The Dispute Of Happiness
The Tricycle Fall 2005 issue was one of the best yet! So many articles on happiness, so much to think about—and like all really good discussions, it left me asking so many questions! Here are two:
As a college professor, I sometimes ask my students what they think is the most important thing in life; increasingly, the answer is “happiness.” But I remember asking that question when I was a college student and getting answers like “I want to be rich,” “I want power,” or (since it was the ’60s) “I want love.” It seems as if fewer people are making the assumption that happiness comes automatically as part of some external factor. Could this mean that we are beginning to learn something?
Second question: if Americans are changing their views about happiness, could this be in part a result of the growth of Buddhism among us? According to the National Survey of Religious Identification, the number of Buddhists in this country grew from 401,000 in 1990 to 1,082,000 in 2000. That’s a growth of over 170 percent! Surely this means that more and more Americans are having some contact with Buddhists, and thus with the dharma and the concept of escape from suffering. Could the “happiness craze” turn out to be one of Tricycle’s own chickens coming home to roost?
—Ralph Doty, Norman, Oklahoma
I have just finished reading the Fall 2005 issue of Tricycle. The issue has “The Pursuit of Happiness” as its organizing theme. This type of marketing may sell copy, but something substantive has been lost.
A dog chasing his tail
Looking for happiness,
Does not find enlightenment.
—Brad Keller, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Coney Island Enlightenment
I have framed your joyful cover photo of robed monks on a roller coaster.
Fifteen years ago, when I was interviewing Sidney Baker, M.D., he described a hobby of his. Dr. Baker, who was director of the Gessell Institute for Human Development, would go to amusement parks and photograph people as they rode the roller coasters. After taking hundreds of pictures, he felt that he had discovered the secret of the ecstatic roller-coaster ride. More than anything, the rider simply needs to let go, to open up to the experience rather than contract. He said to fully appreciate the ride, throw your arms up with abandon and let the feelings of both exhilaration and terror flow in and out as you take the wild journey.
We both laughed, acknowledging that whether on a two-minute roller-coaster ride or on the journey of life, it was far easier said than done.
—Paul Roud, Ph.D., Leverett, Massachusetts
Thank you for the article on “Sudden Awakening” by Nina Wise (Fall 2005). As a female dharma teacher who teaches the “Way of Sudden Awakening,” I appreciated her insights regarding the possibility of ordinary women in leadership and teaching roles in the Buddhist community. I thought your readers might like to know that the Buddhist path of sudden awakening (Southern School of Ch’an), flourished in other centers as well as the Bao Tang, the eighth-century sect that Wise discusses. Readers may wish to look into the teachings of Huang-po, Hui-neng, and Huai-hai from the same period. The teaching never died out and can be found reappearing in seventeenth-century Japan with Bankei [1622-93]. Fortunately, there are English translations of all these teachers available. Nippo Syaku, under whom my teacher studied, brought the sudden awakening school to the United States from Japan in the late 1960s and ’70s. It has always been passed along quietly, without marketing hype or catering to fads. I have taught and continued this profound tradition since 1998.
It is important to note that while there may be some superficial similarities to Advaita Vedanta, Sudden Awakening Buddhism is a distinct Buddhist path. This type of teaching has been called “the way of no-way” or “the method of no-method.” This approach is not to be equated with an iconoclastic rejection of all “way” or “method.” Rather, it should be understood as a systematic teaching pointing to the sudden uncovering of wisdom within—without recourse to fixed, rigid, objective methodologies. As a result the teaching is fluid and flexible according to the student’s needs while preserving its direct, straightforward pointing to the true nature of mind as the Buddha-nature.
Thanks again for making your readers aware of this little-known but precious way.
—Helga Schleiter Smith, Soquel, California
Nina Wise’s article “Sudden Awakening” follows a pattern that by now has become all too predictable in Buddhist writing. (1) The author brings her problems to a renowned spiritual teacher or retreat center. (2) She is told that all she has to do is let go. (3) After some struggle she lets go and finds a moment of peace. (4) Based on that moment of peace, she tells us what the teachings of the Buddha and all the great enlightened beings of the past really meant. At least in this case, Ms. Wise is honest enough to admit that she’s still a little uncertain and confused, but why share her confusion with the world?
What I’d like to see is an article where the author is really honest with herself. She realizes that (1) she can’t trust her desire to believe that everybody’s talking about the same goal, nor can she get there on any path she likes; (2) she can’t believe everything she hears from spiritual teachers (for example, the idea that the Buddha taught that we are consciousness itself—everything I’ve read tells me that he said that to identify with anything, even infinite consciousness, is to suffer); (3) she’s going to have to do some long, hard work to prove for herself which path really works; she’ll get results and then tell us what she found. She’ll show her scars, laugh heartily, and tell us that it was more than worth it.
—Barbara Shepard, Laguna Beach, California
From The Source
In Mary Talbot’s otherwise perceptive and appreciative review of my Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison (“The Natural,” Fall 2005), there were several misconceptions. Talbot states that Ruth Denison received dharma transmission from the Burmese Master Sayagyi U Ba Khin. That is certainly accurate. But then she adds: “. . . with whom she had studied for mere weeks.” I’m afraid that very much distorts the truth. Anentire chapter describes Denison’s training with U Ba Khin, from her initial two-month time with him in Burma in the early sixties to her numerous other journeys to Burma and periods of training that followed (made very difficult by the political situation in Burma), as well as the close connection that Denison maintained with her teacher when she was not able to get into Burma to study in person with him. This training and deepening went on for ten years, until finally, in 1971, U Ba Khin brought Ruth into his lineage and authorized her to teach.
Something else that I’d like to address is Talbot’s contention that there is blurriness between the terms Vipassana and Theravada in my book. She may be responding to a shift in some practitioners’ views of the tradition of Theravada Buddhism and its practice of Vipassana meditation, and the confusion that can result. There are teachers and students now who have adopted the term “Vipassana movement” to describe retreats and trainings in which the meditation practice is offered but not the traditional Theravada teachings of the Pali canon. I think I was quite clear about Denison’s position; she certainly has never confused the two. She teaches Vipassana meditation (both in the traditional manner conveyed to her by U Ba Khin and with her own innovations), and she expounds the dharma in the Theravada tradition, drawing from the Buddha’s teachings as presented in the Pali canon. Talbot is certainly correct in noting that in our language and practice the continual transformations going on in our Western Buddhism can sometimes cause confusion. In other respects Mary Talbot caught the uniqueness and freshness of Ruth Denison, and I thank her for her kind words on the book.
—Sandy Boucher, Oakland, California
Mary Talbot Responds
In using the phrase “mere weeks” to describe Denison’s study with U Ba Khin, I referred to my understanding of their one-on-one time together, based on the chapter chronicling their relationship: there was Denison’s initial two-month stay with him (some nine to ten weeks) and subsequent visits “back to Burma whenever she could.” This suggested to me that the later trips were not long. In no way did I intend to dismiss the intensity of Denison’s discipleship to U Ba Khin or to distort the authenticity of their student-teacher relationship. Compared, however, with the day-in-day-out, year-in-year-out contact of most Theravada teachers with students to whom they grant authority to teach, Denison’s in-person contact with U Ba Khin was remarkably brief.
Regarding my assertion that the terms Theravada and Vipassana are not clearly delineated in the book, I certainly appreciate that Boucher knows the difference, but I don’t think some of her references make the distinction clear. On page 165, for example, Boucher writes that while Dension “teaches within the Theravada or Vipassana tradition . . . the real truth is that Ruth exists outside any lineage.” That usage suggests interchangeable terms, which they are not, as Boucher describes above.
On page 83 of the Fall 2005 issue, Sharon Salzburg’s book should have been listed as The Force of Kindness, notThe Face of Kindness.
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
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.