Inconceivable is the beginning of this samsara. Not to be discerned is the first beginning of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths. . . . Thus have you long undergone suffering, undergone torment, undergone misfortune, and filled the graveyards full. Long enough to be dissatisfied with all forms of existence, long enough to turn away and to free yourself from them all.

    —Samyutta Nikaya 15.3

My soul can find no staircase to Heaven unless it be through Earth’s loveliness.


These two statements, contradictory though they are, both express a deep-seated aspect of spiritual life. Whether or not we so recognize them, these inner tendencies shape and guide and live themselves out through our spiritual pursuits. We feel their insistent pull, even as they foil our attempts to pin them down or define them.

I’ve put the statements together in order to set their meanings apart. The viewpoints they express cannot be separated, but they can be distinguished. On the one hand, we long to find richness, meaning, depth, and beauty in the particulars of life. That is, we seek that resonance with the world that the religious historian Mircea Eliade called the “discovery of the sacred.” On the other hand, we are inwardly impelled to be free from those very particulars and our entanglement with them. That is, we seek the transcendence that Buddhists call liberation. These two movements of the inner life—the one toward some manner of sanctification of the world, the other toward a salvation from it—constitute a psychic polarity that appears in our felt experience sometimes as conflict, sometimes as congruence, and sometimes as complementarity. But deal with them as we will, deal with them we must. The claims they exert upon us remain irresistible.

No single formulation of this polarity does it full justice, and this includes the one given above. It is a subtle matter, one not of clearly delineated categories but of associations held loosely together, more themes than topics. But with each formulation, partial though it is, some light is shed upon the nature of this apparent dilemma. It has been spoken of anthropologically as the contrast between the cosmopolitan religious concern with universal principles and the localized concerns of specific groups, which focus on the particulars of place, custom, history, and the group’s relationship to the spiritual world. Philosophically, the issue might be framed by the twin principles of eros and logos: the first governed by the impulse to find in life the form of beauty; the second, to discern the design of truth. Theologically, we might speak of the contrast between transcendence and immanence. But this sort of analytical approach to the matter can quickly get too abstract. The living quality of the polarity is elusive and is easily lost.

Years ago, I helped edit an issue of the vipassana community’s journal Inquiring Mind. At our first staff meeting, as we brainstormed ideas for the issue’s theme, the publication’s co-editor, Barbara Gates, tossed out the observation that few of the meditators she knew were practicing to achieve the goal with which practitioners are traditionally presented, namely, liberation from suffering on the endless cycle of birth and death. For many, she suggested, meditation was something that enriched experience: a source of clarity and release, allowing increased freedom while engaged in daily life. We chewed on this over the next several days. Her remark seemed to point to something of significance for Buddhism’s transmission to the West. For many, the inspiration, direction, and fruit of practice are experienced quite differently from the way these things have always been expressed in the mainstream monastic traditions. Further, this seemed true regardless of one’s degree of commitment. The differences were as likely to be felt by an old-timer as by a beginning student. We soon realized that we had found our theme, which we termed “liberation and the sacred.”

Artwork by Rabkar Wangchuk / Courtesy Shelley and Donald Rubin Private Collection / Photograph by Bill Orcutt

The discrepancy between the traditional goal of Buddhist life and practice and the lived concerns of many, if not most, meditation practitioners remains unresolved, as many have observed, and I think that’s to a great extent a good thing. Still, what are we to make of this? Is it an indicator of the need for cultural adaptation, or is it deluded folly? Are we witnessing a process of translating the dharma to address a distinctively Western ethos or, alternatively, the watering down of the Buddha’s message? Is this a distinctly Western phenomenon or does the matter have more to do with how these traditions have been presented in the world’s multiple modernities, whether in Asia or in the cultural West? In sum, what can the situation tell us about ourselves and about the traditions in which we practice?

Such questions circle around and point toward what are fundamentally religious questions, and such questions, I would say, are not meant to be answerable in any final sense. They are themes calling to be refined through reflection rather than problems asking for closure. One is enjoined to approach them with an attitude of active receptiveness, akin to how one engages with a work of art. The meaning of, say, a great novel cannot be cleanly separated from the social context and the individual experiences of its readers. It is generous in how it provides what the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin saw as a characteristic of fiction: “a zone of maximal contact with the present in all its openendedness.” The novel’s meaning can’t be conclusively pinned down because the world it opens to us can’t be pinned down. In an analogous manner, the productive themes one encounters in spiritual life are dynamic, not static, having as they do core concerns rooted in life as it is lived. Individually and collectively we return to them again and again, each resolution eventually dissolving again into a question, and the process, when allowed to do its work, deepens with each turning.

Throughout its history, Buddhism has been a missionary religion transmitted largely through its texts and institutions. As with other of the world’s missionary faiths, Buddhism has leaned on cosmopolitan claims to universalism, and these have been essential to its migration across the cultures of Asia. But in its journeys, the buddhadharma has coexisted with and rooted itself within the customs and spirituality native to its host cultures. Buddhism has mingled freely with established beliefs and assumptions, folk narratives and symbols, and the shared practices and rituals of social life. It is, in many ways, all the richer for this.

As well as incorporating aspects of its host culture, Buddhism, as it is lived out, has also allowed for what scholars call “multiple religious belongings.” This is especially pronounced among the laity, who are less bound by institutional demands. One form this might take is a kind of religious division of labor, such as has evolved in Japan. There, for example, a household might celebrate a marriage in a Shinto ceremony while marking a death with a Buddhist one. The animism of Shinto lends itself to the celebration of earthly abundance; Buddhism, with its dour vision of worldly suffering, is the religion of choice for those occasions that are more, well, funereal.

While it might appear that the challenges of adapting Buddhism to a new cultural and historical context are unique to our moment, the process is as old as Buddhism itself.

For new Buddhists in the West, much of the tradition’s appeal stems from its universal message of liberation, which addresses our widespread sense of displacement by offering a spiritual home that is everywhere and yet nowhere in particular. Our modern Western sensibility can’t fully relate to or comprehend many elements that are rooted in the particulars of Asian cultures. This is both reasonable and inevitable. But in the process we have, I think, uprooted the dharma from its relationship to an embedded sensibility. And because we feel this, we seek out ways to bring the dharma to bear in our relationships, families, workplaces, and the natural world. This is, I would say, a connecting thread running through the various “Buddhism and . . .” workshops, writings, and activities one can often see on offer. “Buddhism and the Arts,” “Buddhism and Relationships,” “Buddhism and Ecology,” “Buddhism and Psychotherapy,” and so forth are ways to bring more of life into what the religious historian Karen Armstrong calls “the ambit of the sacred” and to bring to Buddhism a kind of “maximal contact” with the compelling concerns of the everyday world.

While it might appear that the challenges of adapting Buddhism to a new cultural and historical context are unique to our moment, the process is as old as Buddhism itself. It is the job of Buddhism, as it is for any religion, to address the most fundamental concerns of its adherents, and in doing this, we who practice abide in the tension between fidelity and innovation. There is great creativity to be mined in just that spot.   

In seeking both freedom from and resonance with the world, we are left straddling the horns of an age-old dilemma. One could, of course, subject this claim to a Buddhist analysis that would find it lacking. One might, for example, say that the dilemma posed here is a fallacy, because its categories are without ultimate basis. Or one could argue that the sacred is best understood precisely as that which leads to freedom. Or one might say that the apparent polarity can be unraveled to reveal a deeper unity. Sure. But, still, the immediacy and fruitfulness of the issue resists such premature closure. It is a lesson of Buddhist history that great creativity can be unleashed when contrary perspectives are allowed to work on each other. Much of Buddhism’s vitality has come precisely through its engagement with its own contradictions. Abiding in what is dynamic and without resolution can itself be a generative spiritual process. For now, rather than sidestepping or transcending the dilemma, I see much promise in taking the bull by the horns.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 14, No. 1). Text © Andrew Cooper & Inquiring Mind, 1997–2020

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