A Religion of Practice

James Shaheen

To the chagrin of some and the delight of others, syncretic practices and novel applications of Buddhist wisdom continue to spring up in contemporary life. As we sent this issue to press, what struck me once again was the broad range of views and activities that have come to characterize the unfolding of dharma in the West. In “Eating and the Wheel of Life”, Vipassana practitioner and psychotherapist Sandra Weinberg asks what happens when food, a primordial source of comfort, becomes the primordial source of suffering. Weinberg uses images from the Tibetan Wheel of Life to map out a step-by-step process to break the grip of addiction—in this case, compulsive eating—and brings the Buddha’s teachings to bear on a binging nation. And in “Eye on the Ball”, L.A. Lakers meditation coach and sports psychologist George Mumford touts the benefits of mindfulness meditation to the sports world’s most successful athletes as well as to to the nation’s most down-and-out—America’s growing prison population.

Yet as adaptable as the teachings are, they can be unyielding in their challenge to some of the central assumptions and foibles of Western society. In “What Are You Really Afraid Of?”, Professor David Loy questions the common view of Western psychology that death lies at the bottom of our deepest fears. To the contrary, Loy asserts, our fear arises from the sneaking suspicion—rooted in the Buddhist principle of anatta, no-self—that we don’t exist at all, or at least not as we think we do. Indeed, in much of Loy’s work, the dharma is applied to Western social and political structures to develop novel approaches to age-old afflictions, from war to poverty to the liabilities of corporate culture. Elsewhere in this issue, Loy is joined by three others—dharma teachers in Israel, Britain, and Croatia—in expressing his views on the prospects for conflict resolution. How realistic is peace, Tricycle asked, in a world plagued with violence? And why is it that we are so drawn to war?

But alongside the more innovative applications of dharma, the traditional teachings remain an anchor. In “The Easy Middle”, we hear from a young Tibetan dharma teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche, who represents a link between some of the great dharma masters of the twentieth century and a generation of Tibetans who grew up in exile. While his studies in exile have been typical of a formal Tibetan education, Mingyur Rinpoche discusses the particular challenge of practicing the dharma in an environment that lacks the perseverance and easy faith of old Tibet. At the same time, he offers the esoteric teachings of Dzogchen and Mahamudra to Westerners, preserving a tradition passed down through centuries. A rare combination of youth and wisdom, Mingyur Rinpoche leaves us with no doubt that the tried-and-true practices provide a depth and breadth of understanding that comes only with the passage of time.

A few years ago, at a Wal-Mart in a small Utah town, Midge Henline (“Sangha Spotlight,”) approached some shopping lamas and asked if they offered teachings. Within a few short years, a sangha was born, hosting Tibetan masters offering teachings to members of a thriving center for spiritual study in the open desert. Several decades back it would have been unthinkable that the average Wal-Mart shopper would recognize a lama, let alone ask him to offer teachings. But as the West familiarizes itself with Buddhism, the conditions in which the dharma flourishes will continue to impress us with their variety and range.

It makes sense that the dharma would take on so many faces in a nation whose population is so diverse. What still staggers the imagination is that so many of us have taken to Buddhism in the first place. But religion scholar Karen Armstong (“The Freelance Monotheist,”) offers a plausible answer. “Wearied by excessive doctrinal claims,” Armstrong suggests, people “want a religion of practice.” The monotheistic faiths have buried their core practices in dogma and have alienated many of their adherents with religious intolerance, she adds, whereas Buddhism, with its emphasis on practice, appears “new,” offering a way to experience for oneself the truth of its teachings.


 

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