Ground Zero

Helen Tworkov

With all the events that signal the acculturation of Buddhism in the West—including the interface between Buddhism and psychology or social action, or between practitioners and scholars—it is increasingly difficult to keep track of everything that is going on. It also makes the temptation to keep busy with Buddhism all the more seductive—and the need to be selective, more pragmatic.

Part of what makes "dharma news" so enticing is the way in which we find ourselves both witnesses and participants in the unfolding of Buddhism in the West. On some days it has the great pull of Shakespearean drama, on others, the small-hearted tug of a daytime soap. Paradoxically, it is the very experience of these constant pulls and tugs that makes us yearn all the more for the stability of a mountain, the indestructibility of "diamond mind," or the drama of no drama at all.

As Donald S. Lopez, Jr. suggests in his story of the "mad monk" Gendun Chopel (in this article), drama is far from limited to the trials of Buddhism in a new land. In "Madhyamika Meets Modernity," Lopez examines the social, sectarian, and political circumstances that informed the view of reality developed by a major school of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the consequences of challenging that view. In the end, we are left wondering if all dharma teachings are not really a question of context, and to what extent "reality" can ever be apprehended beyond cultural history.

Sri Lankan teacher Bhante Gunaratana (see interview) may strike some Western practitioners as a traditionalist struggling to conserve ancient values. Yet in the context of his Theravada Buddhist tradition he emerges as something of a radical, challenging cherished Asian customs in order to allow the full ordination of women, or the handling of money by a monk.

"What is the Emotional Life of a Buddha?" (see special section) is a question which addresses from a Western standpoint the mixed signals of Buddhist teachings with regard to emotion. The question itself has no resonance in Buddhist Asia. It is born of Western concerns, and honed by a particularly American preoccupation with the validity of personal feeling. As well, this inquiry suggests how psychological investigation can reshape the questions we ask of Buddhism—and the answers that we find.

On another front, the recent lawsuit brought against a Buddhist teacher for sexual abuse (see "In the News") places the student-teacher relationship for the first time in the context of an American court of law. Even if this case is dismissed, or settled out of court, it makes dharma teachers accountable to secular law. Whatever the outcome, such a lawsuit brings to bear the full force of Western values, making it certain to be pivotal in the contextualization of dharma in this country.

It is precisely because these issues are so important, and because of the way they grip the imagination, that they serve to illuminate the efficacy of basic practices—such as breathing (see "On Practice"). If breathing practice is the ground zero of Buddhism, it is because there is nothing Buddhist about it. In breathing itself there are no cultural divisions, no biases or judgments, no right and wrong, no expectations. Mindful breathing brings us back to where we are. It diminishes the static of the chattering monkey mind and allows each new situation to emerge afresh, unencumbered by personal history. Without returning to ground zero—to this basic clarity of mind— although we appear to be busy with Buddhism, we may only be busy with our own agendas.

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