The present and future of Buddhism – plus a contest :)

I’ve recently been put on Shambhala’s list of book reviewers which is great. I mean, they’re the top Buddhist publisher and one of the top spiritual publishers. Anyhow, they sent me three books for review this month – and I get to offer one to my readers. Read on to know what you can do to get it.

The issue these books collectively ask me,  is simple to ask, but hard to answer: What’s the real Buddhism? What’s the essence of Zen? Read this post, answer that question – and I will select the best answer on Wednesday (my time). Unless you say you don’t want a free book (say so in your comment) I will pass on your email address to Shambhala publications and let them handle the sending of the book to you.

So, what do you stand a chance to win? It’s Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom by Dzogchen Ponlop. (My review)

I gave a lecture on ’emptiness’ last week for one of our Dutch theosophical lodges. There were some Buddhists in the room (which was packed btw) who wondered when I’d said my piece how ‘real’ it all was for me. Was it merely mental philosophy, or was it emotional too. I felt a bit threatened by the question, but managed an answer that was real enough to satisfy them.

However, what they were really saying was what I had been trying to say the whole evening: unless it helps transform your life, Buddhist philosophy isn’t ‘real’. This is weird from a Western philosophical perspective, because our traditional philosophy is all about words and thoughts. The only real that gets into it, normally, is the real of science.

In his book Thomas Cleary Dzogchen Ponlop gets as real about the Buddhist path as it gets. And – this is rather unusual – without ignoring the ultimate ‘goal’ of Buddhism either: Nirvana or enlightenment. Generally speaking there are two types of Buddhist books: those that speak to a Buddhist audience and those that don’t. The first stick to Buddhist themes, history, tradition – but have a hard time connecting to the world as it is today. The second half is meant for a non-Buddhist audience and often ends up diluting the message to such an extent that it can be digested by Christians as easily as by Hindus.

Thomas Cleary Dzogchen Ponlop is somewhere in between. He speaks to us living in a modern world, with science, electronics, schools, books – our whole world. Yet, he does not dilute the basic message of Buddhist practice either. For instance (p. 73)

When we’re talking about discipline, we’re not talking about transforming a bad boy or girl into a good one. It doesn’t mean beating your mind with a stick or whipping it into submission. And it’s not a ploy to deprive your life of excitement or interest.

He goes on about the topic of discipline, but I want to fast forward to a theme that many of you reading this will be familiar with: what’s the place of the guru or teacher in all this? (p. 74)

Ultimately, each one of us is our own best judge and counselor because we know our patterns better than anyone else. The problem with depending on teachers is that we put on our best face for them. If you’re really good at it, you can be a totally different person in their presence than you are when you walk out the door. In that case, how can a teacher really guide us?

… Real discipline must come from a heartfelt desire to find our own freedom.

Alright – that’s something. Later in the book he notes (p. 160)

My advice in this regard is to examine all your teachers and accept whoever possesses the qualities of wisdom, compassion, and skill, regardless of where they come from. However, just as in any culture or tradition – even old Tibet is no exception – today’s Buddhism will see some self-proclaimed ‘masters’ who are charlatans. There seems to be no shortage of charlatans in any spiritual scene. It’s important for students to distinguish between such pretenders and genuine teachers and to always follow a genuine holder of the Buddha’s lineage.

Right. That’s where I stumble. I’m not a Buddhist teacher in the traditional sense. I am not even a disciplined meditation practitioner. Does that mean I’m unqualified to teach Buddhist philosophy? Reading all the above, I come much closer to respecting Krishnamurti than I have in years – because he places everybody on an equal footing. And when I say that, I mean that I don’t claim to lead anybody to enlightenment. I don’t claim to be a practicing Buddhist in the ritual sense. I haven’t taken refuge. I have only taken pansil in my heart, and the same goes for the Bodhisattva vow. Does that make it any less real?

Don’t answer that: it’s not up to you to decide. It’s ultimately up to me. Perhaps, were I to meet the Dalai Lama he could answer such questions for me.

However, the underlying question here is one that Buddhism in the West will have to face in one way or another: is the tradition going to bow to the social reality of people like me existing, or is it going to break under the pressure? Or do we really still need institutions like lineages to keep some sort of order?

The other book Shambhala sent me this week answers that question very firmly. The Undying Lamp of Zen: The Testament of Zen Master Torei and translated by Thomas Cleary (my review). Written by Torei Enji, who lived in the 18th century, it’s a somewhat traditional exposition about Zen. Torei didn’t have to face the challenge of a Zen in the West polluted by D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts. He can assume an audience that knows the Zen koans (which have been added in foot notes at the bottom of the page by the translator). He can assume a working system of lineages.

Well, for me it’s an open question. I really don’t know what to think about all this. Awakening has been found, historically speaking, by people in all kinds of religions – Buddhist lineages be damned. All kinds of practices have lead to mystical experiences as well.

Within the Buddhist tradition my own path is closest too the scholarly monk/nun path. As my teacher of Buddhism at Leiden university reminded us once: meditation experts and Dharma experts (experts on the teaching) were traditionally equally respected. I’m clearly closer to the second than the first.

I don’t want to make this about me – I live my life to my best intentions and as long as I haven’t chosen a guru, it’s nobody’s business whether my path is ‘authentic’ or not – that is, until I start pretending to be a meditation teacher. Then you can slap me on the wrist.

So, back to my question – having read the above, what do you think of the present and future of Buddhism in the West? Are lineages over rated? Ignored for no reason? Do you believe in the necessity of having a spiritual guru?

So, what do you think? What’s the real Buddhism? What’s the essence of Zen?

8 thoughts on “The present and future of Buddhism – plus a contest :)”

  1. To me, Buddhism is the search for truth. That’s what I find so beautiful about it. I don’t necessarily feel like I have to believe anything without first investigating it for myself to see if it makes sense. By this definition I think that almost all of us are Buddhists, just at different levels of realization, which helps me remind me of everyone’s Buddha nature.

  2. I think the real Buddha Dharma is the ethics & esoterism, i.e. the golden rule (present in Buddha Dharma,) bodhisattva way, and the perennial philosophy (from the Buddhist viewpoint) about the enlightenment process of becoming a bodhisattva/buddha. The bodhisattva way really combines it all.

    I think the essence of Ch’an/Zen is ‘training’ the mind towards liberation (since ‘Ch’an’ is ‘dhyana’–meditation) in formal meditation and meditative Ch’an/Zen arts like the creative and martial ones. It is not about destroying the mind, just enlightening it.

    I will pass on the free book (I had not read the whole blog at first and thought there was a book for each question.)

  3. Oops, I made a typing error, please ignore my previous reply and read it like this:

    As soon as you can leave Buddhism as a philosophy, a science and/or a religion, you may understand the One Mind is a wonderfull Tool, however the end[product] never justifies a tool; this process putting the Tool to work is called life, to be fully aware of this Tool being a tool will have taken you into Nirvana. Never forget this Tool is so perfect, it can make you think you are that Tool, Which It obviously is not…

  4. I don’t think the term enlightment is a right term. It carries a eurocentric viewpoint. The easy use and misuse of translated terminology dillutes the essence of the dhamma in my opinion. When talking about the dhamma, we must critical towards the lamguage that we use.

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