Web Exclusive—Letters to the Editor Fall 2010

I was a bit off balance in the Spring, 2010 issue. The new front section was a challenge for me to take in, but when I entered the feature section on stinginess, I was hooked. Yes, hooked. So hooked that when I accidentally left my issue on a plane, I was a bit panicky. How could I have been so careless? Would I find another? Would it be thrown in the trash or would someone see it and take it home to explore?

Of course, I was able to purchase another copy. I usually pass my lovingly read issues on to a friend for the waiting room in her therapy office, but I couldn’t see giving this one up. How ironic is it that the first chance I had to reflect on Sensei Nancy Mujo Baker’s questions (“On Not Being Stingy”) about where we find ourselves being stingy, I find I am being stingy with my copy of Tricycle!

But I found a generous solution. For the past few years, I have given gift subscriptions for Tricycle to friends and family who express an interest in Buddhism. I will save my spring issue and give my therapist friend her own subscription!
 
Thank you for the questions and the answers.
 
Susan Goldman
Woodstock, NY


In your Spring 2010 issue, Wendy Johnson proposes a tree-planting challenge for all the right reasons including the Earth’s environment, one’s own well-being and the good of all. It is clear that planting trees now is a compassionate act, empowered by wisdom that sees the way things are.

Here on Maui, we are creating a natural, dhamma sanctuary and hermitage which includes reforesting much of 17 acres of abused ranch land. We have already planted more than 1000 orchard, ornamental, environmental, and commercial, as well as native trees. Over the next 5 years we have pledged to plant another 4.6 acres with 425 tropical hardwood trees per acre, for a total of 1,955 trees. While the cost of each tree is about $5 from Future Forests, a Buddhist nursery in Hawaii, the shipping, site-preparation, planting, irrigation, weed control, pruning, etc. to establish each tree is closer to $25 each.

The Buddha said in the Bhayabherava Sutta, “It is because I see two benefits that I still resort to … the forest: I see a pleasant abiding for myself here and now, and I have compassion for future generations.”

Over the next five years, out of compassion we will be planting our Buddha’s forest. We invite all urban Buddhists without a local sangha forest to consider accepting Wendy’s challenge to establish one tree a year for the next 5 years and join us in our efforts so that we all may heed the Buddha’s advice in the Living by the Dharma sutta, “…there are these trees and the roots of trees…meditate,… do not be negligent lest you regret it later…”

Sincerely,
Kamala Masters and Steve Armstrong

Stephen Batchelor raises a crucial but uncomfortable issue for many Buddhists. A potentially helpful practice for such Buddhists would be looking into the issue of rebirth and karma for themselves.

Contradicting Batchelor, the legitimacy of these phenomena can be readily refuted or alternatively, support for their existences inferred. Putting aside possible individual cases, the big picture crux is clear. Science's understanding has an individual's innateness defined by the happenstance of their conception—or more precisely, the resulting DNA established the individual. Alternatively, the transcendental perspective implies that much of that individual innateness would have to be explained via continuity from previous existence.

Newspaper and magazine articles about applied human genome research are a good place to investigate. Thus far significant contributions from DNA to an individual's susceptibilities to common diseases and also their performance on intelligence tests, have not been found. These “beyond belief” failures have left some geneticists joking about the apparent “dark matter” of the DNA. Note here the issue is actually finding the responsible DNA codes, not presuming or expecting them as is common practice.

A more intuitive subset to consider are unexpected behaviors. Will science find the DNA origins of behaviors like childhood phobias, gender identity disorder, prodigies, and a number of the mysteries found with monozygotic twins? Or the explicit duality young children tend to display, with an innate understanding that death is non-terminal?

Batchelor's message seemed to resonate with that in a recent book by the novelist Julian Barnes, Nothing To Be Frightened Of. In addition to death, Barnes provides an abysmal, science-informed take on life. He points out that “we can now view ourselves as units of genetic obedience” which in his case apparently includes the fact that he has been plagued with phobias about death (thanatophobia) including dreams that look like they were lifted from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Is such a condition really in the DNA cards?

Perhaps escaping the overconfident modern intellectual purview—including that exhibited in the intellectual makeover of Buddhism in the West—is something fundamental to appreciating life and religious practice.

Ted Christopher
Rochester, NY


Sato, through Snyder and Foster (see "The Fog of World War II"), makes a convincing case that Victoria painted Suzuki too harshly in Zen at War. The record is now straight. So what, though? I found their article to be an irritating distraction from the moral failure of the Zen establishment before and during the war, which is what Victoria’s work puts into such striking relief. That part only gets a passing acknowledgement in Snyder and Foster’s article. Distortions of his position during the war removed, Suzuki’s anti-war protests still seem mild and his writing convoluted and bizarre, even in Sato’s long citations. Perhaps it was the fog of war. To put Victoria in that fog is absurd.

Caysea

Letters in response to Tai Situpa Rinpoche’s article “It Takes a Saint

Tai Situpa Rinpoche’s view that, in order for the dharma to take on a Western perspective, the West must produce a fully enlightened being is a put-down to all cultures outside Asia. It implies that profound religious insight came from only one part of the world: Asia. In a sense that view denigrates the great minds of Greece, Europe, and America. In its narrowness it reminds me of the Judaeo-Christian belief that God favored a particular people, the Jews and those who derive their religion from Judaism, with his guidance and nurture. That teaching is the very thing that drives many from Christianity towards Buddhism.

Rinpoche's thesis comes from his own Buddhist background, not from a broad world view that goes beyond cultural values. Many Western Buddhist practitioners do not see enlightenment (a term that may not be acceptable to all Westerners) as the sole goal of practice; they believe that the saving and nurturing of this planet is more important. They do not accept the proposition that religious understanding comes from unquestioning acceptance of a Holy Man's teachings; instead, they see their practice in terms of individuals working in communities to discover the meaning of life for themselves—much as Gautama did 2500 years ago. The view that a great teacher must arise to lead others to enlightenment seems like an Eastern way of thinking to me. There is nothing wrong with that—but the dharma from a Western point of view might look very different. Will it still be the dharma? I don't know.

—Richard Fidler


What do you mean by “Western”? What do you mean by “the West”? Do you mean the United States? North America? Any culture that happens to have been impacted by Western culture? Australia? Or what about modern, Asian metropolises that often look more like the West than some idealized, mythical and mystical “Orient”? Or do you just mean New York? If a Mahasiddha did rise above New York singing the Dharma for New Yorkers, would anyone in Australia hear it? Or care since the message would be ostensibly for New Yorkers, not for Australians? So would that mean that Buddhism was firmly established in “the West” or just in New York?

And for that matter what do you mean by Buddhism? Buddhist schools have different ideas about what “sangha” means. I can think of a dozen institutions in the United States that are, to paraphrase, steadily producing great teachers. But most of these teachers aren’t monastics. So does our definition of a firmly established Buddhism require fully ordained, celibate monastics? For some, clearly yes. For others, no.

It seems to me that we should not be asking if “Buddhism” is firmly rooted in “the West”; we should be asking if particular branches of the Buddhist tree have taken firm root in particular locations across the globe. That way, maybe you’ll be able to get an answer.

Scott Mitchell
Institute of Buddhist Studies
Berkeley, CA

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