Selling Water by the River

It’s not unusual for Tricycle to cover the enormous diversity of Buddhism, but in this particular issue, the spectrum is about as broad as it gets. At one end, we have the barbaric destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. At the other, Mirabai Bush speaks of introducing contemplative practices to American power spots such as Harvard University and the bio-tech giant, Monsanto. In one place, sublime expressions of Buddhism are destroyed; in another, it is used as a new and civilizing agent of change.

However, while there was a global outcry against the Taliban, there’s no consensus about the work of Contemplative Mind in Society, the foundation that Mirabai Bush directs. Their work is celebrated by some as the cutting edge of Buddhism in the West. But when they went into Monsanto they were accused of delivering the dharma into the evil empire. This debate is not unrelated to troubling questions with regard to the transmission of dharma that David Patt addresses in “The Commodification of Buddhism”. As Buddhism seeps into the currents of our culture, there is growing concern that the teachings, like water, will seek the lowest level. Yet subtler teachings do not lend themselves to popularization.

In this issue’s interview, B. Alan Wallace—Tibetan scholar, translator, and author of the new book Buddhism With an Attitude—advocates a tough examination of the transmission of Buddhism to the West when he asks, “What really works?” Wallace makes clear that no Buddhist form that was shaped by one culture can be set down in another without adaptation and modification. Yet, to return to Patt’s subject: what does adaptation mean when the religion of the new host culture is a runaway consumerism whose motto is “You are what you possess”?

There’s a curious irony here: the marketplace demand—to identify yourself by what you buy—completely falls apart with the recognition of impermanence, and more specifically, with death. And so it is not coincidental that our culture’s conventional denial of death has made the Buddhist teachings on death and dying and caregiving those with the broadest, most ecumenical appeal. Here, the deepest dharma can become accessible through lived experience. In the practice section on caregiving, the Buddhist approach can be apprehended by the title of Judith Lief’s new book, Making Friends with Death. This comfort with death has a poignant and practical immediacy for both the dying and their caregivers. The teachings themselves may have been honed through centuries of traditional practices and realized through years of training. But they can benefit anyone.

Can The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche become a breakthrough bestseller with lasting value in a culture that’s a nanosecond away from selling plastic Buddhas for the dashboard? If we look at Asian Buddhist history, we might say yes, it can. Patt, however, may answer that in Asia, Buddhism had to adapt to prevailing religious and political views, but that never before has the “dominant cultural context that Buddhism most adapt to [been] consumer capitalism.”

We in the West are thirsty for spiritual wisdom, and whatever happens, water will run its course. There is no stopping the steady flow of dharma that has filtered into mainstream media. In the West, what’s lacking so far is a tradition devoted to maintaining and conserving the dharma in a context removed from worldly concerns, and aspects of the dharma. Historically, this was the role of the monasteries. Perhaps at some future time, a new monasticism, or an analogous institution, or as B. Alan Wallace puts it, “professional contemplatives,” will function within society as an invitation to an alternative possibility. For now, we work with what we have—selling water by the river in the containers our culture provides.

© Helen Tworkov

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