Letters to the Editor Winter 2002

A Body of Praise
In the more than ten years I have subscribed to Tricycle, I can’t remember a more engaging issue than the last (Fall 2002). I have often wondered why Tricycle has never addressed in depth the importance of a healthy physical body in nurturing and supporting a meditative practice. Your special section, “The Body: Vehicle for Awakening,” is superb. I can hardly wait to share the edifying articles with my personal training clients, whom I encourage to practice not only physical fitness but a meditative discipline as well. Thanks so much for creating an outstanding, helpful magazine.

—Clark Elliott, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Your Fall 2002 special section, “The Body: Vehicle for Awakening,” prompts me to honor lay Zen teacher Katsuki Sekida. In his book Zen Training he not only makes the technique of working on a koan explicit, but he details the physiology and biochemistry of what then happens to your body. Besides charting the tidal movement of air in the lungs, he explains how abdominal tension stimulates the hypothalamus to promote wakefulness.

Here it is, I thought: not only the ultimate how-to manual, but the science to back it up. How much more American can you get? Mr. Sekida, however, was too far ahead of his time and failed to make the impact I anticipated. I imagined seekers recoiling from the notion that the spirit could be stripped down to nuts and bolts. Meanwhile, those unable to grasp the technique couldn’t help but feel inadequate.

But your special section, along with yoga’s surge in popularity, gives hope that seekers will finally accept that the body is the vehicle we ride to realization, and that it needs to be modified if it wants to run top fuel.

—Russell Wellen, Sleepy Hollow, New York

Practice Over Doctrine?
Your interview with S. N. Goenka (“Finding Sense in Sensation,” Fall 2002) shows that Goenka knows that Vipassana is a Buddhist meditation practice. Indeed, he attributes its discovery to the Buddha. Yet Goenka’s followers deny that they are Buddhists and that they are doing any sort of religious practice. They claim to be nonsectarian and nonreligious.

Emphasis on practice over doctrine recurs regularly in the history of religions as reform movements. But scholars of religions have shown that practice cannot be divorced from the context of doctrine. Vipassana cannot work to purify the mind without the insight of impermanence (or anicca, arising and passing away), a doctrine that distinguishes Buddhism from most other religions.

Numbers of us scholars are dubious about why the “Goenka-ists” do not recognize their Buddhist heritage and affiliation. Perhaps this letter will elicit an explanatory response.

—Nancy McCagney, Santa Barbara, California

© Neal Crosbie

A student of S. N. Goenka’s responds

In his preface to the Devanagari Pali Tipitaka, Acharya Goenka wrote: “One reason why India lost the practical teaching of the Buddha was because it lost the words of the Buddha.” Are Acharya Goenka’s historic efforts to publicize the Tipitaka freely around the world an indication of his divorcing the practice from the doctrine? The writer is a scholar. She will surely understand the significance of these ancient texts as a guiding light and a matrix for one’s dhamma practice.

Acharya Goenka teaches nothing but the Buddha’s teaching. However, he doesn’t use the word Buddhism to describe what he teaches.

He understands that the word Buddhism is convenient, and some of those who use it don’t use it in a sectarian sense. He understands that. Still, Acharya Goenka avoids using this word, as it does have a sectarian connotation for most people. Every follower of the Buddha’s teaching knows that it is not sectarian. The Buddha never referred to his followers as Bauddha (Buddhists). He called them dhammim, dhammiko, etc. (meaning “dhamma practitioner”). Acharya Goenka highlights the non-sectarian, universal nature of dhamma, thereby inviting people from different religions to “come and see”—to give a trial to the meditation technique taught by the Buddha.

It would not be right to say that Goenka’s students do not recognize their Buddhist heritage and affiliation. Every time Acharya Goenka starts a meditation course, he begins with the homage to the Buddha. Every student on a Vipassana retreat has to take refuge in the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha) at the beginning of the course, and students are taught about the Four Noble Truths, Three Characteristics, Eightfold Path, and Dependent Origination. Acharya Goenka encourages his students to go back to the original words of the Buddha to clarify their practice.

The writer has coined the word “Goenka-ists.” It would not be right to use this coinage, because Acharya Goenka is not propagating any doctrine of his own. He has never claimed to be a Buddha or a bodhisattva or even an arahat. He teaches nothing but what the Buddha taught. He maintains that he is merely passing on what he learned from his teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, the last one among the illustrious chain of teachers that kept the practice of Vipassana in its purity through the millennia.

I strongly urge the writer to attend a ten-day retreat to learn how the quintessence of the Buddha’s teaching is so effectively transmitted by Acharya Goenka.

—Dhananjay Chavan, M.D., Nashik, India

Shining A Light
I’m pleased to see Tricycle expanding its editorial view of Buddhism.

I had long suffered from a regrettable ignorance and prejudice about Pure Land as a “merely” devotional and unmeditative style of Buddhism, something unworthy of a serious person’s attention. The two book reviews on Shin Buddhism (Fall 2002) convinced me to check out some books from the library, and I discovered thoughtful and humblingly wise words that let me see Pure Land Buddhism more clearly.

I also appreciated Jeff Wilson’s “Down Home Dharma” (Fall 2002) very much for showing the geographical variety of Buddhism within the U.S. Too often, American Buddhist magazines focus on major cities like New York or Los Angeles, or places that get a lot of press for being “spiritual,” such as Taos.

Let’s see more articles like these, which shine a light instead of looking under the street lamps of our urban centers and pricey retreat spots. I’m also interested to read more about the schools of Buddhism that have achieved diversity in class, race, and gender; several previous articles in Tricycle have raised this vexatious issue, and clearly there are lessons for sanghas that desire better integration.

—J. B. Bell, Vancouver, British Columbia

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