I was impressed by your Winter 2002 articles “Shopping the Dharma” by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron and “Romancing the Buddha” by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. As Buddhism becomes established in the U.S., we are blending the rich spectrum of Buddhist teachings from around the world with our own culture. But, both these authors warn, we must be mindful of how we do this.
Thanissaro Bhikkhu describes what the teachings and goals of Western psychology and Buddhism have in common. Because of these similarities and the widespread practice of psychology in this country, many Americans have found the dharma quite accessible. But, he cautions, we must remember that psychology and Buddhism are not the same. The main goal of psychology is to heal negative mental states and to help integrate the individual self while Buddhism, as a spiritual practice, is concerned with helping us to elevate our level of consciousness. As such, it is more radical than psychology, and thus is more demanding of those of us who wish to practice it.
Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron writes of another challenge that Buddhism faces in America: the clash of Buddhist values with those of our consumer culture. Consumerism can bias how we practice Buddhism—and we are often unaware of its many subtle pitfalls, since consumer habits are so deeply engrained in us. One danger of our bias is that we might water down the dharma by trying to render it commercial and facile.
Both authors also point to another and less obvious problem that consumerism and psychology may bring to American Buddhism: the marginalization of those outside the consumer mainstream: those with low incomes, those estranged from mainstream culture, and those who seek a radical and rigorous spiritual path.
When religions become institutional, they can become shallow and irrelevant. Many of us have turned to Buddhism because we have been turned off by the religion in which we were brought up; we are looking for something deeper and more direct, and Buddhism has answered that need. Let us not “Americanize” Buddhism to the extent that we water it down or institutionalize it.
—Geoff Huggins, Winchester, Virginia
I am writing in response to both the recent interview with Stephen Batchelor (“At the Crossroads,” Fall 2002) and the subsequent letter from Marina Stockschleder. Both Batchelor and Stockschleder question the concept of reincarnation. Stockschleder emphasizes the need to verify the truths, not simply to accept statements of the Buddha based on faith.
I personally agree with that philosophy and encourage Ms. Stockschleder to research the materials available that document cases of reincarnation. The premier researcher in the field is Ian Stevenson, M.D., who has devoted forty years of his career to compiling an astonishing body of cases of reincarnation. His method is to question children who claim detailed memories of past lives, including names and locations. He then matches their memories to the life of the deceased person, including autopsy records when available. His results are most compelling. Other researchers, notably Brian Weiss, M.D. and Michael Newton, Ph.D., use hypnotic regressions to document past-life memories.
Should anyone truly wish to verify the truths, I suggest reading the large body of material available on the topic. If the questioner does not take these steps, perhaps he or she would consider holding a question in their consciousness during mediation; the question being: Why does he or she resist the concept of reincarnation?
—Lynn McGonagill, Sarasota, Florida
The Beaten Path
Marshall Glickman’s recollection (“Insights & Outtakes,” Winter 2002) of being beaten by a Zen teacher to the point that he “lost track of the whacks,” resulting in “a shiny and purple-and-blue lump the size of a baseball,” is alarming. Although he claims that on principle the beating was wrong, nevertheless he asserts the teacher did him “a favor.” I don’t question that he gave up and went limp—in fact, others might have passed out!
Fortunately, your magazine reflects a range of teaching methods that don’t rely on violence. How any teacher can use such a technique is beyond me, and the unfortunate thing is that some people may get from Glickman’s telling that they too can get an “aha” experience by being abused in this way. I’d be interested in hearing some of his other experiences concerning this “favor,” such as how long it took him to heal from the bruise, how and why he sublimated his anger, and if he discussed the incident with his teacher.
Religion and spiritual training shouldn’t have to be battlegrounds, and the Buddha was very clear on nonviolence. I understand that Glickman has gone on to other, gentler sources of inspiration, but it’s important not to confuse abuse as a catalyst for some kind of special awareness and not to excuse it or condone it.
—Jerome Gagnon, San Francisco, California
Marshall Glickman responds:
Please keep in mind that you read an excerpt. In the original context (the preface of Beyond the Breath: Extraordinary Mindfulness Through Whole-Body Vipassana Meditation), it’s clear that the story is included both to give my meditation background and as contrast to the method recommended in the book. Naturally, I don’t condone beatings as a catalyst for “special awareness”; it just so happened that I gained something from the experience. In that sense, the roshi did me a favor.
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Image 1: © Neal Crosbie
Image 2: © Mike Taylor