The Real Problem—Not
I was very disappointed in the article "Becoming Buddha: The Life and Times of Poet John Giorno" [Vol. IV, No.1]. His life is not exemplary in any shape or form. The real problem is not that he is gay, but that he has such poor taste and this poor taste also includes the editors that approve the article and its author.
Albert L. Bross, Jr.
New Vernon, New Jersey
John Giorno's comment that "the Vinaya...and the Lower Vehicles are very much against homosexual activity" was quite puzzling, especially since he emphasized earlier in the article that the Buddhist monks he met were totally unfazed by his very open gayness. In fact, the Vinaya simply prohibits all sexual conduct, regardless of the gender (or species) involved—there's no special stigma or hatred of same-sex sexuality, as there is in the Judeo-Christian West, and laypeople who have not taken special vows are not castigated for same-sex or opposite-sex sexual activity, unless it involves adultery. Far from being "taboo" in Indian culture, the third sex, which includes those whom we might characterize as gay men, lesbians, transvestites, and hermaphrodites, as well as other sexual/gender variations, is described matter-of-factly in Indian texts from the Vedas onward. Furthermore, both female and male same-sex practices are described in the Kama Sutra in detail, without any real moral opprobrium. I'm afraid Mr. Giorno is reading Western homophobia into Buddhist and Indian culture—mistaking a rope for a snake.
Sound of One bell
bell hooks suggests [Vol. IV, No. 1] that traveling to the East represents "cultural imperialism" or "colonialism" by white students of Eastern religions. I think the travel of Westerners to Asia reflects the truth of suffering. Rather than traveling with a sense of superiority, these students of Eastern religions feel something is lacking, both in their culture and in themselves, and hope to find something to relieve their pain in the East. In leaving home, these travelers are simply following in the footsteps of Marpa when he left Tibet for India, of Dogen when he left Japan for China, Atisha when he left India for Sumatra, and of thousands more seekers over the past 2,500 years who were looking for a better way. Indeed, even the Buddha himself left home, and I doubt he did it out of a sense of cultural imperialism.
The article entitled "Waking up to Racism" by bell hooks is politically correct pabulum. I am disappointed that Tricycle is yet another platform for the intellectually and spiritually destitute practice of whining about white males. Ms. hooks' rendition of the all-too-familiar theme, "I'm a perpetual victim" has a hollow ring to it in a magazine that purports to be about The Awakened One. Ms. hooks would be better served taking the initiative and starting a Buddhist group that serves her needs. By publishing unopposed articles such as this one, Tricycle runs the risk of becoming merely the voice of the "Buddhist Left," or the Mother Jones of American Buddhism. Why don't you challenge yourselves and your readers by employing a more diverse group of authors on "the race issue" and on the concomitant problems of anger, guilt, compassion, and responsibility that surround it.
Mt. Vernon, Washington
I grew up in the segregated South where my world was circumscribed by Jim Crow laws. I gradually learned that although my movements were restricted, I had free access to any place I discovered in a book. Therefore, it seemed natural that on reading about Zen Buddhism and feeling drawn to it I would quickly find a book giving meditation instructions. Race—mine or anyone else's—was irrelevant until I began to want more than sitting on a pillow and blanket in my bedroom. Venturing out was a daunting process.
At a retreat of several hundred people where I was one of two people of color, several people approached me to say they were glad I was there. They asked why there were so few black people practicing Buddhism and what should be done about it. No one who spoke to me seemed to be aware of having automatically assumed the role of host, or of placing me in the role of outsider. They were not aware of the inequity implied in their well-meant comments, or of the deep sense of isolation they evoked in me. This practice is mine as nothing else is. I was drawn to it because I recognized myself in it. It is an intimate practice demanding nakedness and vulnerability. By beginning it in solitude, I protected it from the racism that would have frightened me away, but it cannot mature in isolation, and thus my dilemma. To practice I must leave myself open, but as naturally as I breathe, I protect myself against the subtle and inadvertent racism that is inevitably present in any nearly all-white setting. I am a member of a gentle and unpretentious Zen community. No one there would ever deliberately hurt or offend me, but neither I nor they can separate ourselves so easily from the only kind of relationship we have ever known, an unequal one. It would help, I think, if we could look at this honestly before rushing to fix it.
Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey
When I received the current issue, my first thought was: "Oh dear, here we go again with a trendy issue about multi-culturalism to make the magazine fashionable and politically correct." I doubted I would bother to read much of it. Then I flipped the pages and soon got caught up in what was being revealed to me...my eighty-two-year-old white heart was opened to questions I had never thought about.
Marina Del Rey, California
More White Folks Talk Back
Years ago I began to get serious about Buddhism. Reading Alan Watts and Philip Kapleau (am I doing this right?) wasn't enough anymore. I wanted to be a real Buddhist. I wanted to join that 2,500-year-old river. So I got a phone book and looked up a Buddhist temple. Phoned. And went over to visit. It was Asian-American and I was told I was, uh, welcome, yet the non-verbal message I got was "Non-Europeans Only." So I floundered around again until I made contact with a "White American Buddhist" group. In light of Rick Fields' essay, "Confessions of a White Buddhist," where is a blue collar white guy like me supposed to go to get the dharma? I have faith that in the long run, simple good will is sufficient, but in the short run, sometimes it isn't enough.
In the article "Buddhists in America: A Short Biased View," Addie Foye asks, seemingly rhetorically, "Is it just coincidental that the one Buddhism that attracts black Americans is the only Buddhism that doesn't attract educated white people?" The answer is no, but not for the reasons which one might think.
Twenty years ago, as a white, middle-class high school student, I was first attracted to the dharma through books on Indian and Tibetan lineages. For more than ten years I fumbled about doing bits and pieces of dharma practice without the benefit of a teacher. Then I came upon Nichiren Shoshu members while on vacation in Hawaii. By that time, I had become quite discouraged and was all too happy to go along with any kind of "official" Buddhist group who would undertake to guide me.
To start out fresh, I followed their advice and set aside former studies, taking up theirs. I passed their examinations up to the "sophomore" level, participated in group meetings, and was eventually appointed to be a Han Cho, or study-group leader. I managed this largely out of a sense of attachment for some kind, any kind, of "official" dharma practice, hanging on for more than nine years. Within their doctrine there are indeed a few straws for a well-educated dharma student to grasp at. But the effort requires considerable flexibility in one's logic. For me it became too much.
This past year I have again taken up Tibetan practice in the Gelugpa tradition. As one who has stood on both sides of this divisive issue, I can now flatly declare with the assurance of personal experience that this sect's lack of appeal is natural unto itself and has little if anything to do with race. It is a materialist doctrine holding out the tempting promise of worldly benefits accruing from its practice. If this has more appeal for a disadvantaged minority than for their more comfortable counterparts it is not surprising. But it does not go to say that well-educated white Buddhists are being racially biased in rejecting it.
Gan Uesli Starling
In the Fall 1994 Tricycle, Victor Sogen Hori implicitly praises authentic "ethnic Buddhism" to the disadvantage of what he calls "Western Buddhism" with its non-Asian concerns.
For well over twenty years, I have been one of those Americans using an admittedly eclectic and psychologized Buddhism as a major source of building blocks in my own attempt to make a coherent picture of what I am and what the world is. I neither can nor wish to remake myself into an imitation Asian in order to do this "authentically." If that means that I start, like other Westerners, from a perspective of the value of an individual person, then anatma is a useful commentary on what an individual person is and not something that must either be used in terms of an Asian concept of a socially defined person or not used at all. If that comes out differently from the way an ethnic Asian would use it, so be it. He has his life experience to deal with and I have mine.
The ethnic Buddhisms of Tibet and China and their derivatives were not the ethnic Buddhism of the India of 1,500 years ago, and that form was not the same as the ethnic Buddhism of the time of Shakyamuni. Each culture that absorbed the dharma took it in its own terms and took from it what it needed. America is no different.
Los Angeles, California
The section on Dharma, Diversity, and Race in the Fall '94 issue really brought back memories! My first experiences with Buddhism were with the Zen tradition, but when I came to Oklahoma I discovered there were no zendos there. On the search for other Buddhists, I discovered Nichiren Shoshu. What a difference! Here were people chanting "Nam myoho renge kyo" in order to get new cars, money, washing machines, and a host of other luxuries. "Is this true Buddhism?" I asked myself scornfully. Sure it is.
A group of Vietnamese Buddhists here joined together to set up a little temple, and I went to worship with them. They were largely middle-class professionals, highly educated people, and I felt rather like an awkward teenager as I tried to relate to a service in which I understood only one word: "Botat," Buddha. When I voiced my concern to a Vietnamese doctor of my acquaintance, he laughed. "Don't worry," he said, "Only a third of the service is in Vietnamese. The rest is Chinese and Pali. So you see, we don't understand what we're saying either!" I was stunned. How can you just repeat sounds without trying to understand what you're saying? Is this true Buddhism? You betcha.
Isn't all this squabbling about who has or hasn't true Buddhism rather like the Jataka story of the blind men and the elephant? Each man seized a different part of the elephant and assumed that it was representative of the whole. Each man proclaimed that the true elephant resembled a fan, a snake, a wall, or a tree, and all were right, but their limitations prevented them from conceptualizing the whole elephant. If Buddhism is true, then all Buddhism is true Buddhism.
Victor Sogen Hori indicates that the narrative flowing from white Americans' experience of a Chinese Buddhist retreat enhanced their strength, sanity, and ability to cope. The Chinese doing the same practice came away with experiences of contrition and remorse. bell hooks suggests that prominent white Buddhists may not lack for arrogance in relating to their Buddhist practice. And Diane di Prima complains of your journal's emphasis on "undiluted American-Calvinist-Zen" and "life-is-suffering-Theravadin."
Each of these authors indicates that the way we apprehend Buddhist experience will be mediated by who we are ethnically. From long experience as a professor of Buddhist studies, a translator for Tibetan lamas, and as a psychotherapist, I would also add that our experience of Buddhism is strongly influenced by our family of origin and our personal psychology.
Sogen Hori is right in suggesting the Buddhism in America looks amazingly American. What do we do with aspects of Buddhism that may not fit into a twentieth century liberal world view? Denigrate it by calling it "life-is-suffering-Buddhism"? In brief, if we are arrogant whites, practice Buddhism, and subsume our practice into the service of our pre-existent worldview, has that been a transformative spiritual experience? If we are oriented toward self-expression as a legacy of Romanticism and Freudian psychoanalysis, do we have any idea as to whether this meshes with anything in native Buddhist cultures? If Theravada is self-negating both ontologically and emotionally, is there some way both to appreciate its practice and acknowledge that we may not accept its philosophical anthropology of human emotion?
Aside from some serious systematic questions raised by feminists, to date there has not been a detailed discussion concerning the cultural differences between Asian and American Buddhist cultures. The whole issue of emotion and affect in Asian Buddhist culture, versus its very different place in ours, is extremely vexed and is basically ignored by traditional teachers and many practitioners. Your articles and letters in the Fall '94 issue begin to highlight a particulate discussion of how diverse populations in America do experience or would like to experience Buddhism. I would suggest we continue and expand the intra-communal dialogue you have begun and consider how to explicitly articulate our American Buddhist differences around issues such as self, self expression, arrogance/humility, and emotion. I would suggest expanding the dialogue to include Asian teachers and practitioners and to exploring explicit differences in language, concept, and values. It is in this honest confrontation that Buddhism may have a true integration into American life, versus being a mere re-affirmation of American Protestantism noted by Sogen Hori.
Harvey B. Aronson
I applaud your attempt to take a look at racism from a Buddhist perspective. I am sad, however, because it seems as though even Buddhists, who should try to see things clearly in spite of our biases, have failed to see this topic clearly. I am referring to the constant use of the terms "white racism" and "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" so overused throughout the Fall issue. These labels are, in themselves, racist. In each of the articles on racism, the same mistake is made again and again. Each author speaks as though whites are the only racists on earth. It is true that there are white racists, but there are also black racists (Louis Farrakan's follower who hates Jews, Kalid Mohammed, for example). In fact, blacks with lighter skin often discriminate against blacks with dark skin. In the Philippines, those with light skin are considered above those of darker complexion. They even sell soap with bleach in it to lighten their skin. Yes, there are white racists, but they are not the only racists.
Perhaps a better approach to the problem of racism would have been to ask, "What is the root of racism?" or, "Why are we so afraid of that which is different—that which we do not understand?"
John R. McNew
Is the aim of Tricycle to encourage an understanding of Buddhism, or to present the views of people who (sometimes) call themselves Buddhists? Maybe it should be called a "Review of Buddhists," and leave the abused, neglected, or misinterpreted founder out of it altogether. It was quite an appreciative article that Stephan Batchelor wrote about our monastery (Vol. III, No.4); it's just the nuns you see...they hardly got a mention. And having spent over a decade, and a painful one at that, trying to improve the general conventional position of ordained women in Theravada, and now having some monasteries in Britain where nuns are respected, have authority, teach, and suffer in something approaching equal proportions to monks, it would have been "fair" (Oh blessed concept) to have made some mention of it. Especially as monasticism, particularly Theravada, is regularly pilloried by American "Buddhists" or "Dharmists" or both, on this issue alone. But perhaps as a Buddhist, I shouldn't mind. Maybe the good Buddhist practice is one of not getting involved with contentious views and opinions. Perhaps it's all a test to keep steering ever toward nibbana. Or is the West becoming a kind of Buddhist Byzantium; all glittering with beautiful design and layout, swirling with arch literary flourishes, "full of the sound and the fury but signifying nothing"? Most tricycles need more than wheels that spin; steering, brakes, and lights are useful too.
Chithurst Buddhist Monastery
West Sussex, England
I felt a strong sense of kinship with the voices talking of racial discrimination in the last Tricycle. I am a white American male, but being a lover of boys places me at the bottom of the totem pole. I have spent the greater part of my life discovering how to be true to my passions while doing no harm to others and I can say with confidence that I have enriched the lives of many boys over the years.
We should not ignore the fact that bigotry does not stop at race, or religion, or sexuality. Nor does following the Buddha automatically immunize us against bias any more than following the Christ protected slave owners in the old South. I would like to suggest that we not restrict ourselves to ferreting out only that bias which is politically incorrect. Let us examine all prejudices, especially those that make us uncomfortable.
New York, New York
I wish to echo the sentiments of John Pigott of Norman, Oklahoma (Letters, Vol. III, No. 4). I prefer to purchase my pornography under separate cover. The Summer 1994 edition has a feature on Miranda Shaw which I found overly long and inappropriate.
Dorothy Deming Smith
As a devoted Buddhist and longtime Zen practitioner, I find your articles on sex offensive and am concerned about the image of Buddhism you create for those that are just starting on the path. The Buddhist scriptures contain very little on the subject of sex, making your preoccupation with it all the more incomprehensible.
Thousand Oaks, California
I am a Zen devotee, and now founder of a dharma group, serving sixty-eight months in a federal prison for the distribution of psylocybin ("magic") mushrooms. My dharma teacher sends me his copies of Tricycle.
I am writing to express my support for your wide editorial focus. The any-display-is-porn attitude expressed by John Pigott (Letters, Summer 1994) only reveals a dirty mind, and an unqualified censor.
"Breeze" Claude Tower
I found the commentary on "spiritual correctness" by John Pigott intriguing enough to make me ask: Who determines spiritual correctness? It was "spiritual correctness" that sent the Christian crusaders from Western Europe all through Europe and the Middle East to enforce their own belief system. In actuality, it was a war sanctioned by the Papacy to destroy anyone whom it declared to be the enemy of Christ—in the name of spiritual correctness. Western Christianity has suffered under the stain of intolerance ever since.
Buddhism is not exempt from the intolerance of belief systems. If it were, there would be equality between the sexes in the Buddhist communities. There isn't. If Buddhists followed Buddha's precepts there would not be the dissension and militant attitudes that are present in today's controversy over who is the rightful incarnation of the late Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa.
What is "spiritually correct" is in the belief system itself. Our perception of our world is driven by this belief system. What is "intentional or unintentional eroticism," including a picture of nudity, is in the mind of the perceiver's belief system. If yours is different from mine which is different from his and different again from the other's over there—who is to say which is right—which is spiritually correct?
In "Becoming Buddha: The Life and Times of Poet John Giorno" [Tricycle Vol. IV, No. 1], it was incorrectly reported that the Buddhist center Tail of the Tiger in Barnet, Vermont was renamed Karma Tirana Dharmachakra. It became Karme Choling. We apologize for the error.
Image 1: Locked Wheels, June Leaf, 1993, tin plate, steel, wire, wood, and rods.
Image 3: Fan, Frank Olinsky, 1993, ink on paper.