in a variety of different contexts. Then they test their ideas in practice and daily life. Next, they begin to contribute their unique and creative experience to the market place of ideas. Often times, their points of view draw from non-Buddhist sources, such as Christianity, Judaism, and the sciences. These “non-Buddhist” points of view are successful in the market place of ideas, because they make the content all the more relevant and accessible to their audience. Finally, a new trend emerges in the world of Buddhism.

Within this emergent Buddhism, which seems to be guided by an abstract intelligence, not a tangible institution, who is considered a teacher?

In short, a teacher is anyone who has a relevant and practical message that inspires people to experiment with Buddhist principles in their daily life and formal practice, bringing them to a deeper and more fulfilling way of life. Their capacity to teach is certainly contingent upon their own level of realization, but the idea that “authority” is copyrighted by the institutional lineage and safeguarded by transmission is, in my opinion, a facet of Asian Buddhism that will not survive on American soil. In fact, it is Buddhism’s experimental nature that is so attractive to many westerners:

“Believe nothing on the faith of traditions, even though they have been held in honor for many generations and in diverse places. Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it. Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past. Do not believe what you yourself have imagined, persuading yourself that a God inspires you. Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.”  ~ The Buddha

Institutional Authority vs. Inspired Guidance

A lot of people are put off by the emergence of Western teachers and the process by which they are discovered. These people feel more comfortable preserving the image than allowing the tradition to evolve or change. It is almost as if Buddhists fundamentalists believe that Buddhism is the one thing immune to the laws of impermanence. The establishment is dependent upon regulating who is allowed to contribute to the market place, as the power of the institution rests in its monopoly on authority. But if you look closely you will see that you—the subscriber—are the source of the guru’s or institutions authority:

What is the source of a guru’s authority? (He or she) can tell you that (he or she) can speak from experience; that (he or she) has experienced states of consciousness which have made (he or she) profoundly blissful, or understanding or compassionate, or whatever it may be. And you have (his or her) word for it. And you have the word of other people whom likewise agree with (him or her.)

But each one of them—and you in turn—agree with (him or her) out of your own opinion and by your own judgment. And so it is you that are the source of the teacher’s authority. That is true whether (he or she) speaks as an individual or whether (he or she) speaks as the representative of a Tradition or a Church. ~Alan Watts

Regulating the market removes chaos, which negates our freedom to choose what is most relevant to our lot in life through a process of experimentation. It ignores the intelligent spirit of trial and error that not only produced traditional Buddhism, but also managed to guide the universe as it evolved from a mass of energy trapped in a singularity to an amazingly diverse spectrum of intelligent life, of which, we are an example.

I want to be clear: I am not advocating a new method. I am simply describing an already existing process. The “market place of ideas” is a theory that recognizes the fact that evolution, by way of a natural process of selection, guides, not only your biological life, but your intellectual life. To say otherwise would be to suggest that thought is not a natural function of the body—that it is unnatural, sick, or other worldly.

Evolution is vital, not only to physical life, but to the world of ideas as well. Buddhism, being a system of ideas and practices, is just one particular manifestation of this process. When asked to describe Buddhism in a single sentence, Suzuki Roshi said, “Everything changes.” This change is facilitated by space. In other words, space or the lack of “thingness” is the true nature of all “things,” including Buddhism. But, this space is not dead. It is alive. It is the purest form of intelligence. This intelligence initiates change. If evolution is saying anything, it is saying that it is this capacity to adapt that enables life to persevere. In short, emptiness inspires life. The moment this relationship ceases to function the universe will come to a crashing halt. If we attempt to embalm Buddhism it will become an artifact.

Only organic forms of regulation are allowed to govern the expression of intelligence. True intelligence is inspired by an unmediated relationship with reality—freedom. Authoritarian regulation undermines creativity, and creativity is the energy that brings an idea to fruition.

There is only one form of intrinsic regulation and that is basic experience. What determines whether or not a practice or teaching is practical and relevant? Direct experience. Who determines whether or not a teacher has the capacity to teach? Direct experience. Everyone is quick to subscribe to the maxim, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” But when the tables are turned and we say, “When the teacher is ready the student will appear” everyone gets their panties in a wad. The American Buddhist experiment is a process of trusting chaos, which means that we have to be willing to let go of organization and our tendency to lean upon dharma credentials:

Meditation is the practice of stepping out of ego’s game of constantly reaffirming its own existence.

Study is the critical intellectual examination of ego’s mode of operation.

Action is the application of the other two in everyday life situations.

From this point of view, maintenance of the organization, reliance upon credentials, becomes irrelevant. Nothing external is needed; things-as-they-are are their own proof, self-existing. ~ Chogyam Trungpa

Guidance and instruction are indispensable components of the spiritual journey. So, I am not advocating the elimination of teacher / student relationships. I am simply saying that reality will establish a natural hierarchy, and we would do well to trust it. As long as there are students there will be teachers, as long as there are beginners there will be students, and long as there is suffering there will be beginners, even amongst your elders. So, with pragmatism and relevance as its guide, how does the market determine which teachers it will support?

There are four essential qualities that every sincere teacher—credentialed or not—possesses:

1) Realization or an awakening that is relevant to the culture they inhabit.
2) The capacity to articulate their point of view.
3) The skillful means to guide others to a similar discovery.
4) An honest desire to be of benefit

The market sends students to insightful, inspiring, and practical individuals who are guided by a sincere desire to be of service to others. These people have a drastic effect on the process of evolution. As their students begin to experiment with the path and see results, they turn around and themselves become contributors. However, this process stays alive only through the willingness of the teacher to remain teachable. The moment their open-mind collapses, the process of transformation dissolves, and they are dead in the water, as the water is in a constant state of fluctuation. In other words, an effective teacher is always “anxious to learn”:

The early texts tell us that far from settling on one method or “program” for transmitting the awakened state to others, the Buddha spent his entire teaching career developing different “gates to awakening” that reflected his disciples’ differing capacities and needs. By the time of his death, so we are told, the Buddha had developed 84,000 different methods of transmission of the awakened state. ~ Reggie Ray

Teaching and direction are essentials on the spiritual journey, but the idea that experience needs to be vouched for by tradition is just another impoverished example of the pervasive insecurity set in motion by the belief in our limited self.  For so many people, authority comes, not from the teacher himself or his message, but from the person standing behind him saying “I approve this message.” Of course, this person also needs someone validating their claim to authority.

This creates an endless line of Gurus standing on the shoulders of a first cause, which can only be resolved through inferential faith. This is why the Buddha said, “Take nothing I say on faith or on my authority. Be willing to test it and see for yourself.”

Transmission is a skillful process of accreditation that has preserved a wisdom tradition for 2,500 years. I respect the tradition of transmission and the integrity of lineage. However, I do not think it has a patent on insight, nor is it the only effective way to assist others in their search for fulfillment.

The transmission of authority is neither perfect nor outdated. It need not be replaced, nor is it the only way. Just as joining the PTA does not make me a parent, religious memberships and lengthy resumes do not make me realized. There have been far too many gurus, complete with authentic credentials, who have fallen flat on their face, and an equally astonishing number of people who, without any credentials, have managed to help an amazing number of people more fully relate to their lives. We have to muster the courage to judge a tree by its fruit, and not the person who planted it.

I will conclude with the Buddha’s final words to Ananda:

Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall be lamps unto themselves, relying upon themselves only and not relying upon any external help, but holding fast to the truth as their lamp, and seeking their salvation in the truth alone, and shall not look for assistance to any one besides themselves, it is they, Ananda, among my bhikkhus, who shall reach the very topmost height! But they must be anxious to learn.