At the close of a seven-day Zen retreat I attended many years ago, the Japanese teacher urged all of us to say something about our experience. A number of Americans stood up and described how transformative they found their many hours on the cushion. They spoke of inner barriers falling down and turning points in their life’s journey. An artist who had been immobilized by a creative block reported that ideas had come pouring out. But there was another group of attendees, Japanese and Japanese American, who responded quite differently. They thanked their families for supporting them and for taking care of business while they were away. They pledged to be more diligent on the job or more helpful to their communities.
Their words of thanks left me confused. Had I felt the same indebtedness to my own, conservative family, I might never have practiced Zen. Indeed, my parents tried to discourage me. And they were not the only ones. I can still recall the look of disbelief on the face of one of my professors when he learned that Zen was taking precious time away from my Ph.D. research. Choosing Zen meant saying no to them. But the remarks of the Japanese troubled me for another reason. Growing up with the struggle for civil rights, the campaign to end the war in Vietnam, and the feminist movement, I had seen how the pressure to conform out of a sense of social obligation could stifle dissent and halt progressive change.
It seemed obvious to me that the Japanese had lost touch with the true spirit of the dharma. They had forgotten that the Buddha disobeyed his father by refusing to become the leader of the Shakya people. He abandoned his loving wife and infant son. He ridiculed the holy scriptures and the rituals of the priestly caste. Warmly embraced by two of the most revered meditation teachers of the day, he turned his back on both of them. After taking up with five other outsiders who were determined to liberate themselves, the Buddha eventually abandoned them, too. When he finally had his great awakening, he was completely alone. The Buddha had become the world’s first real individual. Freeing himself from the power of the “they,” he taught others to do the same.
If this is true, though, what are we to make of the Buddha’s criticism of the selfishness of the “I-and-mine” state of mind or the Diamond Sutra’s rejection of any “isolated individuality”? Perhaps there was more to the dharma than I had been prepared to understand. Zen and other schools of Buddhist meditation first put down Western roots, after all, during the prosperous post–World War II years, when many disenfranchised groups were organizing for their inclusion in the Great Society. Gaining a place at the table meant insisting on their right to be different. But that strategy may no longer work in the atomizing Uber economy, where we are all increasingly forced to go it alone. No one has a place at the table anymore, since the table itself has disappeared.
In hindsight, the Japanese at that retreat look much less naive than I had believed. They approached solitary practice as a way of strengthening their social ties, not dissolving them, because they had learned from their history how fragile all such ties can be. As for the Buddha, he might indeed have been the first individual, but he also viewed individualism as a problem urgently needing to be solved. His solution? Generosity.
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