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As different Buddhist traditions take root in the West, is it possible to find an essential teaching that supports them all? In an adaptation from a talk given at Tricycle‘s recent Conference on Practice and Inquiry, Joseph Goldstein searches for the “One Dharma” of liberation.

© David Hurn/Magnum Photos.
© David Hurn/Magnum Photos.

This is a unique time in the history of Buddhism. Different Buddhist traditions are meeting and interacting with one another here in the West, often for the first time in centuries. Just as the dharma spread from India through many countries in Asia, each one finding its own voice, here, too, we’re seeing the emergence of a Western Buddhism, something that is unique to our own time and culture.

The defining characteristic of this emerging Western Buddhism is a basic pragmatism, rather than an adherence to some philosophical system or sectarian viewpoint. What most characterizes the One Dharma of the West is an allegiance to a very simple question: What works? What works to free the mind from suffering? What works to accomplish the heart of compassion? What works to awaken us from the dream states of our ignorance?

As Western Buddhist practitioners, we’ve been brought up to question and investigate, and this exploration can become a great strength of our dharma practice. The different teachings that are coming together and interacting here in the West are being tested and challenged by each other. We’re hearing different teachings, we’re reflecting on them, and we’re practicing them and testing them in our own lives, in our own meditation experience. Many of us are practicing in several of these different traditions. It’s not uncommon for people to list as their various teachers Tibetan Rinpoches, Chinese, Korean, or Japanese Zen masters, Thai ajaans, Burmese sayadaws, and Western teachers of every school. We may have various opinions about whether or not this mixing is a good idea, but it is what is happening. And so our challenge is to understand it and craft it in such a way that it becomes a vehicle for awakening.

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