I have no qualms about Mr. Batchelor’s agnosticism regarding reincarnation. His beliefs are quite reasonable. However, when he states that “an agnostic position toward death seems more compatible with an authentic spiritual attitude,” I wonder where he acquired the copyright to the “authentic spiritual attitude.”
Science requires proof; religion and philosophy are as yet based on belief. If some basic Buddhist tenets, like impermanence and death, are scientifically acceptable, we would be hard pressed to find objective proof of many of our other givens—including Buddha-nature, karma, reincarnation, and enlightenment. Nothing proves that the Buddha was enlightened, and nothing proves that his discoveries are valid for anyone else. He himself warned against accepting the teachings without having tested them. We are asked to listen, reflect, and meditate—not to swallow.
Skepticism is healthy. I think many Western Buddhists are attracted to Buddhism just because no one is asking us for blind faith. Buddhism is agnostic by nature up to a certain point. We are not expected to sign the lease until we’ve sniffed, squeezed, and test-driven—this is a part of the path. But at some point in our practice, we may reach a stage at which we choose to sidestep the skepticism, open ourselves wholeheartedly to a teacher, and accept his or her teachings. In Vajrayana practice, this commitment is an essential part of the spiritual process.
Opening to and being accepted by a teacher is an enormous responsibility on both sides, as anyone who has taken that step knows. For me, this means acknowledging that my teacher is wiser than I am, period. I don’t expect him to excel in baking, botany, or embroidery—but I have solid faith in his superior knowledge of all things of the mind, of the absolute. So at this point agnosticism means subtly clinging to my views, or subtly questioning my teacher’s. I’m convinced that actually being right or wrong about such matters is beside the point. Acceptance here is not dogma—it’s practice. There is a difference between proclaiming, grasping, imposing, or asserting and accepting. It seems to me that accepting a belief based on faith in the teacher or in the teachings is no less compatible with an authentic spiritual attitude than clinging to agnosticism.
Thank you, Tricycle, and Allen Ginsberg, for filling in some of the blanks in my understanding of Jack Kerouac (“Negative Capability: Kerouac’s Buddhist Ethic” Fall, 1992). For many years, on many porches, and in many rented rooms in Lawrence (Kansas), my friends and I passionately emulated who we each thought was Kerouac in our drunken sprees, mad poetry readings, “Jack Kerouac Typing Challenges,” and uninhibited, unedited free-form prose and verse. I, at least, was utterly clueless to the inner form of the outer manifestations we were recreating as our own. I know that Ginsberg and other writers of the time were involved in some sort of “weird Eastern thing,” but I dismissed it as so much intellectual entanglement.
Now, many years later, I find myself with a spiritual interest in Buddhism. My new, less intoxicated, less critical self appreciates the bit of insight into Kerouac’s inner workings, into that “Eastern thing” previously so inaccessible and enigmatic to me. Just this glimpse of Kerouac makes it enjoyable to “remember the old days,” reread my own jumble of scribbles, and just wonder how in the world I missed all the truth and richness embedded in Kerouac’s mad, gorgeous lines.
Alison Dishinger Hills
Kansas City, Missouri
The interview with bell hooks (“Agent of Change; An Interview with bell hooks,” Fall 1992) is exactly the challenging kind of thinking that is necessary if Buddhism is to become truly responsive to women. This summer I attended a meditation retreat at Plum Village led by Thich Nhat Hanh. While I was impressed at the strong female leadership encouraged within the order, some of his remarks about family and women’s roles did sound patriarchal to me. These remarks were challenged by many of the feminist women at the retreat. I was relieved to see that Thich Nhat Hanh listened to these critiques and took them seriously.
Western Buddhism does seem to be concentrating on developing a family practice. As a lesbian and a feminist, I wonder if Western Buddhism’s definition of “family” is going to be inclusive or based on the old patriarchal model. My family, i.e., my partner and I, certainly felt very welcomed and supported at Plum Village. I also appreciate the fact that Thich Nhat Hanh’s re-worded precepts, which originally spoke of “marriage,” now recognize long-term commitments other than marriage.
I was most pleased by your in-depth interview with bell hooks in the Fall 1992 issue of Tricycle.
Being one of that “rare breed,” an African-American Zen Buddhist (Rinzai for twenty-eight years), it was refreshing to “meet” Ms. hooks.
Gwendolyn L. Belle
St. Louis, Missouri
TEMPEST IN A TEAPOT
I was surprised and rather offended by an item appearing in the “In The News” section of the Fall issue. It concerned an advertisement for the Apple Powerbook which features several Tibetan monks. The “Caucasian cross-dresser” referred to is clearly Mr. Glenn Mullin, a very respected scholar and practitioner of Vajrayana Buddhism. A well known author, Mr. Mullin has dedicated his life to the preservation of Tibetan culture, and has as much right as anyone to wear Tibetan robes. The Drepung Loseling monks, who live in exile in India, are struggling to keep their ancient and precious lineage alive. Their economic circumstances are quite desperate, as are those of almost all Tibetan exiles. If they can make a few bucks appearing in a harmless computer ad, more power to them. It is incredibly arrogant and condescending of the writer to assume that they cannot decide for themselves whether this is appropriate.
St. Louis, Missouri
I am writing neither as an apologist for the Apple Powerbook advertisement, nor for the “omniscient male authority” found lurking behind the photograph of four Tibetan monks and a “Caucasian cross-dresser” holding an Apple Powerbook (“In the News,” Fall 1992), but to offer an alternative view to the somewhat rigid, indignant, and alarmist perspective you offered.
My experience of opening a magazine and being greeted by the beaming Lamas of Drepung Loseling was one of unalloyed delight and amusement. This is likely a function of having been a host for their recent world tour of “Sacred Music, Sacred Dance” and experiencing them closely as deeply authentic Lamas and ambassadors of the Tibetan Buddha dharma. Perhaps it is knowing that the People’s Republic of China spends millions of dollars annually to manipulate the press and public opinion to obscure their ongoing illegal occupation of Tibet and their genocide of this ancient culture. Most of all I think it was my reaction to the message on the screen which, like one small voice, described the survival of Drepung Loseling College subsequent to the Tibet Diaspora. I found it a testament to the flexibility and humor of the Tibetan people and the love of their precious Dharma—something I was disappointed to find little of in your dour reflection on the same photograph.
Bruce G. Seidner
Nowhere in the recent ad for Apple’s Powerbook, is it communicated that the robed subjects are “real” Tibetan monks or that the Caucasian in the center is the Buddhist translator Glenn Mullin; nor was that information known to this office when “Mad. Ave, Strikes Again” was published. What deserves the attention of our readership is the exploitation of Buddhist imagery in commercial advertising. The Powerbook ad exemplifies the cause for this concern.
Tracy Cochran’s article on virtual reality (Fall 1992) is, I hope, the first of many to address technology from a Buddhist perspective. We like to think technology is neutral and problems occur because of the people who use it. But it is not a mere coincidence that a perfect application for nuclear technology is nuclear weapons. Since virtual reality is within the technological lineage of television and computer games, we can expect its effects to be similar. As Cochran points out, these technologies only serve to further separate us from the world and our own real natures.
We must consider the cost of constructing virtual realities. If the technology becomes cheap it will be made by the same process that made other technologies cheap—by degrading the natural world and enslaving third-world people. The synthetics to make the computerized clothing will be paid for with oil spills in the Arctic and wars in the Middle East. Is the potential this technology offers worth the karmic price?
Martha Weaver Britell
Port Olford, Oregon
DON’T KNOW MIND
Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche‘s existential discourse on the bardo between death and rebirth (“In Transition,” Fall, 1992) was certainly quite interesting—dissolving consciousness states, expansion, attainment… pretty fascinating stuff.
Reminds me of a conversation I read about that took place a few hundred years ago:
“Master, what happens at death?”
“How should I know?”
“You’re a Zen Master, aren’t you?”
“Yes, but not a dead one.”
Martin K. Bayne
Albany, New York
Holy Skirmish (“In the News,” Fall 1992) makes no attempt to enter into, empathically, the particular syncretic genius of Hindu spirituality. The Hindu “worship” of Buddha is not so much the wrongful appropriation of another tradition’s “property,” as much as the welcome inclusion of yet another manifestation in human form, of the divine. Buddha in particular, as son of Indian-Hindu spirituality is a natural for that pantheon—even more than Christ who is often included there.
Can you imagine mobs of angry Hindus demanding the “return” of all the dieties, iconography, cosmologies, etc. which Buddhism has borrowed from the tradition?
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