Remember Your Roots
I found the interview with Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg [“Through Good Times and Bad,” Winter 2004] thoughtful and interesting, but also somewhat disappointing. It’s curious and disconcerting that these three prominent American Buddhist leaders make no reference to their common Jewish roots. Are we to believe that these three leaders have “transcended” their religious and cultural upbringing? Jews and Christians, and others in America, have work to do in terms of integrating their chosen adult path with their childhood experience.
The problem, I believe, is that these intelligent and experienced leaders do not hold integration as an important value. A frank discussion would greatly benefit people who struggle silently with identity questions such as: Who am I? A Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist?
Perhaps it’s the job of the next generation of leaders to address the issue of integration in a more direct and open fashion.
—George Cohen, LCSW, El Cerrito, CA
Joseph Goldstein Responds
Interest in integrating religious traditions seems to vary greatly from person to person. Our childhood religious training is not at all uniform, so we bring very different feelings of connection with it (or not) to our present-day experience. Personally, I feel more connected to the cultural roots of Judaism than I do to the religious ones; obviously, other people feel differently. So rather than look to all teachers to explore this integration, I would suggest you work with those for whom this is an active interest in their lives. It certainly holds tremendous potential for cross-fertilization of values and teachings.
Not Just For The Bliss-ninnies
I was pleased to see the special section on the jhanas, “The Jhanas: Perfecting States of Concentration” [Winter 2004]. While getting instruction in Zen, Tibetan, and, Vipassana meditation I’ve heard jhana practice ridiculed as a distraction for the immature, as dangerous because of possible attachment to pleasant states, and as the preoccupation of yogic bliss-ninnies.
I’ve maintained a consistent sitting practice for twenty-eight years, and would not have done so without the enjoyable, calming effect of jhana practice. Fortunately, I’m foolish and grandiose enough to ignore teachers when they contradict my own experience. Many years ago at a retreat these words popped into my head:
Sitting in the shrine room
I sneaked into a jhana—
and nobody knew!
—George Ochsenfeld, Monee, Illinois
Caring For Your Company
I thoroughly enjoyed Michael Carroll’s article “Mahakala at Work” [Winter 2004], on how to use Buddhist principles to minimize conflict in the workplace. His article addresses how to steer individuals in the workplace away from instigating or participating in conflicts. Many theories of management and many of the most successful organizations argue that focusing on the individual and human behavior is, in fact, the problem; these theories argue that the staff should be inspired to work for the good of the organization rather than for any personal agendas.
Several years ago, whenever a staff conflict was brought to my attention, I began bringing all parties into my office and asking, “How does what you are fighting about benefit the organization?” Occasionally, someone was truly concerned about the impact of a certain business decision on the fate of the company. But most of the time the agendas were personal, not based at all on the interests of the company. My department managers have begun asking the same question. As a result, everyone gets occasional reminders that our mission is the organization, not ourselves, and the number of selfish conflicts have dropped significantly.
—David Childs, Ph.D., Dallas, Texas
Accolades For Adyashanti
I want to congratulate Tricycle on its interview with Adyashanti, “The Taboo of Enlightenment: Do We Really Believe We Can Awaken?” [Fall 2004]. There are, of course, good reasons for not talking about enlightenment, not the least of which is the impossibility of conceptualizing it. But there is a risk in fetishizing the silence surrounding the nature of awakening. By now we all know the dangers of secrecy and hierarchy in practice communities, and these dangers increase when talk of enlightenment is silenced. This is not the awakened silence of both speaking and nonspeaking so eloquently expressed in the Zen tradition. The interview mentions other risks of this taboo: its contribution to the confusion of experiences with awakening; the keeping of our inner lives hidden, secret, and thus separate; and the prevention of what Adyashanti calls the “ruthless ability and willingness to question.” Providing new identities and ideologies that can do an excellent job of polishing our egos is not the purpose of Buddhist practice. How refreshing to see (and hear) a finger pointing to the moon!
—Nancy Mujo Baker, Sensei, No Traces Zendo, New York, New York
The Ocean Of Buddhism
I disagree with Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s assertion in “It’s Not Buddhism, It’s Buddhisms” [Fall 2004] that the three different Buddhist traditions are separate Buddhist religions. The ocean of Buddhism includes many traditions, reflecting the different streams of practice in different cultures and societies.
Within the first two hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha’s death we had the development of up to eighteen sects of Buddhism, many with different canons and therefore different sources and views. Nevertheless, even with major differences of texts and interpretations, it was one Buddhism with many streams coexisting, though some privileged their tradition and interpretation or claimed to be more authentic.
Practitioners from the Nikaya, Mahayana, and early Vajrayana traditions studied and practiced together in the Indian Buddhist monasteries and universities. This pattern existed up until about the eighth to tenth century C.E., when these monasteries and universities were destroyed by the Muslim invasions.
As the different streams moved geographically across Asia and were cut off from each other, especially with the destruction of Indian Buddhism, the lines of separation hardened. This is especially evident as forms (often culturally determined) adapted and changed. Thus we find aspects of one tradition that seem to be “radically different” from those of other Buddhist traditions.
A thorough exploration of Buddhism vs. Buddhism(s) would need much more than just a letter. Suffice it to say that there is much evidence against Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s assertion that the various Buddhist traditions are different Buddhist religions. Though each stream is unique, each stream is the ocean. Entering a stream is entering the ocean.
—Elihu Genmyo Smith, Champaign, Illinois
Thanissaro Bhikkhu Responds
Would Zen practitioners dismiss Mahayana beliefs about innate Buddha-nature and the nonduality of nirvana and samsara as superficial cultural accretions? Would Vajrayanists do the same for beliefs about the efficacy of Tantric ritual in accessing the power and knowledge of Cosmic Buddhas and bodhisattvas in the Vajradhatu? The Theravada tradition doesn’t accept these beliefs as genuine dharma at all. These differences among us date from the heyday of Indian Buddhism, when texts such as the Prajaparamita Sutras, the Lotus Sutra, and the Yogini Tantras openly repudiated earlier teachings at the very root. The Lotus, for instance, maintained that the Buddha never entered nirvana, the dharma he taught his arhat disciples was a misrepresentation, and the arhats were not fully enlightened…
When contradictory Buddhist teachings spread to other lands, people there had to find some way to make sense of them, and the three major Buddhist traditions formed when each chose a different set of texts as the Procrustean bed into which other teachings were stretched or chopped off in order to fit. Because these core texts differ so radically, even such basic concepts as “Buddha,” “nirvana,” “emptiness,” and “skillful” differ radically from tradition to tradition. To treat these traditions as amorphous bodies of water is to miss their inner coherence and integrity.
The differences among the these traditions are at least as radical as those among Jews, Christians, and Muslims concerning which prophets carry the definitive message of the God of Abraham. We may think that the polite, enlightened way to approach our differences is to deny their importance, but this interferes with actually understanding them. Our unwillingness to admit them tells us less about Buddhism than it does about our own Western ineptitude in treating religious disagreements with respect. Better to allow the integrity of each tradition as a separate religion, and to learn from our Buddhist predecessors how to be honest about real differences and yet live together in peace.
Dead On Arrival
I heartily share Wes Nisker’s frustration with the Bush regime [“Confessions of a Bush-Bashing Buddhist,” Fall 2004]. However, his approach of using the paramitas to justify a progressive point of view is dead on arrival. The paramitas are guidelines that can be interpreted at the whim of the interpreter. So are the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes —guidelines subscribed to by evangelical Christians, the ones who mostly voted for Bush.
It’s too easy to look down at those benighted souls who, Nisker seems to be saying, either bought into the wrong teachings or don’t follow them correctly: our teachings vs. their teachings; our sincere practice vs. their hypocritical lives.
Our world is fractured enough without Nisker’s divisive us vs. them writing.
—Barry Evans, Eureka, California
Wes Niskar Responds
I don’t wish to contribute to the divisions in our political life, or encourage an us vs. them mentality, but we all have guidelines by which we form opinions about what is acceptable behavior. I hold the paramitas as my baseline morality, and what I see through that prism leads me to a strong condemnation of the actions of our current government. I would think that any good Christian who holds the Ten Commandments as his guide would do the same.
Justice For Abu Ghraib
Kenneth Kraft, in his article “The Lessons of Abu Ghraib” [Fall 2004], states that because of the limitless interconnectedness of the world, we’re all to blame for the atrocities that took place at that prison. Is that really a valid application of the Buddhist teachings on dependent co-arising? If it is, then why bother trying to figure out if officials in Washington were part of the chain of command leading to these abuses? If we’re all responsible for the decisions that individual people make, then no one’s accountable, and we should leave the perpetrators alone.
From what little I know about the doctrines of karma, I can’t believe that the Buddha would teach such a thing.
—Mathew Hilden, Laguna Beach, CA
Kenneth Kraft Responds
The Abu Ghraib perpetrators, whether low or high in the chain of command, should of course be prosecuted. At the same time, we can recognize that we are somewhere in the vast matrix of causes and conditions that led to these atrocities. Collective karma is a group activity. Could some of us have done more to prevent this war? What should we be doing now to prevent future atrocities?
The torturers treated the prisoners as wholly other, completely separate from themselves. If we in turn treat the torturers as wholly other, we fall into the same trap. The challenge is to find paths of action that come from oneness.
Tricycle welcomes letters to the editor. Letters are subject to editing. Please send correspondence to:
Tricycle: The Buddhist Review
92 Vandam Street
New York, NY 10013
Fax: (212) 645-1493
Email address: email@example.com
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.