Talking & Listening: A Perspective on the future of Buddhism in America
Ed note: Originally this piece was supposed to be posted elsewhere, but in the end an editorial decision was made to nix it. Without wasting anything, I’ve decided to use it here.
As it stands, the future and growth of Buddhism in America is still a bit murky. We can only assume what it’ll be like, so herein lies my assumption.
Technology has made the Dharma very accessible to us here in the US. What was once a misunderstood, mystical belief system, can now be a reality with a few clicks of a mouse and a simple Google search. From Zen koans, to Tibetan sutras, to Dharma talks in mp3 format or via video on YouTube, it’s all at our fingertips. Have a question? Jump into a forum and ask away. There are many folks who have practiced for a while that lay in wait to help those willing to break the ice and start a discussion.
I’ve used many forums, especially when I first stumbled on the path, and for the most part the responses were always helpful. Most people will go out of their way to make sure the answer is correct to the best of their ability. If these same people don’t have the answer, most of the time they’ll do some research to get it for you. But that’s not every forum or site you’ll find…
This is where things get murky to me. Depending on where you go for answers, you can get a good and helpful one or you could be berated and put down for your “ignorance” on the subject of Buddhism. This is quite a shame, because those asking the questions, for the most part, are serious about learning.
I’ve encountered a forum or two where if you asked a question, maybe unknown to you, the question is a controversial one. Being controversial, others think you to be some sort of rabble-rouser and are quick to judge ignorance. Specifically, I’ve asked questions on a forum about the ever volatile subject of Shugden worship. I was dead serious in trying to understand the whole thing, but because it was so touchy I was banned on at least one forum for asking the question. I never got my answer, instead I was reminded of how stupid I was and that I was no longer able to post because I had brought the subject up.
There have also been recent arguments between bloggers, magazine writers/ editors, etc. The last thing I want to do is feed into this malarkey, but I think our ego can sometimes get in the way when we are hurt or offended, especially if someone challenges our interpretation of things. Sometimes, whether someone isn’t following us on twitter, befriending us on Facebook, or adding a link to a blogroll our fragile ego also becomes bruised. This is where I think our understanding of the Dharma can be misplaced, because some folks believe our bruised ego gives us the opportunity to react without a second thought. To me, a second thought, or even a third one is necessary. Instinctively, most of us have been taught this knee jerk reaction pattern. I think this is where our Dharma training should come into play, or better yet our ability to use mindfulness.
I’ve used this story before, but I want to share it again to show how a normal knee jerk reaction can be changed with mindfulness. A while back, I was in an accident at work. I was already pulled out of my spot and had put the gear shifter in drive. As I did this I looked up and saw someone backing toward me from their parking spot. I honked, honked again and than crunch, they hit my front end. I could feel the hooks of reaction setting in, but I was able to stop for a split second and ask myself whether or not the reaction would be helpful. A lightbulb went off in my head and I was shocked. Instead of wanting to yell and scream like a complete fool I was more concerned for the person who hit my car. I got out, and she kind of cringed, expecting me to fly off the handle. I asked if she was ok, and she smiled.
This particular incident might have been easier because it was face to face, there was a human element to it. I can’t say there haven’t been times when a reader of my blog comments and says something I take WAY out of context. I can feel the irritation, the anger welling up. But after a second thought, I try to re-read the comment, sometimes out loud. I read it out loud because then I can hear the emotion that was maybe being conveyed. It’s difficult to truly know what someone is feeling online, the internet is a cold, dark place sometimes. That’s part of the reason I think that if we continue to use the internet as our only source of teachings and learning, the future of American Buddhism may be bleak.
Things aren’t all doom and gloom though. Currently, there are many teachers here in the West that speak clearly and are very accessable. Guys like Noah Levine, and Brad Warner are coming from a certain niche` and that works well for them and the people seeking their wisdom. Ethan Nichtern, founder of the Interdependence Project, is bringing people together in a way that is revolutionary. The project aims to engage the community at large, not only with the classes they run, but the meditation sit-ins they stage all around NYC. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Gen-X Tibetan teacher, is transmitting traditional Tibetan teachings to the Western world.
There are loads of teachers out in the world. The great thing about the internet is, for the most part, teachers are willing and able to engage. There are folks like Chokyi Nyimgma Rinpoche, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, Jundo Cohen who do online sessions. Whether it is meditation instruction or Dharma transmission, it is out there. Tricycle Magazine has recently introduced online retreats with very well-known teachers here in the West and abroad.
I think we got started off on the wrong foot here at the beginning of the article, but the point I was trying to make is, how we engage the knowledge that is readily available. We can argue and pander to our own ill-conceived notion of what the Dharma is, or we can listen. I am reminded of some lyrics to a song and hope it ties this all together for you.
“People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening”
-lyrics from Simon & Garfunkel (although my true inspiration was from Nevermore’s cover of the song)