The always provocative website Edge.org poses an annual question to a long list of prominent thinkers, mostly scientists, and then posts their responses. This year’s question was: What have you changed your mind about, and why? We at Tricycle thought it would be no less intriguing to ask the same question with a Buddhist spin. So we’ve approached a wide range of old Buddhist hands with our own adapted version: What in Buddhism have you changed your mind about, and why? What follows is a cross-section of the answers we received. A larger sampling is available on tricycle.com. And now the ball is in your court. We invite you to post your own response and comment on what strikes you most. As we wrote in our original invitation to those we asked: Surprise us!
ANDREW SCHELLING is a poet, translator, and essayist. He is on the faculty of the Writing and Poetics program at Naropa University.
Reincarnation is a concept I could never accept. It seems absurdly egotistic, chafes against every principle we know of natural history, and contradicts the Buddhist teachings I’ve cracked my thoughts against for thirty years. Yet in the Mumonkan, when the old man tells Pai-chang that for giving a slipshod answer to a kind of pointless question, he “was reborn five hundred times as a fox,” I feel a shiver go up my spine.
Most of my friends have aged or dying parents. Our children are no longer young. One friend shot himself last year. Others have had health concerns that could snatch them away tomorrow. I try to envision what comes after “old-age-sickness-and-death,” and find a companion’s description of tall-grass prairie much better solace than notions of rebirth.
So I change my mind about reincarnation all the time. When otherwise pragmatic friends describe Tibetan lamas getting born again, it strikes me as silly. Within a few days a fox slips past and I know it’s a girl or some old man I had relations with in a former life. And last week I read something that comes close to what I believe today: “Those who eat will be eaten.” This accords with my studies in ecology. The body will be eaten by wind, rain, earth, bacteria, corrosives, prairie grass, coyote, ravens. It will ferment, decompose, break apart into nutrients. That’s a pretty good reincarnation. Almost as good as five hundred fox lifetimes. But then I wonder, what eats our dreams, thoughts, fears, hopes, and notebooks? What will eat our changing minds?
SHARON SALZBERG is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is The Force of Kindness.
I don’t know that I’ve changed my mind about something in Buddhism per se as much as I’ve changed my mind about needing to hold tightly to views to deflect what I really don’t know. My first teacher, S. N. Goenka, told me, “The Buddha did not teach Buddhism—he taught a way of life.” This idea became the foundation of my approach to meditation practice.
That foundation, however, was later overtaken by a tendency to be attached to tenets of the tradition, the metaphysics and the cosmology of Theravada Buddhism, which I held on to with a pretty strong degree of rigidity.
I remember getting into an argument with a student of Tibetan Buddhism while at Naropa Institute in 1974, when I first returned from my studies in India. We were discussing what happens to someone at the time of death—the Theravada view being that rebirth occurs in the next mind-moment, the Tibetan view being that there is an intermediate period of up to forty-nine days before rebirth. Our discussion got quite strident, and of course the question remained completely unresolved.
It was only later, as I looked back on that afternoon, that I realized we were probably two people with some fear of dying, both of us hoping for reassurance through doctrine, as though we actually knew what was going to happen when we died. Nowadays, I’d rather try to deal with the fear. I’m convinced I pay more honest tribute to the Buddhist tradition, to its extraordinary insights and methodology and inspiration, by doing just that.
MARTINE BATCHELOR was a Zen Buddhist nun in Korea for ten years. She now lives in France and teaches meditation retreats around the world.
Thirty years ago, when I was living in Korea as a Zen nun, I thought that Korean Zen was the Way. A friend coming from another tradition started to make me see that maybe Korean Zen was not the only way, even though it was and is a very good one.
Ten years later I did some research for a book on women and Buddhism. Until then I had the idea that some Buddhisms were better than others and some practices definitely inferior to others. I interviewed forty Buddhist women from many different traditions: Zen, Theravada, Tibetan, Pure Land. This convinced me that the tradition and the practice did not really matter as long as the person did it with sincerity, dedication, humility, and an open heart. I learned a lot from these women, and the one who impressed me the most was actually one from a supposedly inferior tradition!
Nowadays, having become a teacher myself, I can see clearly that no practice can fit everyone. Generally I would say most practices suit sixty percent of the people who encounter them and try them out for a certain period of time. So I have become what could be called a pluralistic liberal in terms of Buddhist practice.
WILL STEWART has been practicing Zen for twenty-five years, or thereabouts. He sees little reason for optimism.
I haven’t changed my mind about Buddhism; I’ve changed my mind about who I am.
ROBERT AITKEN is a retired master of the Diamond Sangha, a Zen Buddhist society in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is also a cofounder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
I haven’t really changed my mind about the dharma, but I have changed my views about how it should be presented. I am much less tolerant of the attempt to make it accessible by mixing it with Vajrayana, Vipassana, Christianity, psychology, or libertarianism.
A monk asked Zhaozhou, “What is the meaning of Bodhidharma’s coming from the West?”
Zhaozhou said, “The cypress tree in the front courtyard.”
Can you hear the primordial echoing in that response? As much as I admire the Dalai Lama and Buddhadasa, I do not find such depth in their words.
As well as I relate to Meister Eckhart and Brother Lawrence, I don’t feel any resonance with the Heart Sutra and its presentation of utter vacancy when I read them.
As much as I have availed myself of psychological therapy, I can’t get past its purpose to enhance the ego.
As much as I sympathize with masters who warn against involvement in politics, my heart opens to the wails of widows in Detroit, Iraq, and everywhere the autocrats have imposed their imperatives—and my vows show me the Tao.
While thus I’ve come to feel that it is deplorable to try to mix the dharma with other disciplines, I’ve realized that it is even worse to remove the discipline. I see the dharma watered down everywhere. Actually, the purity of the dharma is its simplicity. It is made complicated beyond recognition by the effort to make it “new.” Let’s keep the simplicity as is!
STEPHAN BODIAN is a teacher in the Zen and Advaita Vedanta traditions and the author of Wake Up Now.
When I practiced Zen as a monk in my twenties, I fervently believed what my teachers and Dogen Zenji said about the transformative, awakening power of sitting meditation. In my mind, zazen was the royal road to enlightenment, the one true dharma gate, as Dogen’s Fukanzazengi suggests. Yet after sitting devotedly for more than a decade, many hours each day, I still had experienced only the most superficial glimpse of my essential nature.
Discouraged and disillusioned, I set aside my robes to study Western psychology, and my sitting practice became more casual and sporadic, though my dedication to truth didn’t fade. Finally, six years after leaving the monastery, I met a teacher of Advaita Vedanta who insisted that meditation was not only unnecessary but could actually become a routine that habituated and dulled the mind and made it less available to truth.
The words of this teacher resonated deeply for me, and one day, while I was driving, a single phrase floated into my awareness: “The seeker is the sought.” Suddenly my world turned inside out, and the teachings of the Zen masters I had struggled for years to comprehend became crystal clear.
As a result of my experience, I no longer believe, as my Buddhist teachers insisted, that meditation is essential preparation for the transformative experience of awakening. Rather, I believe other skillful means are equally effective at revealing the illusion of a separate self: earnest self-inquiry, the pointing-out instructions of an awakened teacher, a silent gaze, a sudden crisis . . . the cypress tree in the garden. Since each individual is different, each of these has the power at the right moment to catalyze a direct insight into the nature of reality.
ELIOT FINTUSHEL is an author, teacher, and performance artist. He lives in Santa Rosa, California.
When I was ten, I discovered—so I thought—that no mind existed but my own. I came upon the idea in bed at night a moment before falling asleep. Why next morning, with great excitement, did I confide this to my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Lyons? After all, she didn’t exist.
It was ten more years before I found a satisfactory disproof of the solipsist position—in Wittgenstein’s proof of the impossibility of any “private language”—but only my intellect was rehabilitated. I was still a solipsist at heart.
In the meantime I had become a sort of Buddhist. I gourmandized every book in the Rochester Public Library that mentioned Buddhism. I read D.T. Suzuki and W. Y. Evans-Wentz and Dwight Goddard and Alan Watts, etc., etc., etc. I even taught myself some classical Chinese.
Naturally, at the core of my obsession was a desire for enlightenment, which was, to me, a kind of grand solipsism. Enlightenment would make me safe and fully in control: All being would be subsumed in me. Enlightenment would be a lukewarm bath of all in all.
I tried extreme psychological innovations. Trying to relax behind my conscious mind, I once wet my bed. I took psychedelics and had friends read me the Tibetan Book of the Dead while I tripped. I also tried straining to the limit and beyond the limit, limit after limit, outraging family and friends with my bizarre behavior, and twice attempting suicide. Of course.
Then came Zen. Now I had to get through the koan Mu. For five years I drilled and ground and shouted and strained till my pips squeaked. I think my solipsism just wore me out. After all, solipsism—or what is the same thing, the idea that enlightenment may be the possession of an individual person—is a big No that takes a lot of energy to sustain. It imagines boundaries between oneself and the rest of the world and then spends itself trying to efface them.
What a relief it was, at long last, to chuck it. If Mrs. Lyons were here today, I wouldn’t even bother to tell her. I mean, duh.
MUSHIM IKEDA-NASH is a writer, community activist, and longtime literacy tutor in the Oakland public schools. She teaches meditation retreats for people of color at Vallecitos Mountain Refuge, Manzanita Village, and Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and is a core teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, California.
Since I began to actually practice Buddhism, I’ve changed my mind about almost everything that I thought was Buddhism. My original Zen teacher used to talk about a monk who would sit and call out his own name, and when he answered himself, he’d say: “Don’t be fooled by anyone!” I remember in 1985 sitting in a Thai temple outside of Denver, being stared at lewdly by a chain-smoking bhikkhu who had obviously never heard of women’s liberation and who was so senior that no one dared say anything; and standing in a South Korean nuns’ temple in 1988, watching in horror as a Korean nun vigorously sprayed a spider, then grinned, and said in her best schoolbook English: “Kill.” I remember, with my teacher, climbing rickety stairs to a top-floor temple in San Francisco’s Chinatown, where a golden animal, a lamb or a ram, was enshrined on a golden altar along with bowls of oranges. Intrigued, I pulled out a camera, and several Chinese women pounced on me, ready to knock the offending instrument from my hand. During these travels I never knew what was going on, and no one ever explained anything. I realized that in Buddhism, if we believe completely what we read, hear, or think, it’s just another way of allowing ourselves to be fooled or sidetracked. The big Buddhist world is filled with real people with real struggles, and real dirt, noise, confusion, and great beauty. All of this was the best preparation I could have had to give birth to and raise a real Buddhist son.
JEFF WILSON is an assistant professor of Religious Studies and East Asian Studies at Renison College, in Waterloo, Ontario, and a Tricycle contributing editor.
My opinion about whether I can fully transform myself for the better through Buddhism has definitely changed. When I first got started I was in college and full of optimism. But over the years I’ve so often seen Buddhism help people build bigger, more self-righteous egos—sometimes while pretending (or honestly believing) that they were progressing toward genuine selflessness. Seeing the spiritual pretensions of longtime Buddhists was disappointing; discovering my own limitations and untrustworthiness was devastating. My “attention to the present moment” turned out to mostly be escapism from life’s hard realities, and my pride in keeping precepts just made me self-congratulatory. I took seriously the promise of enlightenment, but I didn’t pay attention to the enormous amount of multifaceted effort Buddhists have always said it takes. Buddhist scriptures stress that you need many, many lifetimes to develop any substantial level of awakening, but I never seemed to hear that message—somehow it seemed like all it took was dedicated meditation and that Buddhahood was right around the corner. Strangely, though, changing my mind about self-effort eventually led me to a calmer, happier, more honest approach to Buddhism. To my surprise, a more devotional attitude releases some of the “get enlightenment now” pressure and allows me to appreciate a greater diversity of Buddhists and a wider range of traditional Buddhist practices. And it lowers the tension between my hard-striving efforts for awakening on the one hand and my everyday responsibilities (and loving attachments) to my family, work, and real life on the other.
DAVID SCHNEIDER is an acharya (senior teacher) in the international Shambhala Buddhist community. He is currently working on a biography of Beat poet and Zen master Philip Whalen.
I have changed my mind about the depth and power of the kleshas [conflicting emotions], especially aggression. From early, exciting Zen reading in 1970, I imagined it would be simply a matter of some disciplined, dedicated sitting, along with a bit of skillful provocation from the master, and bling-o, I’d be through—out the other side, freely functioning, grooving along.
Years of dedicated, disciplined sitting have happened; also skillful provocation from the masters and from the phenomenal world. Though my relationship with the kleshas has changed somewhat, I am impressed anew each day by how thoroughly they penetrate the world and my being. (I am not talking about a tantric approach to the energies—that’s another story.) I mean here plain old passion, aggression, and ignorance. Samsara is worse than I thought.
This has had the effect of deepening my respect and gratitude for the dharma teachers of this age—especially the patient teachers who’ve spent any time on me.
Then my parents moved to California, and when I got there, I began to hear that Buddhism was all about meditation and nonattachment and learning the everyday wakefulness that was then being brought into the neighborhood by many wise men from the East. We had to tear off the masks behind which we hid, I thought—I was in grad school by then—and see through to the emptiness and interdependence behind all our words and ideas. Seeing how Thomas Merton did this, and Epictetus and Etty Hillesum and many others who had probably not heard the word Buddhism, I realized that part of what was so fortifying about the tradition was that “right view” led to “right action,” and the emptying out of self meant a filling up with other people and sentient beings.PICO IYER’s new book, The Open Road, examines more than thirty years of talks and travels with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
I grew up in benighted Oxford, England, in the 1960s—everyone has to start somewhere—and thought that Buddhism meant sutras and holy texts, the ideas and traditions thrashed out with such intensity by the philosophers all around me. Besides, Hermann Hesse, Somerset Maugham, Emerson, and Thoreau—all my inspirations in my early years—taught me that Buddhism had to do with the quest for the truth beyond and inside the self, with finding a right angle on the world, with impermanence and the release from suffering that any of us can effect if we commit ourselves to clear thinking.
And then I moved to Japan and saw a Buddhism in action that was so instinctual (or, perhaps, woven into other cultural habits) that I could no more describe it than I could breathing. My new friends and neighbors knew less about the sutras than many of my teenage friends had in England. They didn’t have spiritual teachers, usually, and regarded formal meditation as more alien than surfing. My Kyoto-born sweetheart set foot in a Zen temple only because an American woman had brought her there. But here, in some human, everyday way, was a keen (and therefore selfless) kind of attention. Here was (and is) a natural tendency to see the self as something larger than this body—and perhaps as large as a community that is more global by the minute. And here, every spring and autumn, playing out before our eyes and behind our ideas, is the annual pageant of impermanence—frothing cherry blossoms, falling maple leaves—reminding us that delight sits within what we seem to be losing.
I suppose once upon a time I believed that Buddhism was something outside the lives we “acquired.” Now I wonder if it’s not just what’s left behind when one sheds all one’s clutter. Marcel Proust, My Life Without Me, and the lady down the street at the Isokawa supermarket are how I learn about it now. I wonder if we really need the term at all.
ANDREW COOPER is Tricycle’s editor-at-large.
I thought I would be more enlightened by now. So I’ve had to, you know, adjust.
TRACY COCHRAN is a Tricycle contributing editor and a senior editor at Parabola magazine.
What I’ve changed my mind about in Buddhism is how one realizes interdependence or interconnection. I grew up to the tune of a Coke commercial that took place in a huge field near what I always assumed was San Francisco. It featured pretty, smiling young hippies standing with young people representing every nationality, race, and creed. Everybody held Coke bottles and sang: “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love”…. “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” Even as a kid I knew this couldn’t be “the real thing.” Could this be what it meant to be generous? Did all those people really want to be there singing that stupid song? Although I wouldn’t have used this word, it felt a little narcissistic to me.
But I used to think of meditation in a similar way. I thought it would eventually bring me into harmony with the whole world. Now I have more respect for difference. It is also obvious to me now that the world is interdependent but also unstable and unjust. Now I think there can be for me no end to the search for truth, including, especially, the truth of what I am like, my capabilities and limitations. These days, I don’t envision inner peace as the cessation of struggle, arriving at some sun-washed placeless place from which I can distribute refreshments. Now it comes down to taking my human-sized place in the human race.
PATRICK MCMAHON recently celebrated his sixtieth birthday and forty years of Zen practice.
Recently I found myself sitting next to an old dharma friend following a memorial service for students and teachers who had passed away since the founding of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in 1967. I’d met Jerome almost forty years ago at the San Francisco City Center; I was in my early twenties and he was about as old as I am now. He didn’t hold any particularly important position, wasn’t asked to give dharma talks. He was a big, goofy, friendly guy on whom I relied for idle, not particularly elevated conversations. He was my bodhisattva ballast to the drive for enlightenment. I’d thought fondly of Jerome over the years since I’d left the Zen Center, wondering if he was still hanging out in the flop room, or if he was even still alive.
And here he was, alive—though just barely, it seemed. I’d spotted him in a back corner of the dharma hall, his face somehow caved in but unmistakably Jerome’s, his large frame slumped against the wall, apparently dozing. When after the memorial service I introduced myself, I couldn’t at first tell if he remembered me, but when I mentioned events in our common past he perked up. I had to listen carefully, as his words were slurred, his mouth empty of teeth. The hall by now nearly empty, I helped him to his feet and watched as he picked his bent way to offer incense at the altar. How long would it be before I was offering incense for him? And how long before someone else would offer it for me?
Those were thoughts that wouldn’t have occurred to me forty years ago, even though the Buddha’s teaching never ceased exhorting us that “time passes quickly away,” even though the legend of young Prince Siddhartha’s quest begins in his encounter with a sick man, an aging one, and a corpse. As a young monk, I’d been more concerned with getting through the next meditation period, getting on to the next retreat, getting it on with a pretty nun. Enlightenment, I supposed in my youthful practice, had to do with the “no sickness, no old age and death” of the Heart Sutra we recited daily in this dharma hall. But now, watching the incense drift through the hall, I suddenly saw what has so gradually come true: that we ourselves, my dharma brothers and sisters, are the sick, the aging, the soon-to-be corpses. That all things pass quickly away can be grasped in an instant, but apparently it takes one’s mind changing in time to finally get it.
LIN JENSEN is senior Buddhist chaplain at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, California; his most recent book is Pavement.
What’s changed? I’ve taken to the streets. Literally. I strap my meditation mat and cushion on the back of my bike and pedal into downtown Chico and sit an hour’s peace vigil on the sidewalk in front of Peet’s coffee shop or Chico Natural Foods or the post office. I do this as a witness for peace in a nation that’s increasingly given over to the exercise of social, economic, and military violence. I’ve been going downtown like this most every day for nearly three years now.
I’m a Zen Buddhist, and “Zen” has pretty much dropped out of the picture for me as a philosophy or belief or even as a “spiritual practice” of any sort. Zen has simply become what I do, and the doing of it is all that matters now. I’m no longer much interested in anyone’s state of enlightenment, including my own. I’m interested in how you and I might bring a little sanity, kindness, and compassion into the world. I don’t go to retreats anymore, I go to the prison instead, preferring to save the retreat fee to buy zafus for the prison inmates I work with. I go to city council meetings as well, most recently to protest a shopping mall that threatens to bury a historic burrowing owl colony under a parking lot. I write books on the defense of the earth and in promotion of fairness and social justice. Though my days are anchored in my morning sitting meditation, I’ve pretty much dropped out of the entire contemplative aspect of Zen. I’ve thrown the whole of my life into the marketplace these days.
WES NISKER is a dharma teacher, author, performer, and the founder and co-editor of the Buddhist journal Inquiring Mind. He is the author of the newly published book Crazy Wisdom Saves the World Again!
I once thought Buddhism would save me from suffering. That was before I started to grow older and wiser. And it isn’t so much the wisdom that changed my mind about the end of suffering as it is the aging. Yes, I know that there is no one here who is growing old, no separate self, just empty phenomena rolling on and all that. But damn it, I don’t see as well as I used to, or hear as well, and my joints are getting stiffer, and my bowels are struggling to do their work, and my memory keeps repeating two words to me like a mantra—“Forget it.” Don’t get me wrong: I feel supremely fortunate to have the dharma close at hand as I go through this process, and I often take refuge in the natural great perfection and the eternal “now” and the warmth of lovingkindness, but I still live in this decaying flesh pit, and there are times, at least once a day, when I curse this incarnation and its aches and pains, along with its inevitable destiny. No, dharma didn’t bring me to the end of suffering. But I promise to try harder next time.
SYLVIA BOORSTEIN is a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, California. Her most recent book is Happiness Is an Inside Job.
I wouldn’t emphasize what in Buddhism I have changed my mind about as much as the fact that Buddhism has changed my mind. To begin with, from the first dharma talks that I heard more than thirty years ago, I came away feeling excited and hopeful that I could develop a new capacity for meeting challenges in my life. I sensed in my teachers that they were less frightened about life than I was. I believed the dharma I heard. Long before I had any real understanding of meditation instructions and, so, long before I had any insight into the workings of my mind or any ability to abide peacefully, I had faith. That alone made me a happier person. And now, after all these years of practice, I know my mind is more shock-absorbent. It manages upsets better than it used to. I still get frightened or mad or envious or whatever else might be the startle response to the moment, but I know what’s happening and I recover (usually) easily. My capacity to respond to hard times (in me or around me) with compassion is more readily available.
I know that there were teachings associated with Buddhism that I learned along the way about which I thought, “I don’t really believe that,” but that never bothered me. It didn’t seem relevant. I wanted the practice to work. I wanted to replace my frightened mind with a wiser, more comfortable mind, and I believed that would happen. That’s what seemed, and still seems, important to me.
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: EXTENDED ANSWERS
JACK KORNFIELD is a senior teacher and co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center. His most recent book is The Wise Heart: A Guide to the Universal Teachings of Buddhist Psychology.
I have changed my mind about a hundred things. Effort in meditation is one example. I used to think that to become free you had to practice like a samurai warrior, but now I understand that you have to practice like a devoted mother of a newborn child. It takes the same energy but has a completely different quality. It’s compassion and presence rather than having to defeat the enemy in battle.
Here’s another thing: I used to think that sitting in meditation was enough, that it would really change everything in your life in a whole and complete way. For a few people, it might work out that way, but in general, it ain’t so. For most of us, meditation is one part of a whole mandala of awakening, which includes attention to your body, attention to your relationships, attention to right speech and right livelihood.
I used to think that deeper, better meditation and practice was happening in the centers in Asia than what we could teach here in America, and that for the real thing you had to go to Thailand or Burma or India or Tibet. Many of us who studied in Asia used to think that, and maybe some still do. But now, when I go back to Asia, I realize that beautiful deep practice is happening in Burma and Thailand and India and Tibet, and the same beautiful deep practice is happening here, and I think, “Oh, that was just a delusion I had.”
JOHN TARRANT directs Pacific Zen Institute, which is devoted to koan Zen and the arts. He is the author of Bring me the Rhinoceros and Other Koans
I think this is a good question. The best answer I can come up with is that I don’t have a mind to change. I’ve changed my mind about having a mind.
DAVID CHADWICK writes, “I have a website named cuke.com that covers Shunryu Suzuki, those who knew him, and anything else I feel like, and which provides an extensive elaboration on this brief biographical sentence.”
The most recent thing that I’ve changed my mind about in Buddhism involves this email response to Tricycle’s query because when I first read about the Edge.org question and Tricycle’s Buddhist version, I thought, oh that would be a fun thing to answer, provocative as well. I started thinking about what my answer would be while continuing to read the email, simultaneously pondering, multitasking as it were, various past fluctuations of belief and practices, resulting from teachings, readings, epiphanies, and so forth. My thought stream contained flashes such as takes on my basic belief that belief itself is a trance to be discarded like a straight jacket, and that practices, if seen as means, are hopeless. I wondered such things as, well, what is Buddhist? Would answering this question be considered Buddhist and I thought it could be, and that was about when I read that the response should be 250 words and I’d had in mind to write something much briefer, pithy, so I decided not to answer it which was a sort of Buddhist change of mind but now that I’ve written this I realize that mind’s changed again about something in the Buddhist realm for this is exactly 250 words if you count the biographical sentence and the number 250 as one word.
STEVE HAGEN is the head teacher at Dharma Field Zen Center. His most recent book is Meditation Now or Never.
I used to think I could be a Buddhist, but it seems you can only be a Buddhist by not being a Buddhist. To take on any kind of identity at all is to misunderstand the subtlety of what the Buddha taught. Saying “I’m a Buddhist” only makes “me” distinct and different from others who might call themselves something else. And what have I done? I’ve frozen myself into an identity. Now perhaps I’m proud of myself because I’m following the Superior Way. Or maybe I’m more likely to take offense. After all, I chose Buddhism, didn’t I? Obviously it’s better than your way.
This deluded understanding only encourages endless trouble. It doesn’t mesh at all with the exceedingly sane and practical teachings of the Buddha. What he showed us is how not to embroil ourselves in such confusion and suffering.
We won’t find freedom by making ourselves into something particular, including “a Buddhist.” Gautama’s teaching points out that we’re never anything in particular—in fact, we can’t even find that thing we commonly preoccupy ourselves with: “me.”
Taking on an identity and slapping on a label cheapens the Buddha’s message and invites more heartache, anger, hatred, pride, and confusion. Instead, we need to see such confusion for what it is and not get entangled in it.
LAMA SURYA DAS is the author of Awakening the Buddha Within: Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World, and other books.
One thing that I have changed my mind about is the view that meditation is good for everyone, or even the main thing in Buddha Dharma. I myself have found meditation to be useful, peaceable, and satisfying—but why not practice the true Dharma?
I believe that the religion of “just sitting” is not sufficiently well-rounded for an integrated spiritual life in the world today. For a fully rewarding spiritual life, it is probably better to concentrate on the awakened spirit of wisdom and compassion (bodhichitta). Meditation can easily be used as a spiritual bypass, wherein difficult thoughts, situations, and responsibilities can be avoided—at least temporarily. Over the years, I’ve noticed that if a person goes too far inward in a unidirectional manner, he or she can become self-obsessed and rigid; less kind, sane and healthy. Meditation, without the balance of wisdom endowed with warm compassion and a larger perspective, can become sterile, or like Max Ernst’s lunar asparagus—odd, high and dry. I’ve come to see the Buddhist way of awakening more in terms of meditation in action, practiced through lucid mindful awareness applied to every activity in every moment.
ANNE WALDMAN is a poet and the co-founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. Her books include In the Room of Never Grieve, Outrider, and The Iovis Project.
I have appreciated very much the Dalai Lama’s sense of the dharma having to adjust to science if the science proves “true.” It is fascinating to investigate genetics and neuroscience without being threatened by a solid, closed mindset. Also letting go of the old gender habits of hierarchy and unprogressive social prejudice. With all due respect and awe and love, I do not support the Dalai Lama’s take on homosexuality.
While speediness might be considered a sign of the Dark Age, I’ve also felt as an “activity demon” an increased urgency about the public cultural sphere, both as practitioner and as a poet. Often the metaphors used by our contemporary Buddhist teachers are in the business/computerland sphere. I think there is so much dharma in art and poetry not labeled as such—from all centuries and from all cultures (“all ages,” wrote Ezra Pound, “are contemporaneous in the mind”)—that needs to be conjured and kept vital in these times; for example, as in the curriculum we design at the Kerouac School at Naropa University, which might include studies of Li Po, Shakespeare, and Dante, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein. I’ve also been more emboldened to write specifically long and didactically dharmic works such as The Structure of the World Compared to a Bubble, which is a clear peregrination of the Mahayana and Tantric path. So I would suppose, ultimately, I am feeling less shy about proclamation and activism, seeing the dharma in many places (including Islam), and not intimidated by male hierarchy. As we’ve seen, it also is important who is elected to high office in the U.S. of A, who wields the enormous power that could reduce and alleviate suffering, and we need to be engaged in this political sphere as well, ending all wars, and in the battle for other denizens of this planet—the polar bear, the manatee, the grey wolf, so many others. Practice and retreats are necessary to this kind of work as well, and having eyes in all our pores, wide wide awake.
ANNE CUSHMAN is the author of the novel Enlightenment for Idiots. She co-directs the Mindfulness Yoga Training Program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.
The biggest change lately in my meditation practice is that I no longer believe that “I” am doing it. I used to think that “I” was supposed to meditate–that the same busy, earnest, self-important, hard-working ”I” that made grocery lists, and wrote essays, and went jogging, and impressed people at parties, was now supposed to get to work in a mindfulness sweatshop, cranking out intermittent moments of awareness and insight with grim determination (while regularly getting called on the carpet by the factory boss–another tyrannical incarnation of “I”–for her consistent failure to produce awakening). Meditation was just one more item on that “I”’s to-do list, along with perfecting her backbend and organizing her sock drawer. But I (or someone like I) have finally realized that that limited “I” is almost irrelevant to the meditation process. Nowadays, my practice is more about undoing than about doing. It¹s about letting that “I”’s grip on my mind and heart soften and relax, so I can open into a vast sense of presence that’s always there, no matter what the “I” is doing.
ALLISON ATWILL‘s practice includes yoga, meditation, koans, and teaching art to children.
A monk asked Yunmen, “This is not the present function of mind. This is not the matter before me. What is it?”
Yunmen cried, “One teaching upside down!”
Last December, in the days just before Christmas, I parked my car on East Victoria Street right in front of the art store where I needed to purchase one small item. The curb was painted yellow, and the words “Loading Zone” were clearly visible on the curb. I knew I would only be inside for a few minutes, so I took a calculated risk and dashed into the store. After finding and paying for whatever I needed, I walked outside and saw one of those small blue and white meter-maid vehicles parked suspiciously close
to my Subaru, lights flashing.
I felt surprisingly buoyant as I asked the woman in the vehicle, “Are you giving me a parking ticket?”. She looked to be somewhere in her 50’s, her face had a tired look about it, and as I asked her the question I saw her countenance harden, preparing for a battle I could see she had been through many times before.
“Yes.” she replied in a flat tone, not looking at me. ” This is a loading and unloading zone only and you are parked illegally.”
I felt my heart opened out to her, to her experience day after day being on the receiving end of people’s irritation, anger, and even rage as she just did her job. I wanted to put her at ease.
“I knew exactly what I was doing when I parked in the yellow. I am completely at fault and I am happy to get this ticket,” I said to her, beaming. “I deserve it. It must be really difficult work giving people parking tickets and having them get angry at you.”
I saw her whole body relax and her face soften as she began to tell me what it was like to be a meter maid while she wrote out my ticket. I listened to her as she described her life, offering the only things I
could give, my attentive presence and compassion. It was enough. Just as she was about to hand me my ticket, she looked down at it and said, “You know, I wrote the wrong street name on here. I don’t want to make you wait for me to write out another one. Why don’t I just throw this one away, and, next time, please remember that yellow is for loading and unloading only.”
Now what was so interesting to me, what was clearly the blessing of the practice, was to notice that when she threw away my ticket I was actually disappointed. This was delightful. I wanted to get a parking ticket! I wanted to give her the gift of someone openly and freely, even joyfully, accepting what she had to offer, what life had to offer.
Yunmen cried, “One teaching upside down!”
MICHAEL WENGER is a dharma teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center. He is the author of Thirty-three Fingers.
The question brings to mind that I am not so interested in what my latest or past ideas are but rather in whether I am manifesting my own compassionate heart and encouraging others to do the same.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.