Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Relaxation Is What You Are

One Human Journey is pleased to offer a 20-minute guided audio meditation with Dennis Hunter, founder of One Human Journey and author of You Are Buddha: A Guide to Becoming What You Are.

  • Practice deep relaxation and mindfulness of the present moment
  • Learn to notice subtle ways you resist your own experience and move away from the present moment
  • Feel more refreshed, awake, and synchronized between mind and body

To prepare for this meditation, find a quiet, comfortable place to lie on your back and close your eyes. Headphones or computer speakers are best for optimal sound quality.

Bonus for cat lovers: 
Agneshka the cat briefly interrupts the meditation to make a special, apparently urgent feline announcement around the 9:36 mark, then settles down again after a few seconds.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

You Hold the Antidote

During a nap today, I dreamed that a certain breed of venomous snake was killing many people. I discovered that my blood contained a natural antidote to the snake's toxin, and this antidote could be extracted and shared.

In Tibetan Buddhist iconography, the snake is often a symbol of aggression and its destructive power.

The venomous snake is running wild through our world today, breeding out of control, biting people and injecting them with the toxin of aggression. The poisons of anger, hatred and violence are destroying human lives in untold numbers every day, in every part of the world, and in some places the violence seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. 

Every human being has within them the antidote to the poisons of aggression and violence. No matter who we are or where we come from, deep down in our blood there is the same wish for peace, for happiness, for well-being, for harmony. 

There is a great responsibility carried by those who have recognized that we hold within us the antidote to the poison of aggression and violence that is burning down our world. We must do whatever we can to share that antidote with others. We begin by cultivating and nourishing within ourselves the seeds of peace, and sharing that peace with others, one person at a time. It starts with each of us, and it ripples out through our interactions with everyone we know. 

It may not seem like we can do much when we look at the scale of violence that is happening in the world. But to the person next to you who is bitten by the snake and suffering, it doesn't matter how many other people have been bitten in places near or far. They just need one person to show them the antidote that already exists within them. 

They just need you. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Return to Silence

How can I speak to You, when You are not separate from me?
I want to pray to You, but prayer would be distance,
someone smaller praying to someone bigger,
requesting admission into the vast open arms of the Other.
My mistake was to believe I was somewhere else.
It has felt like that until now.
I know the pain of feeling small and separate from You.
The torment of little "me" and all my tiresome stories,
constricting like a boa around the neck of my own fictional self.
"Let this curse be lifted." That would be my prayer,
but I don't know how to pray to You, or if prayer is even possible.
For just now, when I grow very still, very silent, then prayer
seems beside the point. In this stillness, this silence,
You are already here, and the one who would pray to You
is nothing other than You. Prayers are only words, after all,
and in Your presence words fly away. They dissolve
and lose meaning. Where words were, there is only This.
But even "This" is a word, a mistake, a label
with which "I" try to contain "You," the Limitless.
And so the only form of prayer that seems authentic
is to remain silent, to rest in stillness, not asking for anything.
For only then can my prayer be answered.
Only through silence is the one true Word ever spoken.
Only then can I see that "You" and "I" were never two, never apart.
The small, tragic story of "me" is a dream, and I am a dream figure.
You are the One dreaming. Let me awaken within the dream.
The little, separate "me" is a figment, just the boa of mind's habits
constricting around a non-existent center within empty space.
May the snake let go and relax into freedom and peace at last.
Never let me forget that these dream eyes are Your eyes.
This dream body is Your body. These dream feet are Your feet.
But now I am praying to You again, recreating the illusion of distance,
where there is none. You are here, now. It is This. Only This.
Let me return to silence, and hear what You are already saying.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

On Meditation and the Future of Humanity

Do you find it unpleasant to be alone in a room with your thoughts for just 10 minutes, with no smartphone or other distractions to keep your mind occupied?

Apparently, most people do.

A recent article by Kate Murphy in The New York Times examined how excruciating it is for the average person to simply be alone with their own thoughts. Citing a study published in the journal Science, involving 11 experiments and more than 700 people, Murphy writes that "the majority of participants reported that they found it unpleasant to be alone in a room with their thoughts for just 6 to 15 minutes."

Even more alarmingly, in one of the experiments, "64 percent of men and 15 percent of women began self-administering electric shocks when left alone to think."

I ask you to pause for a moment and consider the implications of that: A vast swath of human beings find it so incredibly unpleasant to be alone with their own thoughts that they will resort instead to shocking themselves with painful electric currents simply to have something — anything, even something unpleasant — to redirect their attention.

Most of the time, we don't have to go to such extreme lengths to avoid introspection. That's because we never bother to go there in the first place.

As a society, we've become masters of staying busy all the time, always distracted and plugged in and entertained. We never have a moment to think, and when we do, we are programmed to reach for a familiar device or an activity or an experience to fill up the empty space.

"Our habitual tendency is to always be busy, doing something, changing something, or cultivating something," says the 17th Karmapa. "Therefore when somebody asks us to just relax, to just be natural, it is very difficult for us to actually understand how to do that."

Watch your mind closely the next time you step into an elevator and the door closes. During those 20 seconds of in-between space, in which nothing much happens, how strong is the impulse to reach into your pocket and check your mobile phone? Or is it already in your hand?

Murphy speculates that the reason we find it so unpleasant to be alone with our thoughts is because, given the opportunity, our minds tend to veer towards darkness: we begin to ruminate on our worries, our frustrations, our fears, our doubts and existential questions. Left to our own devices, we begin to make contact with our shadow, and our shadow is naturally something we experience as unpleasant because it is (by definition) composed of all the things we don't want to think about.

Monkey Mind

I don't disagree with Murphy's point, but I believe the root problem is deeper than that. As a meditation instructor, one of the most frequent things I see in beginning students — and in experienced students too, including myself! — is a very basic resistance towards sitting down and coming face-to-face with the reality of how restless and hyperactive our minds really are.

When we practice meditation we are confronted with what Buddhists call "monkey mind" — our mind's natural tendency to be scattered and to have trouble resting on one object for very long. The mind is a skillet in which millions of kernels are constantly popping into awareness: thoughts, judgments, memories, feelings, commentary, plans, daydreams, fantasies, schemes, regrets, wishes — every kind of storyline imaginable. We try to stay in the present moment, but the mind keeps jumping into the past and the future.

It can be disheartening to see just how wild and untamed our minds really are, and a lot of beginning students mistake this encounter with the mind's wildness as a sign that they are "not good at" meditation, or that it's "not for me." What they don't realize is that they are just like everyone else. I've never met a human being who didn't know exactly what I was talking about when I described the phenomenon of "monkey mind."

Taking Your Mind to the Gym

Training in meditation is just like training at the gym or learning to play the piano: it feels really hard at first, but with time and practice and patience and willingness (and the right coaching) something begins to change. You begin to have more a bit space in your mind, a greater sense of relaxation. You begin to develop more capacity to sit quietly and witness the wildness (or the boredom) of your own mind without running away or resorting to whatever toys or activities usually keep you distracted and entertained.

And something bigger than that begins to happen in your life: you start to develop a greater ability to confront whatever shifting circumstances life throws at you with more equanimity. As with physical training, the process of training the mind in meditation begins to make your mind a healthier, less uncomfortable place to be. In short, through meditation, you learn to make friends with yourself.

"If every 8 year old in the world is taught meditation," the Dalai Lama said in 2012, "we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation." 

The philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote: "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." A more true statement has perhaps never been spoken. If we all could learn how to sit quietly in a room alone, with no distractions, and become better friends to ourselves, then of course we could more easily extend that friendliness outwards and get along better with our fellow humans. Many of the world's seemingly intractable bubbles of conflict could be greatly deflated if people everywhere simply developed a greater capacity to be still and quiet, and to relate more openly and honestly to what's going on in their own minds.

Have we grown so disconnected from ourselves, so afraid of our own interior lives, that 64% of men and 15% of women would resort to jolting their bodies with electric currents rather than sit still and be with their own thoughts for 10 minutes?

Are human beings losing their capacity for stillness and introspection? And if we lose that capacity, what will become of us?

Sunday, July 27, 2014


There is a moment in Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood when the film's main character, Mason — caught deep in the throes of the most awkward transitional years of high school — realizes that growing up is not necessarily the guaranteed outcome of getting older. In a pensive, philosophical conversation between Mason and his girlfriend — the kind of intelligent, emotionally engaged dialogue that has become like Linklater's filmic signature — Mason reflects on the fact that his mother, who has worked hard to be as grown up and responsible as she can be, still seems as lost and confused about the direction of her life as he is about his own.

Boyhood is unlike anything else I've ever seen in cinema, just as Linklater is unlike any other director working today. Over the course of the film we watch Mason grow from a shy, introverted six-year-old into a shy, introverted young man going off to college. But rather than using multiple actors or special effects to depict Mason and his family aging across the years, Linklater filmed the same group of actors repeatedly over the course of 12 years. As Mason's character ages, so does the actor playing him, along with his family members. The effect is that, although Boyhood is a fictional story, it illustrates the joys and pain of childhood and growing up in a way that is profoundly authentic and true-to-life.

But what does it even mean to grow up? Who the hell really knows? It seems to have a lot to do with taking responsibility for ourselves, getting with the program, and becoming successful in life — at least that's the message that the adults in Mason's world keep preaching at him. Do your homework, complete your chores, get ahead in school, find something you're good at and excel in life. But for all their good intentions and rhetoric, those very same adults keep struggling to find their own way in the world, and repeating mistake after embarrassing mistake. Mason's mother keeps marrying the wrong guys, and his father seems stuck in a perpetually rebellious childhood phase of his own.

When we were kids we imagined there would be some magic threshold we would cross and step into adulthood, and then everything would finally make sense and the pieces would all fit into place. But although we crossed many thresholds — our first job, our first love, graduation from high school, leaving the nest and going off to college — we come to find that the process of growing up is more porous and open-ended than we ever imagined it to be. All the trappings of adulthood begin to happen to us — jobs, cars, marriages, houses, children — but somehow we never really feel that we can quite catch up with the process. Nothing stops the flow of time, and life hurtles forward faster than we can process it and adapt to it. As the classic Talking Heads song goes:

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself — Well...How did I get here?

I remember a time when I was a kid when the idea of being 35 years old was incomprehensible. "35" seemed so far away that I just couldn't conceive of how the day could ever arrive. Today I'm 45. 35 came and went 10 years ago, and I'm now I'm beginning to imagine the possibility of being 55 or 65. It scares the crap out of me, to think how fast my life is flying by, and how it seems to move faster and faster with every year that passes. I'm definitely an adult now, with many of the trappings of adulthood to prove it, but there are still times when I feel like a kid stuck in a man's body, struggling to understand how I got here.

That's just how it is, if we are honest with ourselves. Deep down, beneath the masks we wear in public, no one really feels like they are completely grown up, like they've got it all figured out. The ones who act like they do are usually kidding themselves, and occasionally fooling the people around them. Often, beneath their well-crafted masks, they are actually the most immature and frightened people of all.

Boyhood is an astonishing, deeply honest and moving film in which nothing particularly special happens, and yet everything happens. Life happens, and we watch it unfold in all its glory and wretchedness from the perspective of a boy who turns into a young man before our very eyes. Along the way, we see a lot of adults acting like children and a lot of children trying to act like adults. The film is haunted by the question of what it really means to grow up, and how and when it happens. One thing's for sure: it never happens the way we imagined it would. Rather, it's always happening. We never truly arrive at a destination and find ourselves in that magic place where it all finally makes sense. We just keep moving, and keep growing, and keep making mistakes, and keep learning from our mistakes.

If you haven't already become the perfectly put-together adult you dreamed of being when you were younger, I'm sorry to break the news to you, but it probably isn't going to happen. But want to know the upside? You have the opportunity, now and in every moment of your life, to practice accepting yourself — flaws and all — and to forgive yourself for never having gotten your act quite together. Welcome to the club. And while you're here, you'll gain a lot of freedom if you forgive your parents, too, for all the mistakes they made while you were growing up. Back then, they were just like you are now: looking around at their lives in a bit of a daze, trying to understand how they got to where they were, and how to make the best of it. Chances are, they did the best they knew how.

And maybe you aren't turning out to be such a bad kid, after all.

Boyhood is playing in theaters now. Go see it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Two events in July: Workshop and Book Launch Party

Two upcoming events at Nalandabodhi New York!
64 Fulton Street, Suite 400
New York, New York 10038
(Use buzzer 4 for entry)
Close to the 2, 3, A, C, 4 and 5 Trains



Friday, July 11th  •  7pm to 9pm

Join the Nalandabodhi community for its monthly Friday Soirée celebrating the launch of Dennis Hunter’s new book, You Are Buddha: A Guide to Becoming What You Are. The evening will include a reading from the book, discussion, and a chance to socialize and enjoy drinks and food with NBNY members and friends.

There is no charge for the Friday Soirée and you are encouraged to bring friends and family.

Books will be available for purchase at the event. Click here if you would like to order the book ahead of time.

A Daytime Workshop with Dennis Hunter Based on You Are Buddha

Saturday, July 12th  •  10:30am to 4:30pm (lunch break from 12:30 to 2:30)
$40 Preregistration  •  $50 at Door  •  Includes both morning and afternoon sessions
(No one is turned away for lack of funds – Work Study opportunities are available. Contact Nalandabodhi for more information.)

We are all looking for greater meaning and wisdom in our lives. The problem is that we search for these things outside ourselves. The most profound teachings of the Buddha say that the wisdom we search for doesn’t come from outside. It is already within us — it is our very nature. You Are Buddha is a practical guide to discovering this innate wisdom and living a happier, more meaningful life.

This two-part workshop will draw upon teachings from You Are Buddha that focus on becoming more deeply embodied and mindful, working with thoughts and emotions, understanding the nature of mind, and being more authentically yourself. The workshop will include talks, guided meditations, and discussion. Space is limited, so preregister now.

Preregister here for the Saturday workshop.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


We are all looking for greater meaning and wisdom in our lives. The problem is that we search for these things outside ourselves. The most profound teachings of the Buddha say that the wisdom we search for doesn’t come from outside. It is already within us — it is our very nature. You Are Buddha is a practical guide to discovering this innate wisdom and living a happier, more meaningful life.

"Combining insight into the spiritual path with engaging personal anecdotes, You Are Buddha introduces Buddhist practices and philosophy to support whatever path you're on."
— Susan Piver, Founder, The Open Heart Project, New York Times best-selling author of The Wisdom of a Broken Heart

"You Are Buddha speaks about the nature of our mind and the spiritual path in a very fresh and personal way, making profound insights and practices readily accessible. By looking at ancient wisdom teachings through a contemporary lens and sharing his own rich experiences on the path, Dennis Hunter offers an approach to the Buddhist teachings that can be employed by readers of all kinds of backgrounds. There is no need to label oneself a Buddhist to benefit from this book and discover the basic nature that we all share."
— Khenpo Karl Brunnhölzl, author of The Heart Attack Sutra and The Center of the Sunlit Sky

"Starting from the most profound understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, You Are Buddha offers an elegant and practical guide to bringing these insights into your daily life. The presentations of meditation practice, and working with negative thoughts and emotions, are especially valuable. Because this book is grounded in Dennis Hunter’s own deep personal experience and his extensive practice of meditation, it brings a very contemporary perspective to these classical teachings." 
 — Andy Karr, author of Contemplating Reality: A Pracititioner’s Guide to the View in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and co-author of The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes


U.S. paperback available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble
European paperback available from Amazon Europe (U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Italy)
Also available in paperback at the CreateSpace store

Available at Amazon for Kindle readers and apps
Available for iBooks at the iTunes store
Available at Barnes and Noble for Nook e-readers
Available for all e-book readers at SmashWords

The book is available through Ingram and other industry-standard ordering systems. Bookstores or libraries can also order the book with reseller/institutional discounts with a free Createspace Direct account.

Come join the open Facebook group YOU ARE BUDDHA for news, reviews, information about readings, workshops and book-related events, discussions, and more! 

You Are Buddha is available in various editions (paperback and/or e-book) not only in the U.S. but also in Canada, the U.K., France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, India, and Australia! Check your specific country's Amazon page to see which editions are available where you live.

Email me at onehumanjourney@gmail.com if you have any questions about the book, would like to request a review copy, or would like to schedule a reading, workshop or book-related event. 

Click here if you would like to subscribe to my email newsletter.

All the best to you.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Why the Buddha Laughs

Buddhism often gets a bad rap for being pessimistic or taking life too seriously, especially with its famous teachings on suffering, impermanence and emptiness.

But the reality is quite the opposite. Those who have developed any genuine realization of the teachings of Buddhism are often among the most joyful and happy people you could ever meet. Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who is famous for, among other things, undergoing extensive brain scans and laboratory testing while in meditative states, has been branded by neuroscientists as "the happiest person alive."

There is a particularly baffling slogan in the Lojong teachings in Tibetan Buddhism, which says: "Always maintain only a joyful mind." That sounds like a tall order! Always?!! Only?!! I often feel lucky if I can experience a truly joyful mind for just a few intervals throughout the day.

But that constant, all-pervasive joyful mind is exactly what many realized Buddhist teachers manifest. When I picture the Dalai Lama, the image that comes to mind is one of him smiling and laughing and literally beaming positive energy to everyone around him, which he seems to do 365 days a year.
The 16th Karmapa

My own teacher, the very learned scholar Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, frequently laughs and plays with childlike joy, and constantly seeks ways to make his students drop all of their serious trips and do the same. When you spend time with a realized teacher like Dzogchen Ponlop, you never know how or when he's going to sneak up and pull the rug out from under you—maybe figuratively, or maybe literally. That's part of his job as a teacher. Many of the most direct and personal teachings I've received from him were designed to puncture whatever bubble of excessive seriousness in which I happened to be floating and to make me stop, see the absurdity of my own habitual patterns, drop it all, and just smile, relax, and laugh at myself.

"Since everything is but an illusion, perfect in being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one might as well burst out laughing!"
—Longchenpa, 14th-century Tibetan meditation master

Laughter is medicine for the heart, mind and body. It lowers blood pressure, dispels self-pity and depression, triggers neurochemical reactions that increase feelings of well-being, and strengthens our positive feelings of connection with other beings. It creates a sense of openness and space that wasn't there before, and an open mind leads to new possibilities.

Taking ourselves very seriously, on the other hand, is most often a recipe for unhappiness. The more we invest our attention in all of our personal dramas and our inflated sense of self-importance—the storm that rotates around the illusory center of I, I, I, me, me, me, mine, mine, mine—the more miserable and isolated we become. It's an ancient habit, a dysfunctional skill we've been developing since before we were born. But each time we drop the overly serious trance of selfing and open to a mind of spontaneous joyfulness, we reconnect with our deeper nature and shed a piece of the baggage of the small, tragic self.

"Nothing is worth more than laughter. It is strength to laugh and to abandon oneself, to be light. Tragedy is the most ridiculous thing."
—Frida Kahlo

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Meaning of Yoga

I spend a lot of time these days around yogis and yoginis. My partner is a yoga teacher. Most of my friends do yoga. I have a yoga practice myself. I even co-teach workshops on yoga and meditation with Adrian Molina.

What Adrian and I aspire to do with our yoga and meditation workshops is to rejoin two things that (at least from my point of view) were never really meant to be separated in the first place.

The way yoga is often taught these days is primarily as a physical practice, a fitness routine, a series of postures designed to strengthen and lengthen and relax the body. And then once the body is nice and relaxed, and you lie there in savasana for a minute or two, the class is over.

Because of my years of training in Buddhist meditation, I tend to approach things from the other side of the fence. I love a good, challenging, physical yoga practice. But I regard the physical part of yogic training as merely a prelude, a method of preparing the body for meditation practice. I'm always somewhat amazed to see people go through all the trouble of learning to twist themselves like pretzels and balance on their elbows, and then roll up their mats and leave before the main course is served.

From the Buddhist point of view, all the elaborate asanas and pranayamic breathing techniques and bandhas of yoga are really just appetizers. The main course is sitting down and relating with your own mind. The asanas and the bandhas and the pranayama are all ways of helping you put your body into the proper state for optimal meditation to happen.

If you can stand on one leg and grasp your other leg behind your head with both hands, or balance on your hands in crow pose, well, that's awesome. Congratulations. You're a good primate. Any monkey can do those things. If you can do them and then sit down and be still and listen to the sound of silence within your own vivid awareness — well, now you've leveled up. You're a real human being, relating openly to the divine mystery of your embodied existence.

When you get deeper into the study of esoteric yoga and Buddhist tantra, you learn that there's actually a science behind all of this. Yoga as we know it is a very sophisticated system of methods for opening and aligning the channels of the "subtle" or "energetic" body so that energy can flow efficiently and be directed where the mind wants it to go.

Beginners to meditation often wonder why teachers place so much emphasis on sitting in a proper meditation posture. Same principle. It's about straightening the channels and optimizing the way subtle energies flow within the body, which has a correlative effect on the way the mind rests (or doesn't rest) in meditation.

People often say that yoga is working with the body and meditation is working with the mind. That's a useful way of thinking about it at first, but ultimately I don't think it's true. All genuine yoga involves working with the mind, and all genuine meditation involves working with the body. In fact, some of the most profound meditation techniques lead us to question our assumption that the body and the mind are really two separate things to begin with.

And that's the real meaning of yoga. "Union" is how the Sanskrit word "yoga" is often translated into English. Union. Oneness. The union or synchronization of body and mind. The rejoining or realignment of two things that were never really separate in the first place. It's the practice of awakening, here and now, to what it really means to be human.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Towards Open-Source Buddhism

An edited version of this article was originally published in 2011 as a guest post on the Tricycle blog. Many thanks to the editors of Tricycle for featuring it there.

These days, a lot of people are asking the question: What is Western Buddhism? Often, the inquiry seems to focus on the “Western” part. What is uniquely Western about the Buddhism we are practicing? How does it differ from traditional Asian Buddhism? How is Western culture changing Buddhism, and vice versa?

But what do we mean by “Buddhism,” anyway? We often use that word as if Buddhism were one unitary thing, when really (like everything else, and as the Buddha taught) the juggernaut of Buddhism is made up of component parts, and each of those parts is made of component parts, and so on. When we talk about Buddhism in the West, what do we mean? Zen? Theravada? Tibetan Buddhism? Nichiren? Pure Land? Shingon? Some conglomeration of all of these? Something else?

If we could put “Buddhism” under a microscope and look with great magnification at its many traditions and schools and lineages and teachers and practitioners, we might find it is webbed with arteries and capillaries, riddled with neurons and mitochondria—much the same as we are. Mysteriously, the ongoing process of becoming and unbecoming that we label as “Buddhism” happens in the general vicinity of these component parts, and seems to adhere to them—but nowhere can we pinpoint its exact location. There is no one thing that can be called “Buddhism,” just as there is no single place or culture that encompasses the entire “West.”

Buddhism as a Web
What we call Buddhism is a widely distributed network phenomenon designed to optimize the human experience. Like the Internet, it started out as someone's idea, but then spun out of control: no one person or group now owns it, and it is being modified and updated from day to day in millions of little increments, from every corner of the known world.

Where is “the Internet?” It seems to adhere somehow to the computers and networks that are part of it, but the Internet itself can't be found. Where is “Buddhism?” It seems to adhere to the people and networks that are practicing it, but the Buddhism itself can't be found. Yet both the Internet and Buddhism can be demonstrated, utilized, applied in countless ways.

If there is anything unique about “Western” Buddhism at this moment, perhaps it is that all of the world's Buddhist traditions—as culturally and doctrinally distinct from one another as a Southern Baptist is from a Russian Orthodox—have descended upon us at once. We are living now in a flux of pan-Buddhist dialogue taking place in a Western crucible, blending traditions that for two-and-a-half millennia have evolved in separate geographic and cultural regions. Buddhism's embrace of Internet technologies in the last two decades has speeded up this process enormously.

Earlier this year, I heard from a hardcore Vipassana practitioner living in Scotland, who had just finished sitting a Zen sesshin and was preparing to attend a Mahamudra retreat the following weekend. Bam! Just like that, intensive practice in three completely distinct Buddhist traditions—Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana—each with wildly different approaches, in the space of one week. Was there a previous time and place in history when such a broad range of Buddhist traditions was so freely available to one person, and so ripe for the picking?

Buddhism as a Melting Pot
This smorgasbord of Buddhist traditions also creates confusion—especially for the beginning student who is not firmly grounded in one tradition from the start. Beyond the obvious danger of bringing a consumer’s “shopping mentality” to spiritual practice—going from one tradition and teacher to another and always leaving them behind when they begin to provoke discomfort by challenging your ego—there is also the risk of mixing views from different traditions in an unskillful way.

Still, despite the potential confusion, to be a carrot bobbing in this Western melting pot of Buddhist traditions is to be part of a new fusion cuisine that is being consumed even as it is being cooked. If you listen to a few Buddhist Geeks podcasts, or read an entire issue of Tricycle or Buddhadharma from cover to cover, the flavor of your understanding will be at least subtly colored by teachings from other Buddhist traditions. It is unavoidable.

In my own practice, I have benefited from this kind of fusion. Although I study with a Tibetan teacher and look towards the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism as the primary lighthouse by which I navigate the waters, I have at times experienced bubbles of conceptual confusion and intellectualization that were helpfully popped by the sharp concision and no-nonsense directness of Zen teachings. At other times, exposure to the Theravadan view of the stages on the path of awakening—different in many ways from the Mahayana and Vajrayana views—has helped me view the teachings and practices in a more expansive light. I have even deepened my Buddhist path, at times, by incorporating spiritual teachings and practices from outside of Buddhism altogether. As long as I feel firmly rooted in my “native” tradition, I find this sort of cross-fertilization to be fruitful.

I now have to admit, though, that I know less than I once imagined I did what “Western Buddhism” is, or what it may become. It feels sometimes that there are as many “Western Buddhisms” taking shape among us as there are Western Buddhists who practice them. As with the emergence of Linux in the world of computers, perhaps what we are witnessing in the West today, with so much polymorphous blending of traditions, is the emergence of Open-Source Buddhism. (This moniker is, in fact, already in use on numerous websites.) Like the populist software movement from which it borrows its name, Open-Source Buddhism proposes a grassroots, do-it-yourself alternative to the old closed, proprietary operating systems. And it may yet produce new applications that were not possible within the framework of those systems.

Caveat Emptor
However, buyer beware: I have dabbled in Linux, and frankly it gives me a headache. I am, in fact, writing this on a Linux-driven machine that someone bamboozled me into buying a couple of years ago, using a simplified, Linux-for-Mom-and-Pop user interface called Ubuntu that attempts to bring open-source computing to the masses. While I adore the cultural philosophy of openness and integrity and interdependence that stands behind my computer's operating system, on a pragmatic level it often leaves much to be desired. Performing even basic actions—installing a new software program, for example—seems to demand an almost hacker-like degree of technical proficiency. There is no central help desk to turn to when something goes wrong—and something is always going wrong. Time and again, I have searched for answers to things that ought to have been simple, and in response I have been thrown into jumbled web forums where self-appointed Linux gurus “explain” the solution to my problem in a language that might as well be Martian for as much good as it does me. For two years I have been stumbling, wide-eyed, through what I regard as the Wild West of operating systems.

Open-Source Buddhism, I suspect, is much the same. Already emerging in our midst, it is full of great promise and potential—but actually using it, at this point, is not for the faint-of-heart. Its day may be coming soon, but it has not arrived just yet.

Meanwhile, in aligning yourself with any established tradition, you will trade off some of your freedom and idealism, and you will make yourself vulnerable to certain flaws that are inherent to those systems—but in return you may have a better user experience. You will have access to hands-on training, the support of peers, and expert technical support that are difficult to find in the open-source world. In the realm of computer programming, I do know people who are highly proficient at using Linux, but it must be said that they are people who first knew their way around at least one of the old, proprietary systems very, very well. They didn't start out as open-source gurus.

The lesson? Pick the tradition that resonates most with your heart and mind, and immerse yourself in it as completely as you can. Rely on a qualified teacher to help you fine-tune your machine. Work out the bugs, and eliminate the malware. Know how to use your chosen operating system thoroughly and properly. Learn how to trouble-shoot when problems arise. Then, and only then, will migrating to Open-Source Buddhism become a truly viable option.

Image: "Buddha quilt," from the Flickr photostream of artethgray.