Strolling through New York City’s World Trade Center Marriott Hotel, they could hardly believe the sign. The woman turned toward her heavyset companion. “Hey, look!” she said. “A TricycleConference! Are they really riding them around in there?”
Though the hotel wasn’t packed with people whizzing around on three-wheelers, close inspection yielded a sight perhaps just as unexpected. The foyer of the Grand Ballroom was awash in thangkas, golden statues, singing bowls, dharma bums, and crafts of all kinds. People with shaved heads and robes were chatting with men in business suits and women in tie-dye. With participants traveling from as far as Texas, California, Canada, Taiwan, and Australia, the occasion was “Buddhism: Does It Make a Difference?”—Tricycle’s conference on practice and inquiry.
The three-day event began on Friday, June 29, with pre-conference activities. Tricyclebrought together thirty-five teachers from a variety of traditions, and in various workshops, such topics were discussed as Zen precepts and laypeople; or women’s roles in Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism; power; and America’s often monochromatic sanghas. Stephen Batchelor and Lama Surya Das debated Buddhism with and without beliefs: “When you engage in a practice, you must believe in the efficacy of that practice and the person who is teaching you,” Batchelor said. Lama Surya Das acknowledged that “Cynicism might be a hindrance, but I don’t think questioning or doubting is.” He continued, “Liberation doesn’t mean having a Buddha head on top of our head, it means having our own head on our shoulders and our feet on the ground.”
Meanwhile, elsewhere, Daniel Goleman and Tara Bennett-Goleman invited their audience to draw their chairs in close. Their workshop, entitled “Emotional Alchemy,” was full of couples talking about each other and about themselves. They recounted childhood traumas and spoke of the negative emotional patterns they felt stuck in. “If you can bring mindfulness to bear as these patterns are arising,” Bennett-Goleman counseled, “you can change your actions and perspective.”
Upstairs Tsoknyi Rinpoche shared his view of the city that never sleeps—and doesn’t sit still. “New York is a perfect place,” he said. “There are blatant opportunities for anger, desire, shutoff. So there is ample opportunity for practice.” Some attendees were surprised by his attitude toward thinking. “Thought and emotions are innocent. You know human rights; well, there are thought rights. Thoughts have a right to come. But we have a right not to go along with them. We give them space. Give love to your thoughts. Think, Oh, I have waited so long for you to come!’ Hug them, love them. Let them come into your mind, but with peace.”
The conference officially kicked off with 108 rings of a Zen bell. Several teachers discussed the difference practice can make in one’s life. “The boundary of what we can accept is the boundary of our freedom,” Tara Brach said. More enigmatically, Richard Baker Roshi suggested that “practice is a search for ultimate friendship.” Robert Thurman brought down the house by demanding “less practice and more performance.”
Saturday began at 7 a.m. with the first period given over to practice. Zazen, vipassana, and guided Tibetan meditation were offered for sitters, while those seeking something more active participated in yoga, walking meditation, or Qigong. Next came panel discussions tackling issues such as the poisons of anger, greed, and lust, and whether your guru can be your therapist. The discussion featuring Jose Cabezon, Pat Enkyo O’Hara Sensei, Diana Winston, and Stephen Batchelor (“What Does Being a Buddhist Mean to You?”) turned into a meditation on who could rightfully claim to be a Buddhist in the first place. Is there room in Buddhism for homosexuals, for social activists, for intellectuals, for agnostics? Where does faith come in, how do we deal with capitalism and consumerism, and what constitutes good motivation?
More riotous was the panel on renunciation, which featured Martine Batchelor, Robert Thurman, Nancy Baker Sensei, and John Daido Loori Roshi. In a country dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, it wasn’t surprising to find a range of conflicting views on monasticism, simplicity, celibacy, and whether ordination offered liberation or oppression to women.
Sharon Salzberg and Stephen Batchelor spoke of faith and doubt during their joint keynote address. Batchelor pointed out that it was Prince Siddhartha’s doubt about his privileged life that had led to his eventual Buddhahood. Salzberg described what the word “faith” often brings up for some Buddhists: “When I use the word “faith,”” she said, “I get a squeamish reaction, as if I’m talking about people just accepting things or being stupid somehow, or as if there couldn’t be a component of doubt within faith.” She recommended redefining and reclaiming the word, because “faith enlarges our sense of aspiration. Very often our sense of aspiration is quite small.” She also pointed out an incorrectly drawn conflict between faith and doubt. “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt—the opposite of faith is despair.”
Between lectures, friendships were made or renewed, and personal stories were shared. The downtown subway trains seemed unusually full of people sitting up straight, eyes closed, breathing free and easy.
The afternoon provided yet more opportunities to discuss meditation, aversion, art, therapy, and fear. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the forum on Buddhism and sex was well attended. Noah Levine and Diana Winston’s group focused on efforts to reach out to young people struggling with drug addiction and violence. They expressed concern about the “graying” sangha. Will there be enough new blood to ensure that Buddhism remains strong in twenty, thirty, forty years?
On Saturday evening, Gelek Rinpoche gave a talk on Buddhist ethics. “All of our ethics dependently arise on times and conditions. Times and conditions are always changing, so it is right to update ethics,” he declared, offering his personal opinions on homosexuality (a private matter), biogenetics (okay so long as no one is harmed), and genome research (it shouldn’t be used to create a superior race of people). Afterward, the audience was treated to a brief piano recital by the composer Philip Glass, followed by the monks of Drepung Gomang Monastery, who performed prayers with deep-throated chants, clanging cymbals, and impossibly long horns that were felt as much as heard. They were followed by Sout al Ghorba, a Moroccan trance troupe, who entered the hall dancing. Their exuberant spinning, leaping, tumbling, singing, drumming, and clanking offered a taste of sacred music from another of the world’s great religious traditions.
Sunday repeated Saturday’s format, with practice periods in the early morning, panels, and discussion groups. Sogyal Rinpoche addressed anguished questions on suicide, while Sharon Salzberg, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and Zoketsu Norman Fischer participated in a debate on “One Path vs. Many.” The general consensus was that all types of Buddhism teach valid methods for enlightenment, and for that matter, other religions offer potential insights and methods as well. As Tsoknyi Rinpoche said, “For me all the religions are no problem. Some method is needed to bring about enlightenment, but the method is not the ultimate aim. You have to go beyond method, and when you let go of method we call that wisdom.”
Range of opinion characterized the panel “The Authoritative Voice of the Dharma.” Stephen Batchelor quipped, “When I’m asked, “What is the Buddhist position on something,” I often throw the question back to the questioner as “What is the Christian position on the Virgin Mary?’ which helps them to see that there is a natural plurality of understanding.” Bonnie Myotai Treace Sensei addressed the issue of abortion, saying that she did not feel she had the right to tell a suffering pregnant teen what to do. “The precept of not killing includes asking yourself if you are really ready to handle the responsibility of a new life.” Sarah Harding concurred, “All the Buddhist teachings are to give you tools of discernment and guidelines, not to tell you what you have to do.” Similar statements were made in “Tough Moral Questions.” John Daido Loori Roshi, for example, said, “Ultimately all moral decisions are individual decisions. We don’t excommunicate people for violating something. These precepts are your precepts. They aren’t mine, they aren’t Buddha’s. You have taken them. You have to make these decisions.”
Other presentations covered topics such as love, cyberdharma, poetry, social activism, death and dying, and emotional intelligence. Jan Willis spoke of her experiences with both the black liberation movement and Tibetan Buddhism.
The conference drew to a close with final keynote addresses by Sogyal Rinpoche and Joseph Goldstein. Sogyal Rinpoche affirmed that “the great strength of the Buddha-dharma is the practice.” He recommended that people begin to truly consider enlightenment by engaging in practice and study. He made practical suggestions as to how one may develop a daily practice, no matter how modest: creating space for it within one’s home, for example, and not undermining oneself by setting up impossible goals. And Joseph Goldstein suggested that pragmatism is the hallmark of an emerging Western Buddhism. Reflecting on his own spiritual journey, he asked, “What do you do when you come to a fork in the road and both paths seem to be right?” Despite the dilemma this seemed to pose, he suggested a solution that displayed the heart of the dharma. Whatever one’s practice path, “don’t cling. There’s no Buddhist school that says, ‘Cling!’”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.