A few years ago I watched The 50 Year Argument, Martin Scorcese’s 2014 documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the estimable New York Review of Books. It was evident that those at the Review were not only comfortable with but also proud of this characterization, and rightly so. It is the job of periodicals to create among their readerships a cultural commons where divergent ideas, perspectives, and attitudes can be engaged and thereby enriched.
This past year, and especially during our preparation of this 30th-anniversary issue, the title of that documentary and all it signifies have been much on my mind. Of course, Tricycle and the NYRB differ in mission and character, yet we, too, seek to be a forum for spirited exchange among a far-flung community. For us, this is a spiritual task very much in keeping with Buddhist history and values. As features editor Andrew Cooper wrote some years ago, “Dialogue can shine a light on implicit assumptions that shape how we see ourselves and others, and life is made richer for this. Our horizons expand, our vision is made fresh, our sympathies are deepened.” (“Dialogue Across Difference,” Summer 2017)
As a specifically nonsectarian Buddhist publication, Tricycle is one contemporary participant in the tradition’s 2,500-year conversation. In these pages nearly a decade and a half ago, scholar of Buddhism Robert Sharf commented:
One way of looking at Buddhism is as a conversation . . . about what it is to be a human being: why we suffer, how we can resolve our suffering, what works, what doesn’t. . . . Whichever [issue] you choose to look at, you are not going to find a single Buddhist position. There have always been different positions, and these would be debated and argued. But all parties to the debate were presumed to share a common religious culture—a more or less shared world of texts, ideas, practices—without which there could be no real conversation. (“Losing Our Religion,” Summer 2007)
Periodicals, whether literary or religious, have a particular role to play in the transmission of our most prized cultural traditions. They are for highlighting and sharpening a give-and-take and jostling of views in their communities of concern. A certain amount of the rough-and-tumble is something to be affirmed and valued. It is through such exchanges that our traditions change and remain living traditions. And this is not new, as evidenced by the playfully fierce exchange between two monks in Stephen Mitchell’s “There’s Someone Who Isn’t Busy.” “Dharma combat” is meant to demonstrate, as Mitchell writes, an advanced student’s understanding of the truth. Yet, as we discover, the truth itself is elusive, not to be pinned down, and the repartee remains open-ended: Just when you think it’s complete, as Mitchell observes, “there’s always room for one more.” Everything changes, and the conversation continues.
“In the sangha,” novelist and Zen priest Ruth Ozeki says, “as we move around, make offerings and do prostrations, we’re collectively performing. We’re inhabiting the Buddha-body as a community and expressing it endlessly through the rituals and language passed down over time. It’s constantly being changed. It’s constantly being enlivened and reimagined.”
I’d like to think that this is also an apt description of the conversation we’ve been having over the last three decades. In accord with, yet not confined to, each historical moment, iterative yet evolving, such conversation can be a practice in itself, forever challenging us to reimagine, keep alive, and share the precious teachings that we’ve been fortunate enough to receive.