Skillful Scenes

Do Buddhists believe in God? It seems that they do!

I read in your recent report on religious leaders’ opposition to the patenting of animals [“In the News,” Fall 1995], that four well known Buddhist leaders: Robert Aitken Roshi, Jack Kornfield, Tenshin Reb Anderson and Stephanie Kaza had signed a statement: “We believe that humans and animals are creations of God, not humans, and as such should not be patented as human inventions.”

Clearly we have to wonder if they really did sign the document or, if they did, were they in some way tricked into endorsing a statement which so obviously goes against basic Buddhist teachings? At meetings of “religious leaders” one frequently finds that seemingly knowledgeable and kindly Christian and Jewish participants insist, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that Buddhists too, in their own way, believe in the same God, creator of the universe.

Perhaps these four Buddhist leaders agreed to sign the statement as a sort of skillful means. But what kind of message does this give to the general public and newcomers to Buddhism? Millions of people in the West have rejected theistic religions—for very good reasons—and find themselves without a spiritual tradition. Buddhism is a fundamentally different and effective path to spiritual liberation. To equate it with the religious views of the theistic religions can bring nothing but confusion. Being clear about what is and what is not the Buddha’s teaching is the most skillful means.

Dharmachari Manjuvajra
Newmarket, New Hampshire

As a Christian with a great interest in and reverence for Buddhism, I love your publication. It is beautifully done and a pleasure to read. The articles are thoughtful and stimulating, the editing is excellent, and the art, graphics, and layout are lovely. Thank you for helping me to understand Buddhism—and for enriching my spiritual life.

Lorraine A. Underwood
Arlington, Virginia

Big Sky Find

In the Tricycle book Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation, Joanne Kyger recalls a 1962 (hilarious) encounter between herself, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and the Dalai Lama in which Ginsberg asks the Dalai Lama if he ever meditates. The reply is “No, I don’t have to.”

Some thirty years later, in the first issue of Tricycle magazine, the Dalai Lama tells Spalding Gray that he meditates for four hours every morning. Is the Dalai Lama sitting to a different Beat?

Roger Platt
Fort Bragg, California

The H-Word

Re: Donald Lopez’s article on the use of the word hinayana, [“From the Academy: The H Word,” Fall 1995], surely the easiest solution is to refer to Northern (Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) Buddhism and Southern (Thai, Cambodian, Laotian, Sri Lankan, etc.) Buddhism. Not only is this neutral, it is also fairly accurate.

By the way, thank you for Tricycle. Your excellent magazine repeatedly reminds me (a currently very disillusioned Soto Zen practitioner) why I got into this whole Buddhist thing in the first place.

Patrick Micel
Marseilles, France

Taking Ame

In her letter to Tricycle [Fall 1995] Diane Ames takes issue with “Euro-American dharma centers which generally do not perceive their complete failure to reach out to racial minorities.” This may look like—and have been written with the intention of—compassionate concern and political correctness. But here’s another view: that it is another version of white colonialist arrogance as to think we have something to offer minorities. Does Ames really believe that white Buddhists have some superior religious understanding to offer inner-city Catholic Latinos or African-American Baptists or followers of Islam?

Rosemary Gluck
e-mail

Close Call

In his excellent review of George Woodcock’s anthology of Thomas Merton’s writings on Oriental religion, Thoughts on the East [Fall 1995], Sam Hamill observes that Merton “in all likelihood never practiced zazen in the traditional sense.” While I would tentatively agree with this observation if by “in the traditional sense” he means sitting in full lotus on a black zafu, I suspect Merton’s practice came closer to traditional zazen than most of us who did not know him intimately can imagine.

In a piece of personal correspondence dated January 1966, the monk writes, “Now you ask about my method of meditation. . . . My prayer [rises] up out of the center of Nothing and Silence. If I am still present ‘myself’ this I recognize as an obstacle. If He wills He can then make the Nothingness into a total clarity. If He does not will, then the Nothingness seems [in] itself to be an object and remains an obstacle. Such is my ordinary way of prayer, or meditation. It is not ‘thinking about’ anything but a direct seeking of the Face of the Invisible. Which cannot be found unless we become lost in Him who is Invisible.” Traditional zazen? Pretty close.

John W. Groff, Jr.
Guntersville, Alabama

Reality Bytes

I really enjoyed reading Mitchell Kapor’s column, “Mind On-Line” [Fall 1995]. In the three universities I’ve worked at, people have been fixated on the Internet as a potential or actual space of total freedom, unmarked by signs of gender, race, class and so on. Well, so are books, if you want to think about them in a highly abstract way. So is crossing the road! It takes a while to convince people that virtual reality is actually . . . reality.

Tim Morton
e-mail

Nattier Storm Alert

Jan Nattier’s well thought-out, critical article on American Buddhism is precisely why I am so pleased with being a“Tricycle”subscriber. Despite the predictable “storm of protests” which I suppose will ensue, keep up the good work.

As an African-American Buddhist practitioner, I am astounded at the number of seemingly well-meaning white Buddhists who simply “Do not get it.” Some assumptions that I am greeted with would be laughable, if they were not so hurtful. Many Asian practitioners that I know and love have suffered similar experiences. Here in the Bay area a number of African American men have formed our own sangha to create a safe haven within which we may learn from the dharma. The group is the Mahakala Sangha. The cultural dismissal that we have individually encountered in the Bay area is sad, but we are collectively hopeful.

This article, although admittedly painful, may help all of us who need to take that long hard look into the mirror of truth.

Larry L. Saxon
San Francisco, California

Nattier’s assessment that “Elite,” or “Import,” Buddhist groups and centers are more correctly identified with the college-educated than with Euro-Americans is largely sound. However, she failed to follow through on the reasoning as to why this is so. College educated people, whether minority, working class, upper class or poor, are more ready to accept the “Elite” Buddhist program of mind training and meditation as achievable, since they’ve experienced for themselves how one’s views can change through education. I disagree with the assessment that “Elite” Buddhists or, more properly, those practitioners who are primarily interested in meditation and associated mind training, practice just to make themselves happy. Many meditators view their practice as a way to start with themselves where they have some hope of change, and, through their improved interactions with other people, extend their practice out into the world. Naturally, this view can descend into simple narcissism, but commitment to bodhichitta, the intention to become enlightened for all beings, prevents it from becoming so. In addition, Nattier’s conclusion that meditators are uninterested in the precepts is largely incorrect, and I believe probably derives from the large amount of Buddhist media coverage and discussion on ethical lapses among meditation teachers. Without proper grounding in ethical and moral behavior, right meditation is impossible, as every training manual from the time of Buddhaghosa to the present has clearly stated.

In the end, Nattier’s conclusion that practitioners of each type need to be tolerant of the other is sound, but not particularly helpful. The same statement can be made of Buddhist meditators and Fundamentalist Christians. A more relevant question is whether the three groups have more in common than just their identification with a spiritual practice called “Buddhism,” and if so, whether they can share that in a way that increases their feeling of identification with each other. In the process, it may be necessary for members of each type of group to grow, but such growth may be necessary to achieve the synthesis that could result in a truly Western Buddhism.

James Kempf
e-mail

The original teachings of Buddhism emphasized three areas upon which to focus on the path: morality (the precepts), concentration, and insight. Two out of three of these involve meditation. Jan Nattier wrote that “a fundamental characteristic of Elite Buddhism is its obsession with meditation.” Would she consider the Buddha and his sangha to have been obsessed with meditation?

It seems to me that Nattier was less inclined towards depicting reality (which is quite murky) than towards drawing up categories in order to further her line of thinking. Such an approach may be fitting within Western academia, and may produce impressive articles, but I question how effectively it serves the dharma.

Jim Scheid
Lincoln, Vermont

Letters

As one who practiced Zen and is now a member of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), I agree with her synopsis of American Buddhism. [“Visible and Invisible,” Fall 1995].

I observed while practicing Zen that the members of my sitting group came from a higher social bracket. This afforded them more time and resources to do weekend retreats. I felt somewhat at a handicap because of my education and monetary level as compared to the other members. Though I must say, the other members never lorded their social level over me.

When I joined SGI I had many reservations. My initial contact with Buddhism came through sitting meditation and reading books on Zen. I felt that the teachings of Nichiren were too simplistic. It seemed to me that the sect was really for the uneducated masses. My opinion soon changed because I found that in my local group many members had graduated from college. They were very articulate about explaining the philosophy of SGI.

I still feel that SGI is not looked on by other sects as authentically Buddhist. I have a problem with SGI claiming it is the true Buddhist school. I do feel this is changing a little. I will be happy when all Buddhist schools can come together and work for the common good of all beings.

Scott A. Trout
Indianapolis, Indiana

I appreciate Tricycle’s attempt to be as inclusive as possible and for this reason am pleased to see an increase in material from academics. But just because one writes with the authority of a Ph.D. does not mean that he or she gets it right. In fact, Nattier seems to exemplify the classic pitfalls of the Ivory Tower prisoner: safely ensconced, yet totally out of touch with what is actually happening. The emphasis on meditation that Nattier attributes to the Elite Buddhists with such incautious certainty has declined so much in the past ten years that its champions have been marginalized. The two leading figures for Elite Buddhists are the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, whose popularity reflects the growing interest in integrating social action with spiritual practice. Nattier also refers (condescendingly) to the various scandals that she says indicate that Elite Buddhists do not heed the precepts. This is spurious logic indeed. The reason that the scandals became scandals—and not just events—is precisely because of the collective concern with morality, ethics, and precepts. Without this preoccupation there would be no scandals. Nattier’s views may be politically correct, but sadly, with their knee-jerk liberal biases and prejudices, they reflect the same kind of white-people-bashing that has this country staring at a Newt Gingrich presidency. No thanks.

Loni Perkins
Ashland, Oregon

Correction

In your article on the passing of Taizan Maezumi Roshi [Fall 1995] you stated that he transmitted in both Soto and Rinzai lines but this is not the case. Though he did receive transmission from three lineages of Zen, he himself was a Soto Zen priest, and all of his successors were transmitted through the lineage of his father, Baian Hakujun Daiosho, a Soto Zen priest.

Maezumi Roshi chose the name “the White Plum Asanga” to designate his dharma successors and so on. The word sanga (not to be confused with sangha) means “attached”; asanga means detached. The White Plum Sangha, now a nonprofit religious organization, encompasses all sangha memebers of the Asanga.

Lastly, Tetsugen Glassman Sensei received transmission during the week prior to Maezumi’s death, not on the day of his death, as reported.

Wendy Egyoku Nakao
Executive Director
The White Plum Sangha

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