My exploration of it so far has been energising and liberating, not just because of the wisdom contained in the dharma, but because, despite some popular misconceptions, it doesn't ask us to leave our minds at the door. Nor does it ask us to make any leaps of faith. This makes it fit beautifully with our rational world view in the west.
Despite this, and despite meditation's increasing popularity in the West, I think that the 'traditional dress' I referred to deters many people from exploring it - seeing it as another religion. That's such a shame and such a waste of an incredible body of insight that is now being discovered through another avenue - science. Ironically, the traditional dress also encourages others to identify with the dharma (e.g. indulging in Buddhist paraphernalia to identify oneself as a Buddhist, speaking of oneself as a 'Buddhist' when it's not necessary, putting on one's 'nice Buddhist voice' when discussing spiritual issues, mindlessly following rituals without questioning their purpose and impact). The Buddha was very clear that much of our stress and unhappiness is created through the building up and clinging to a fixed identity, so this outcome is also highly unhelpful.
The Buddha himself instructed his followers to go forth (no two in the same direction) and share the insights in a way that the people they encountered would understand. He was all for adaptation to suit the audience. He spent over 40 years of his life adapting his insights to make sense to the people he was speaking to. Yet I hear, see and feel a certain reluctance to do this for ourselves in the West - almost as if our cultures are less valid or meaningful contexts for embodying the insights.
A couple of years ago I went on a combined Zen/Insight Meditation retreat to a wonderful bush venue owned by the Sydney Zen Centre. The flags covered with Japanese characters looked so out of place in the Australian bush and created in me a sense of divorce from my colleagues there, and from the place because I didn't know what they said. Shortly afterwards I sat through a lecture from one of the Zen practitioners and missed the whole point of it because he kept using Japanese dharmic terms with which I was not familiar. I mentioned this to the group the next day and felt a strong sense of having just struck a sacred cow on the nose. A day or so later one of the teachers who is a Zen and an Insight Meditation teacher told me that she had been a bit of a frontier pushing girl in adapting Zen. An old teacher of hers warned her to 'take care' because the changes in the dharma to date had occurred over a very long time and essentially, we don't want to be rash about making them.
I agree with the need to take care, to be diligent, educated and honest about our intentions when adapting something so valuable. However I also think we need to be fearless. We need to look honestly at our reluctance to change traditions and I suspect that often, if we do, we'll see that the motives to follow traditions are actually at odds with the dharma itself. An important caveat here is that we educate ourselves well about what the Buddha taught so that we don't go throwing any babies out with bath water and to test them out fully against our own experience so that we don't swallow any stale bath water.
I also discovered on this retreat, that most of the Zen practitioners knew little to nothing of the dharma itself - the most original version of which is the Pali canon. They knew ONLY the traditions and some of the concepts as intepreted and taught by Zen teachers. They also seemed to have a veneration of the position of 'teacher' - something I have always found unhelpful if learning and practising learning is the main game. The emphasis on one's 'lineage' connection to the Buddha also struck me as strange - pretty hard to verify anyway I thought, and either way....so what? The Buddha himself was deliberate about refusing to appoint a successor - he wanted people to use the teachings as our guide, not to get hung up on who's head honcho at Buddha Corp.
I don't mean to pick on the Zennies here, they are in no way alone in this. I also thought they had some wonderful traditions in which I could see great value. For example publicly taking 'precepts' - declaring your intention to live according to a certain principle and making a bit of a song and dance of it. I can see this could help us keep our resolve when things get tough - a bit like getting married helps you stick with your husband even when he's being a pain in the bum. The reason I've pointed out the things that set off my crap detector is that for me, they detract from the trustworthiness of the tradition overall because it has privileged certain rituals - relieved them of the obligation to stand up to the question:
How does this help?
I've also had numerous other experiences, many of which I'll share as I write these posts, where I've found my 'in-built crap detector' going off at things I've heard in dharma circles. I'll use the question above as my guiding light as I explore. Specifically, what I'll ask is: how does this help me let go of the stress, angst, anxiety and suffering I cause for myself?
I'd really like for this blog to be a forum for taking care of the dharma by:
- fearlessly questioning what's taught and practiced out there
- relating it back to the teachings in the Pali Canon
- subjecting it to the 'how does this help?' test
- practically applying the helpful stuff to our modern lives, and
- consciously shedding any of the barnacles that have been mistaken for the boat.
I hope you'll share the ride.