Tradition and Innovation

James Shaheen

In the Summer 1997 issue of Tricycle, we published an article in which two prominent Buddhist teachers, Robert Thurman and Stephen Batchelor, discussed their differing views on the teachings of karma and rebirth. The article, entitled “Reincarnation: A Debate,” focused not so much on the accuracy of rebirth, either as representing Buddhist teaching or as a description of how the world works, as it did on whether belief in rebirth was an important and expedient part of Buddhist life and practice. Thurman argued for rebirth as an indispensible part of a comprehensive Buddhist view; Batchelor, unsurprisingly for those familiar with his writings, asserted that rebirth is, at best, irrelevant and, because it runs counter to Buddhism’s empirical thrust, is probably spiritually detrimental.

The article sparked one of the liveliest and most heated reader discussions in Tricycle up until then, and it continues to do so in our online forums. The ongoing interest in rebirth illustrates a challenge confronting publications that cover Buddhism. For many contemporary practitioners, rebirth, in contrast to much else in Buddhism, simply does not have the ring of truth. There is a tension here between, on the one hand, the shaping influence of tradition and, on the other, the need to be relevant to practitioners today.

How are we to resolve this tension? Tradition without innovation and adaptation loses its vitality. It does no good to adopt beliefs that violate our best knowledge of the world and our deepest sense of how it works. But spirituality without the pull of tradition is frivolity, a mere reflection of personal predilections. We’re left holding the weight of tradition alongside the impulse toward innovation, letting them work on and against each other. Our practice, then, becomes a lifelong creative endeavor.

In this issue, we get a look at how Segyu Rinpoche, a Brazilian-born teacher in the Tibetan Gelug tradition and founder of the Juniper school (“Buddhist Training for Modern Life”), took on the task of finding culturally appropriate ways of transmitting a tradition he feels has remained all but inaccessible to most Westerners. In “Buddhist Training for Modern Life,” Segyu Rinpoche explains how he worked with his students under the radar for years before emerging with teachings that not only remain rooted in the tradition but also deliver their essence in innovative, culturally relevant ways. Nothing better describes Tricycle’s mission than this.

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