Close to a century ago, a small band of Asian Buddhists’ came to Chicago to bring the message of the Buddha to the new world. As John McRae writes in the lively academic journal Buddhist-Christian Studies (University of Hawaii), “The World’s Parliament of Religion, held in conjunction with the Columbia Exposition of 1893, was the first time that such knowledge of Asian religions was presented firsthand and with widespread publicity by Asian representatives speaking on behalf of their own religions.” More than four thousand people turned out to hear the Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda, as well as Buddhists including Anagarika Dharmapala, the Singhalese founder of the MahaBodhi Society, and the Japanese Zen master Soyen Shaku, whose translator, D.T. Suzuki, later became the foremost interpreter of Zen to the West.
Yet McRae notes that “the messages presented were not fair and adequate representations of Asian religions, but propaganda messages stitched together from a combination of traditional doctrine and Western social and philosophical theory, tailored according to Western measurements of the standard ideology of human progress.” This message, which stressed the universalism of Hinduism and the “scientism” of Buddhism, “would continue to mold the self-understandings of Asian religionists in their native lands as well.” Thus, McCrae concludes, “the Parliament was an important event in the history of Asian religions, not only in the United States and the West, but throughout the world.”
Buddhist-Christian Studies itself is evidence of the continuing dialogue started at the Parliament one hundred years ago. The current issue, for example, includes a letter issued by the Vatican in 1989, warning Christians about the dangers of attempting “to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian,” along with a number of critiques of the letter by Christians with experience of Eastern meditation. Victoria Urubshurow, of Catholic University of America, says that the Vatican letter “makes a rather honest but serious mistake” by characterizing Buddhism as nihilistic. “In fact,” she writes, “Buddhist theory considers nihilism to be a major pitfall of spiritual practice (along with eternalism).”
The fall 1991 issue of Inquiring Mind, a journal of the Insight Meditation Society, concentrates on the dialogue within Buddhism itself. Jack Kornfield reminds us that “from the beginning of Buddhist history, there has been disagreement as to the true path of practice, and out of this has grown powerful sectarianism . . . . The changes American Buddhism has wrought on these varied traditions has already blurred some of their differences . . . . Yet we cannot ignore the differences in these traditions nor the profound questions that their years of separate development and mutual criticism raise for us.”
Sharon Salzberg writes that “many people seem drawn to vipassana meditation, or Theravada Buddhism, because they want liberation from the fundamental causes of the suffering they face, or they are interested in deep inquiry into the nature of their lives. They tend to be attracted by the ‘no-frills’ approach, and are inspired by the teaching that their own efforts rather than dependence on another, are the roots of transformation.” Stephen Batchelor suggests that “what we are confronted with when we consider Buddhism, is not something monolithic but rather a complexity of styles and traditions, each of which has its own strengths. And many people, like myself, do not feel entirely satisfied with any of them. I find that I mold my practice according to the needs I have, both personally and culturally, as a Westerner, as someone whose conditioning is very different from that of a Thai or Tibetan or Korean.” And Robert Thurman says, “There’s no point in trying to keep Tibetan Buddhism or Theravada Buddhism or Zen Buddhism intact, to enshrine them here in America. . . I hope to see American Buddhists adopting new practices and having the flexibility to use what works. Put American pragmatism to work on it all . . .”
Mandala, a news journal published in Soquel, California by the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, describes the elaborate ceremonies that greeted the young incarnate lama, Tenzin Osel Rinpoche, at Sera Monastery in South India. Born to Spanish parents, he is the incarnation of Lama Thubten Yeshe, the founder of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.
“Lama Osel Rinpoche has taken the first steps to be able to undergo the course of studies in the curriculum of Geshe, to obtain the highest recognition and qualification to teach all the aspects of the vast Buddhist scriptures,” reports Mandala. “However, Lama [Osel], being a Westerner and the fact that he is going to teach people from different cultures and walks of life, will need a solid education not only in the traditional Buddhist Studies but also according to modern educational standards.”
The same issue reports that the Spanish pop group Mecano has released a new song about the Dalai Lama’s life and the troubled times in Tibet. The refrain: “Ay Dalai Lama Dalai Lama Dalai/Ay Dalai Lama ay Dalai Dalai/Ay Dalai. . .”
From Bodh Gaya: Neptune’s Rainbow, the newsletter of the Root Institute for Wisdom Culture, reports on the Institute’s work to alleviate the poverty in the harijan (outcast) villages surrounding Bodh Gaya. This includes the Maitri Leprosy Centre, and the Root Village Reconstruction Project which includes sinking wells, introducing dairy husbandry, teaching tailoring and weaving, planting trees, and teaching literacy for school dropouts and adults.
Kabir Saxena, director of the Institute, writes:
Perhaps it’s difficult for people to grasp the challenges posed by our work with some of the most downtrodden and disadvantaged members of our human family. . . Ex-untouchables still live in separate hamlets and are denied access to basic needs such as water from the wells of other communities. Newspapers report daily accounts of atrocities such as murder, arson, assault and rape perpetrated by the ritually-clean twice-born upper castes on outcast communities. Responsible action—or social action—has been rightly emphasized in recent years by many Buddhists of all traditions. I say ‘rightly’ because I cannot accept that, for everybody, spiritual practice means an erect posture, minding one’s own business and doing four sessions or whatever a day and only that. We are the world, for heaven’s sake, the world is our business—we owe the world so much.
Finally, we are sorry to report that Karuna: A Journal of Buddhist Meditation, has ceased publication, due to the illness of editor Kristin Penn. Published for nearly eight years in Vancouver, Canada, Karuna began as a vipassana newsletter, and subsequently developed into a lively and far-ranging independent Buddhist journal with a print run of two thousand. According to circulation manager Richard Piers, “Since it was largely based on volunteers, we thought the best thing to do was to wind it down and practice letting-go.”
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