Letters to the Editor Fall 2004

Karmic Grace
The riddle of desire was poignantly unraveled in Joan Duncan Oliver's essay, "A Drink and a Man" {Summer 2004}. The way she expressed herself brought me right into the experience of her "karmic grace"—when the excruciating pain of addiction and potential for liberation came together. Her essay revealed the essence of the dharma, and I hope to read more from her.

—Alix Engel, Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

The Problem with Puritans
James Baraz's article {"Lighten Up!" Summer 2004} brought up some interesting points. It is true that sometimes American Buddhists approach practice with a heaviness that, if anything, only compounds suffering. Perhaps this is because they infuse their new spiritual practice with a Puritanical self-judgement that is foreign to Asian cultures, and certainly incompatible with Buddhist teachings. It makes perfect sense to sort this out and make clear that the Buddha was not advocating self-mortification but a Middle Way that meant not doing what was "good," but doing what was most skillful in liberating us from suffering. As Baraz points out, there is nothing wrong with outward expressions of joy; and he rightly acknowledges that, in suppressing joy, he was simply indulging his own misguided notions of what was "spiritual." But I don't think this problem is so common that we need to make a big fuss about it.

It is far more common for us Western practitioners to take the other route: Whatever we find uncomfortable or disquieting in the teachings, we simply dismiss. Renunciation gets a particularly bad rap, leading many to tailor their Buddhism to their own particular tastes. Somehow we feel that the goal of enlightenment is possible without giving anything up. The result is the sort of rank sentimentality that seems to have overtaken the wedding ceremony Baraz presided over: Indeed, even in wishing others happiness, we give something up—our tendency to indulge our own jealousies. And yet from the article's feel-good tone--down to the frolicking boy-monks in the accompanying art piece-we can only gather that with a little bit of love and fair-weathered metra meditation all will be well. Somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost the gritty challenge of renunciation—not the dour self-denial of the Puritan—but a renunciation that comes from the genuine aspiration to be free. In your special section on desire {in the same issue}, like Baraz, you seem to move in the direction of having it all (a notable exception is the excellent opener by Matthieu Ricard). For instance, it doesn't seem to occur to Tara Brach for a moment that she might simply cut the desire at its root. Instead, she succumbs to a sentimentality that would have made her a welcome guest at the wedding Mr. Baraz describes.

Nevertheless, I remain a fond reader.

—John Hals, Dallas, Texas

Thanks for the great Summer 2004 issue. I think "Buddha Buzz," by Jeff Wilson, is a fun feature in your magazine, and one item in the issue "Prayer Wheeling"—is particularly interesting. Where did this story come from? I would appreciate learning more about it.

—Ulla Zwicker, New York, New York

Jeff Wilson Responds
I, too, thought that the World Trade Center prayer wheels story was wonderful.  It first came to my attention via an article written in January by Erik Baard for the Village Voice.  If you go to www.villagevoice.com and search for "Wind and a Prayer," you should find the original story in the archives. The website for Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill LLP, the designers of the Freedom Tower, is www.som.com.

Faulty Facts
In Allan Hunt Badiner's "The Last Blissful Breath" (Summer 2004), the account of Kushinigar is charming, but the history is completely mangled. In the second column we find the author confidently asserting that "by the end of the fourteenth century, after Mogul invasions wiped Buddhism off the face of India, Kushinigar was pushed back into obscurity."

Any student of Indian history would recognize a trainwreck of nonsense: The raids of northern India in the late twelfth century were decisive in the destruction of Gangetic plain monasteries; the Mughal dynasty began in 1526, not the fourteenth century; and Buddhism has existed continuously in the Kathmandu Valley from at least 464 C.E. up to the present day in South Asia. Modern state boundaries (of India, Nepal, and Pakistan) cannot be used to analyze the history of Buddhist culture in South Asia.

—Todd Lewis, Professor of World Religions, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts

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