BODHIDHARMA, that hairy sixth-century Indian teacher with the fierce stare and grumpy scowl, traveled from India to China, where he sat in meditation for so many years in a row that he became known as the first Zen patriarch. Bodhidharma’s teaching of just sitting defied the scriptural authority established in China by the prevailing Buddhist schools. The try-it-and-see-for-yourself method advocated by the historical Buddha had been replaced by memorization and rote repetition of sutras. Just sitting, an internal and individual form of self-realization, an insight directly into one’s own nature, is what Bodhidharma called “a special transmission outside the scriptures.”
For fifty years following the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, a small but steady stream of teachers and translators continued to supply fragments of classic Buddhism. For the last half-century, however, a handful of artists engaged in many different Buddhist paths, gave another meaning to “transmission outside the scriptures,” for it was largely through their investigations that an awareness of Buddhism was conveyed from the margins toward the American mainstream. Like Bodhidharma himself, the artists persisted through and beyond the study of the classics to the original source—themselves. In this issue, both Huang Po and Charlotte Joko Beck provide a taste of Zen’s relentless focus on the awakened mind and, with it, a sense of the creativity exacted by the path of self-realization.
With the help of D. T Suzuki in the fifties, American artists encountered the teachings of Buddha—though in general Shakyamuni himself did not figure prominently among the intellectuals. Jack Kerouac was an exception, not only writing Wake Up, the biography of the Buddha that Tricycle is currently serializing, but painting Buddha images as well, including the one which appears on the cover of this issue. More typically, the avant-garde associated religious icons and endeavors with degenerate bureaucracies. To artists shaped by European ideologies and adrift in a philistine society, Zen offered a mystical pragmatism which appealed to the frontier spirit while demanding far deeper reserves of self-reliance than the American West had demanded of cowboys.
The voices of Peter Matthiessen and Jim Harrison in this issue are those of accomplished “Zen writers” whose lives are shaped by Zen but whose fiction—where we do not find explicit Buddhist imagery—testifies more to the lineage of Melville than Basho. Kate Wheeler’s short story “Ringworm” places her also squarely within the parameters of the Western literary tradition. Of the younger generation of Buddhist practitioners, Wheeler, a former Buddhist nun, delivers fiction in which traditional Buddhist material is handled with the personal ease of Willa Cather describing the heartland. Her prize-winning literary gifts aside, Wheeler represents a new coming of age of Buddhism in this culture.
In a stunning gesture, the late Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche arrived in the United States in 1974 and immediately asked to meet the poets. In her essay, still sounding somewhat awestruck after almost twenty years, Anne Waldman exclaims, “Who ever asks to see the poets!” Trungpa Rinpoche courted them; he embraced their creativity with his own, breaking convention with passionate explorations intended to free the heart and mind from self-imposed exile. No one denies that he was a wild man. Certainly not his disciple Pema Chodron, who, in “No Right, No Wrong,” exemplifies how a devoted disciple can share her teacher’s views without imitating that teacher’s style or methods. A celibate nun and director of Gampo Abbey, she emphasizes accepting the ambiguity and dying inherent in living—what she calls the groundlessness of reality. In an interview that ranges from teaching styles to sexuality and ethical norms, Pema Chodron reiterates the need to return to our fundamental Buddha-nature, that clean slate from which all true art, East and West, arises.
The traditions of monasticism, formal teachings, and ritual have often been viewed in contradiction to the “crazy wisdom,” of those experimental teachers who abandoned convention and broke the rules. Yet it is this very tension, captured in Nam June Paik’s sculpture (page 35), that dusts off the slate, helps wake us up, and keeps the Buddhist dharma alive and well.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.