I want to explore the possibility, within Buddhism, of enlightenment as a collective as well as an individual process, nurtured by a practice of public truth-telling in a community of spiritual equals. The seeds of this idea are well represented in ancient Buddhist thought and tradition, yet the notion of collaborative awakening connects with many threads of Western tradition, such as democracy, Quaker meeting, trial by jury, even conventional Judeo-Christian worship. It may also help bridge the gap between meditation tradition and the more devotional schools, whose members comprise most of the world’s living Buddhists, East and West.
One intent of the “Great Vehicle” Buddhism that emerged in India in the second century C.E. was to extend the scope of the dharma to include all of society, all people, all beings, all worlds. Its teaching that the nature of the self and the heart of all existence is openness, connection, and spaciousness says that there is really no distinction between ourselves and others, between humankind and other species, between living and non-living, that all are contained within a vast sea of pure being. The mark of this insight is a natural sense of connection with others. To say that no “person” achieves anything in Buddhism apart from others is really little more than a paraphrase of the Diamond Sutra: “no perception of a self takes place, no perception of a being, no perception of a soul, no perception of a person.” This is the great paradox of the Perfection of Wisdom teaching: who is it then that meditates, who is it that practices, who is it that achieves? One answer for today might be it is all of us.
In a more practical vein, we must remember that one of Gautama Buddha’s great accomplishments was the establishment, within the caste-ridden society of ancient India, of one of history’s first egalitarian communities, one that included ceremonies of public discussion and confession as an integral part of spiritual life. Collaborative wisdom (sangha) was as much a treasure for early Buddhism as individual transformation (Buddha)—at least in theory. Nevertheless, the surviving meditation traditions of Buddhism, as well as its founding legend, remain rooted in the paradigm of the monk, the individual truth-seeker. Yet as the effort to transplant Buddhism to the West enters its second hundred years, something more is needed.
There are so many threads in the twenty-five-century legacy of world Buddhism that it would not be surprising if not every skein found its way to whole cloth. The early centuries of Buddhism were immensely rich, with different schools all struggling to discern the true meaning and implication of the dharma, and the Great Vehicle teaching emerging as an expansionist, inclusionist, even sometimes as an antimonastic movement. Much of that richness has been lost to us. We are centuries away from such an age, when matters of the spirit were plumbed as deeply and broadly as the secrets of quantum physics today. The Bodhisattva Vow—”However many beings there may be, I vow to liberate them all”—points to what I believe is one of Buddhism’s greatest accomplishments: the recognition that the transformed self and the transformed community are two aspects of the same process.
We in the West, as in Asia, have tended to accept the grand edifice of Buddhism as frozen and timeless, as though its great sages had passed down a wisdom so profound and so exhaustive that not one iota could possibly be added by us. Yet the Buddhist scriptures are not the utterances of a God on high; they are a master piece of collective, human authorship. On the one hand, they have an unmatched depth and transcendence; on the other, they are limited by their culture, by time and place. Some of their truths may be timeless, but certainly not all. The only living dharma is the dharma of the present, and then only if it can be recreated from the culture, as well as the forms of psyche and personality, of the present. Not all of Buddhist teaching is equally true and right. In our time, some of it is obsolete, incomplete, or in need of reworking.
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