Round and Around

From a great remove, the history of religions might resemble cellular activity: entities come together, multiply, divide, regroup, split off, etc., all in a distant dance of transformation. In actuality, the individuation of any one tradition rarely proceeds so gently. Yet Shakyamuni Buddha’s example seems to offer an exception. He rejected the magical rituals and animal sacrifices of the Brahmanic priesthood, along with their asceticism and intellectual polemics. His followers included kings and merchants, sweepers…From a great remove the history of religions might resemble cellular activity: entities come together, multiply, divide, regroup, split off, etc., all in a distant dance of transformation. In actuality, the individuation of any one tradition rarely proceeds so gently. Yet Shakyamuni Buddha’s example seems to offer an exception. He rejected the magical rituals and animal sacrifices of the Brahmanic priesthood, along with their asceticism and intellectual polemics. His followers included kings and merchants, sweepers and women and, contrary to the core tenets of his society, he assessed moral virtue by deeds, not caste. Most impressively, he accomplished his progressive agenda without creating an adversarial backlash.

From that time forward what the Buddha said—and what the Buddha really meant—has been subject to interpretation, expansion, elaboration, modernization, reform and rejection. A particular group lasts long enough to become established. Eventually, it forgets that it too once broke with the powers that be; that it too was forged through rejection and accusations of heresy, and that it once started off with intentions to purify or rejuvenate its own tradition. We seem to keep forgetting that all forms rest in emptiness, and that all manifestations depend on circumstances—or, as Stephen Batchelor puts it, they “arise from contingency” (see his Lessons of History).

Time after time among various lineages throughout Asia, and now in the West, upstarts again offend the heirs of the elders thus ensuring one more cycle between the old and the new. Today, S.N. Goenka (see the interview here) is revered as a seminal influence in the transmission of dharma to the West. But on certain issues he sounds more conservative than the Vipassana teachers that were his students thirty years ago, advocating, for example, strict adherence to one lineage and not mixing traditions. Yet he never uses the word “religion,” insisting that “Buddha never taught Buddhism,” but rather “techniques” of awakening. For seekers in the early 1970s, he offered a path that was radical in its simplicity.

Happily, the inevitable continuity of the progressives and the conservatives, like the foot in front and the foot behind in walking, creates, for most of us, a plausible and very wide, middle path.

In the West this discussion has focused primarily on two issues. One is the relationship between Asian American communities and Western converts. Within every immigrant community religion remains the most reliable way to conserve and transmit cultural values. Immigration established the conditions—or contingencies—that informed the Asian communities. For the new Buddhists of the 1960s, the need to reject, change and transform was as political as it was personal. Convert Buddhism was contingent on those tumultuous circumstances; and rarely have we been offered a more succinct look at that juncture than to see Jan Willis vacillating, in 1968, between the Blank Panthers and Tibetan dharma.

The other issue addresses changes introduced in response to new circumstances. Repeatedly, the conservatives accuse the reformers of throwing the baby out with the bath water while the accused claim that necessary acculturation will not disturb the essence. This has occurred within the Asian American communities as well as between the convert communities and their Asian teachers.

“Mean Street Monks” adds a particularly sad version of this dynamic—a heated controversy among Thai immigrants in Stockton, California. Monks of one temple offered sanctuary to street kids and kept them away from terrorizing gangs. Yet surprisingly, the conflict is not between two camps of Thai youth, but between adults. One side appreciates the monks’ good intentions and support their adherence to the spirit of the rule. But upholders of the faith fault the monks for violating the code of monastic detachment. Perhaps some day street monks will coexist peacefully with traditional monastics. This is a big country. All things considered, it has a pretty impressive record of religious pluralism.

Yet without the enlightened strategies of the Buddha, the time that it takes for the left and the right foot to complete one cycle can leave any particular community, such as the one in Stockton, severely, if impermanently, hobbled.
 

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