Tuesday, September 21, 2010

East Mind / West Mind

Today was a rare double-post day. My weekly 21st-Century Buddhism feature at the ID Project went up this morning with "The F-Word: Forgiveness." Check it out to learn why I think forgiveness is one of the most essential, and often overlooked, qualities on the spiritual path. In this article, I look at the 12-step model of spiritual practice, which places a strong emphasis on recognizing our crippling (and sometimes hidden) resentments and cultivating forgiveness. Have you had an experience of forgiveness that changed you? Post a comment to the article and share your insights.

Also, "East Mind/West Mind" appeared today at Buddhist Geeks. In this article, I look at the cognitive and psychological differences between "Asians" and "Westerners," and how these differences might shape our experience of Buddhism and spirituality.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

The very labels “Western” and “Asian” are fuzzy, finger-painting language—maddeningly imprecise in what and who they refer to—and they fall apart on closer inspection. How similar, really, are all the distinct cultural and linguistic groups that get lumped under those two umbrellas? Are we to assume that Swedes and Americans and Brazilians and Croatians all think the same way because they live in the same “Western” hemisphere? What about people from China, India, and Indonesia? Labels such as “Western” and “Asian” are generalities, and when speaking in generalities it’s probably inevitable that someone will feel excluded or misrepresented. So the conservative approach would be to avoid discussing these things at all.

Still, in spite of that, here we are, with what we all acknowledge is the more or less “Asian” spiritual tradition of Buddhism being transplanted into a more or less “Western” cultural matrix. While those labels raise a number of questions, they seem to retain some usefulness for describing the situation we are in today.

In the past decade a number of studies have demonstrated significant differences in how East Asians and Westerners perceive, cognize and think. One such study conducted by Richard Nisbett and colleagues at the University of Michigan used computerized eye-tracking technology to measure the ways European-American and Chinese subjects related to simple pictures of animals or other focal objects set against a complex background — such as a picture of a fish in an aquarium. Almost invariably, the Americans’ eyes zeroed in on the fish first, perceiving it as the most important object, and only then did their eyes take in the rest of the aquarium as the context in which the fish appears. The Chinese participants, on the other hand, generally perceived the context — the aquarium — first, and only then did they zero in on the fish and locate it within that context. Similar studies have suggested that such differences translate into unique ways of processing and committing information to memory, as well as different ways of making sense of what is perceived.


If something as seemingly innocuous as the way East Asians and Westerners receive and prioritize visual information in a picture is measurably different in the laboratory, could there be other significant differences in our ways of perceiving and knowing? If, as Nisbett suggests, East Asians have a more “holistic” way of looking at phenomena and interpreting their experience, and Westerners have a more linear, object-oriented, “analytic” mind, could this help to explain other more commonly observed cultural differences? Why, for example, has Western medicine excelled at treating specific, isolated problems with very direct remedies, whereas Chinese and Tibetan medicine take a more holistic view of mind and body and focus on treating imbalances within an interdependent network of systems?

And how do such different cognitive styles — which go largely unnoticed much of the time because they are so deeply embedded in our individual and collective psychology — impact the way we relate to something like spirituality or religion?

In looking at these differences, I reference not only Nisbett's studies in cognitive psychology but also some very interesting recent work in linguistics. Check out the full article at Buddhist Geeks and share your thoughts.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Five Western Buddhist Teachers to Watch

Western Buddhism is at a turning point in its history. I recently heard one teacher compare where we are at now to the stage of adolescence: the rebellious years, when kids are not kids anymore but they're not yet full-grown adults either. It's a time of bold questioning, even rowdiness, and of rapid and sometimes disorienting growth and change. And it is the time when children begin to assert their own identity and their own understanding of the world. They begin to demand -- to require -- space to explore things for themselves, to find the answers that make sense to them. Certainly, if you look around at the Buddhist scene these days, you see the signs of this adolescence unfolding all around us.

A number of significant Buddhist teachers are leading this adolescent rebellion, and helping to forge the identity that Western Buddhism will carry into adulthood. Here are my picks for the five Western Buddhist teachers to watch. These teachers may not be widely known yet, but I suspect that will change. Each of them is doing something unique and compelling that will shape the way we study and practice Buddhism in years to come. Observing these five will give you a sense of what Western Buddhism's emerging identity may look like.

Ethan Nichtern
Usually when someone is called a "charismatic" teacher, as I saw Ethan Nichtern called in print recently, it's a euphemism that secretly means he's good-looking. Ethan is that too, but he's also charismatic in the old sense of the word -- which used to refer to a certain breed of Protestant preachers who had a power to captivate audiences with impassioned sermons. Founder of the Interdependence Project and author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence, Ethan is a second-generation American Buddhist (his father is the Shambhala Buddhist teacher and Huffington Post columnist, David Nichtern).

With the ID Project, Ethan is building a new kind of Dharma community: one modeled primarily around the interests and perspectives of young people. The group includes students of all ages, but most of all it embraces the 20-something and 30-something demographics, who often feel disempowered and under-recognized in more long-established Buddhist institutions. Under Ethan's guidance, members of the ID Project are shaking things up and manifesting a new vision of socially and politically engaged Buddhism. At the recent demonstrations for and against the Islamic center near Ground Zero, ID Project members sat in silent meditation, "bearing witness" and conveying a startling message of peace while angry mobs on opposing sides shouted insults at each other. Last year, the group staged Sit Down Rise Up, a 24-hour meditation marathon in the windows of Manhattan's trendy ABC Carpet store. Instead of mannequins or displays of merchandise, the store's windows featured, for one full day, live human beings meditating.

The other compelling thing about the ID Project is its non-sectarian approach. The group's lineage mentors include Zen Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara, Shambhala Acharya Eric Spiegel, and Insight teacher Sharon Salzberg -- representing Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Ethan, who was recently named a Shastri (senior teacher) within the Shambhala Buddhist lineage, has skillfully brought together these diverse streams of Buddhist study and practice into a single, harmonious sangha that represents a new model for Dharma communities in the West.

On November 14th, Ethan will join Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara, Mitra Mark Power and Gina Sharpe at NYC's Great Hall at Cooper Union for a "a multimedia day of discovery around key questions of spiritual life, religion and culture — what Western Buddhism is and what it can be." Ethan's voice in this conversation will be one to listen to.

The Interdependence Project
Rebel Buddha NYC event on Nov 14
Ethan Nichtern on Twitter

Hokai Sobol
I first encountered Hokai Sobol when listening to a Buddhist Geeks podcast called Vajrayana in Plain English. At first I was struck by his deep voice and his Eastern European accent, but as I listened I was struck more and more deeply by what he had to say. Since then, I've listened to that podcast about 10 more times, and I continue to be inspired by it.

Hokai is a scholar and teacher in the Shingon tradition, Japan's little-known tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. Most of the Japanese Buddhism we see in the West is Zen; some people don't realize that Japan also has a Vajrayana lineage. So far, the Shingon tradition has been largely invisible in Western circles, but Hokai just might change that. Hokai is also Croatian. The seeming oddity of a Croatian teaching in English about a Japanese form of Vajrayana Buddhism says something promising about the emerging global and pluralistic nature of Buddhism in the 21st century.

Hokai's depth of knowledge about a variety of Buddhist traditions and practices, and his respect for those traditions, is matched by his commitment to innovation and to finding authentic (sometimes dramatically new) ways to express the meaning of the Dharma in a Western cultural context. His recent, four-part series of interviews at Buddhist Geeks (Episodes 180-183) addresses "the invisible, and rarely discussed, forces that shape Western Buddhism. In particular what we call "culture" shapes our institutions and communities in ways that we rarely see with clarity." Hokai is another teacher who contributes an important voice to the current discussion of Buddhism in the West.

Hokai Sobol's Website
BG Episode 180: The Invisible Forces that Shape Western Buddhism
BG Episode 112: Vajrayana in Plain English
Hokai Sobol on Twitter

Khenpo Karl Brunnhoelzl
Dr. Karl Brunnhoelzl is infamous for two things: having a name that most Americans can't pronounce or spell properly, and writing intimidatingly long and in-depth commentaries on Buddhist philosophy. He is also, in my experience, one of the most lucid, direct and humorous teachers you'll find anywhere in the Tibetan tradition.

Karl is a Buddhist scholar of the first magnitude, and translator of some of the most profound treatises in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. His book Center of the Sunlit Sky laid out the Kagyu view of Madhyamaka philosophy, while other books dive deep into the topic of Buddha Nature. Karl's authoritative scholarship was recently recognized when he received the title of "Khenpo," a Tibetan designation for a master scholar that is roughly equivalent to a doctorate degree in Buddhist philosophy. As one of very few Westerners who hold the title of Khenpo, Karl represents an emerging class of Western Buddhist teachers whose depth of understanding of the Dharma is being recognized by Tibetan masters. Karl is also a Mitra (senior teacher) in Nalandabodhi, the lineage of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, and one of the main teachers at Nitartha Institute.

Despite all that, Karl is also incredibly humble and down-to-earth, and totally funny. At the most recent Nalandabodhi Sangha Retreat where he gave a series of teachings on Buddha Nature, Karl showed up one night and delivered his entire talk wearing a Spider-Man costume (it was an inside joke that would require too much explanation). Like Hokai Sobol, Karl's depth of scholarship gives him the authority to legitimately question and play with tradition, parsing out the genuine Dharma from its cultural container -- and he does it without taking himself too seriously or losing his sense of humor.

Karl's books at Snow Lion Publications
Heretic Buddhists: Karl's article on Rebel Buddha

Kenneth Folk
Kenneth Folk is part of what some people have called the "hardcore Dharma" movement, but which Kenneth and others are now calling the "pragmatic Dharma" movement. The movement, and its most visible teachers such as Kenneth Folk and Daniel Ingram, are controversial and outspoken; I wrote about the movement here recently. What makes the movement controversial is the fact that Folk, Ingram and others are breaking with tradition and speaking openly about their levels of realization. Some, such as Ingram, are even publicly calling themselves "arahants," or "enlightened." Whatever you think of that, it is difficult to deny (unless you are totally cynical) that many students who are studying with Folk and others in this movement are making progress in their practice that they were never able to attain with other teachers.

Folk comes largely from a background of practice in the Vipassana tradition. The stages of practice and fruition he describes are those of the Theravada path, and they differ in some important ways from the stages and paths of the Mahayana and Vajrayana vehicles that I'm more familiar with. Folk, however, excels at finding ways to show that the realization attained in all three traditions is really not as different as it might appear. His own vision of enlightenment and the nature of mind has been influenced by threads from the Tibetan Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions, making him another Western teacher who is breaking down traditional sectarian walls between Buddhist schools. He also has a knack for using simple metaphors and jargon-free language to explain the mechanics of awakening. He most often describes the stages of practice using the image of a 3-speed transmission, showing students how they can shift through progressively higher or more refined gears of consciousness. Kenneth Folk's frank and direct voice, which comes not from theory but from experience, will be increasingly important in American Buddhism in the coming years.

Kenneth Folk's Website
Coming Out of the Closet About Enlightenment: A look at the hardcore Dharma movement
Kenneth Folk on Twitter

Clark Strand
I first came across Clark Strand when Tricycle magazine published a cover story on "Green Meditation." Strand's article talked about his years-long struggle with insomniac episodes of awakening in the middle of the night, and his eventual epiphany when he began to realize that these episodes might actually be not the dysfunction that he had always believed them to be, but part of a human being's natural rhythm. Strand's research into this phenomenon suggested that this rhythm of "divided sleep" was recognized and utilized by many spiritual traditions for thousands of years -- until the industrial age and the invention of light bulbs. At that point, our natural rhythms were disturbed and we lost touch with the fertility of darkness and twilight states of consciousness; we developed the expectation that we are supposed to sleep through the night without awakening. As someone who has struggled against divided sleep and insomnia, I found Strand's hypothesis compelling.

Strand is also one of the few Buddhist teachers who is openly exploring the territory where Buddhism overlaps with the Abrahamic religions -- Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In my article "Christian Buddhism?" published on Buddhist Geeks last month, I profiled Strand's work in this area, which included founding the Woodstock Buddhist Bible Study and the Green Meditation Society where he teaches frequently on "Biblical koans." Given the depth at which our Judaeo-Christian roots are planted in our collective and individual psyches in the West, it makes tremendous sense to search for ways to tap into the wisdom of those roots in conjunction with our study and practice of the Buddhadharma -- rather than trying to dig up and replace our familiar roots with something culturally exotic and foreign. As Buddhism unfolds in the West, this kind of interfaith inquiry will be increasingly important and essential to the tradition's survival here. Strand stands out among Buddhist teachers as someone who has not only the inspiration to pursue such an inquiry, but the breadth of knowledge of multiple traditions to pursue it effectively. Strand's book, How to Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not, his columns on religion and spirituality for the Washington Post, and his ongoing "Green Koans" column for Tricyle testify to this breadth.

Strand is also in the process of articulating his vision of a "Green" spirituality that returns to a pre-industrial sense of humanity's benevolent interdependence with the planet, the seasons, the elements, and the cosmos. A Dharma that does not include such a vision for our future, and practical steps towards implementing that vision, is no Dharma at all. At this pivotal time when we see so much man-made environmental catastrophe unfolding before our eyes (with warnings of greater catastrophes in the making), there could be no more important message for us to hear than this one.

Clark Strand's Facebook Page
Christian Buddhism? An article that profiles Clark Strand
Clark Strand on Twitter

Friday, September 17, 2010

Rebel Buddha: Don't Meditate

My post "Don't Meditate" now appears on RebelBuddha.com, a cool new site developed in conjunction with the launch of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche's forthcoming book, "Rebel Buddha." The site is turning into a lively forum for exploring Buddhism and spirituality in the West today. Check it out and add your point of view to the conversation.

Another post of mine, "Cultural Theism," also appears in the blog section of the site. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nattering Nabobs of Negativity

Having spent the last year-and-a-half living in a monastery in a very remote corner of Canada, I often feel somewhat isolated and removed from events unfolding in the world outside. I'm online a lot more than you might think a monk would be, but most days, I don't look at the news. And each time I do, I'm reminded of why. What passes for "the news" in most media today is an endless wave of fear- and worry-inducing reports of tragedy, scandal, warfare, catastrophe, threats, discord, disease, terror, death, ruin, and danger.

I can't escape the feeling of guilt that comes from being largely disengaged from the news -- as if I'm willfully turning a blind eye to something that needs to be looked at, scoffing my responsibility. And yet I also cannot deny the reality that largely avoiding the news has made me a happier person.

When I do look at the news these days, I get the feeling that I picked a very interesting time to go spend two years living in a monastery in Canada. Things back home in America aren't looking so good. From oil rigs exploding and poisoning the seas to Sarah Palin's Tea Party exploding and poisoning the political seas, it looks more and more like the world I once knew is going to hell in a handbasket.

Perhaps this only proves the old saying that "Ignorance is bliss," but I think it proves something more than that. I'm not completely ignorant about what's going on in the world outside -- I pick up enough of it by osmosis, without seeking it out. I followed the Gulf oil spill story like a hawk. Within two hours, I (and everyone else in the monastery, and probably on the planet) was aware that Michael Jackson had died. And yet by turning down the volume on my media exposure, I have largely silenced the chorus of what Spiro Agnew called the "nattering nabobs of negativity." This has given me more breathing space in my own mind, and more ability to see how easily hooked and hypnotized I am by the trance of negativity and pessimism that dominates mainstream media today.

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Is the world really going to hell in a handbasket, or is that just the way the media makes it look? Surely everyone realizes that newspapers and TV news programs and other media boost their ratings (and their advertising revenues) by painting a dire picture and dramatizing the news to lure more eyeballs. People want to know what they should be afraid of. This fits with what neuropsychologists refer to as the human brain's built-in "negativity bias." We have evolved to pay much more attention to danger and discomfort than to more positive circumstances (because it's more important, for survival purposes, to dodge a stick than it is to find a carrot). That's part of the reason why we dominate life on earth. As a species, we excel at manipulating our environment, and ourselves, to eliminate unpleasant circumstances and maximize our own comfort. In fact, we are so hell-bent on ensuring our own comfort that we are in the process of not only dominating but also destroying much of life on earth. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

On a more personal level, too, the past year-and-a-half has brought what seems like an unusual degree of tragedy and suffering. Just in my own circle of friends and acquaintances back in the outside world, it is heart-breaking to stand back and look at what has been going on. Three friends have died of drug overdoses, one of them probably a suicide and another under extremely ignominious circumstances that made his death into tabloid news. Another very sweet friend died with his throat slashed by his boyfriend. One friend went in for surgery and received irreversible brain damage from the anaesthesia. Another recently began to suffer psychotic episodes and has been in and out of institutions. In the most high-profile episode, one of my acquaintances went berserk in his role as a flight attendant and cursed out the passengers over the intercom before grabbing two beers and fleeing the plane via the inflatable emergency slide. (In true Andy Warhol fashion, he immediately became world-famous and acquired 200,000 fans on Facebook, and is now in discussions for his own talk show and perhaps a Hollywood movie.)

It's hard to take these things in without getting the sense that there is a wildfire raging through people's lives, and the fire has come a little bit closer to me now. Or has this fire always been raging close by, and I just never noticed? Did I have to come up here to this isolated, little monastery at the end of the continent to wake up and realize how much suffering is going on in people's lives back home?

These personal tragedies pull at my heart more acutely than what I see in the news, because they hit closer to home. But my circumstances require me to relate to both of them in pretty much the same way. There's not much I can do to make the Tea Party disappear, or to dispel the horror of BP's Gulf oil spill. And there's not much I can do for my friends, from up here, other than send them an email to say I'm thinking of them -- and to keep practicing so that, hopefully, when I return to their world I'll be better equipped to help.

It is an interesting practice, and a fine line to walk: taking in the suffering of others, and the relentless negativity and fear-mongering of the media, and extending a heart of compassion -- without getting totally swept away. Maybe this curious situation of being physically removed from it all -- relating to the dramas and the tragedies in a somewhat calmer way, from a distance -- is exactly how I need to train right now.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What Is Enlightenment?

Cross-posted yesterday at The Interdependence Project.

Recently I was having lunch with an 86-year-old Buddhist nun, and we were talking about enlightenment. (If that sounds like the opening of a stand-up comedy routine, it's not. I live in a monastery, and this is an everyday occurrence.)

"You see, the problem," she said, "is that we don't really know what enlightenment is."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," I replied. "It seems like everyone is always flapping their gums about enlightenment this, enlightenment that, but what is it? Nobody seems to know."

"Or everybody thinks they know but they all have a different idea."

"And often we make it into this big, mystical production, like a number from a Bollywood musical. You know, like when you attain enlightenment the earth trembles and the animals all bow down and the choirs of heavenly beings sing your praises and do line dancing. All that hyperbolic stuff in the books."

We both laughed. "Maybe enlightenment," she said, "is actually something very simple."

"And we're looking for something complicated. I can't remember the name of that Tibetan teacher who said, about the nature of mind, 'Because it is so close, no one sees it. Because it is so simple, no one trusts it.' Maybe enlightenment is like that."

"Yes. If we're looking for an enlightenment that's far away, some big thing in the future, we're never going to find it," she said, placing her palm against the tip of her nose, "because it's always right here."

"Ponlop Rinpoche has talked about that too. I remember once at a talk he gave, he was remarking about how we always like to be perceived as sophisticated people. If someone calls us sophisticated, we take that as a wonderful compliment -- but if they call us simple, well, that's a huge insult. I guess that's sort of how we build up our expectations about enlightenment, too."

We both nodded, and went back to chewing our lettuce.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Continuing Saga of Christian Buddhism

Reader comments on my recent articles "Christian Buddhism?" and "The Koan of Christian Buddhism" continue to be posted. Check them out for a very interesting, often deep, and sometimes heated discussion.

Here's a fresh assault from a disturbed reader identified as Asa, posted early this morning in response to the first article:

A deeply disturbing post.. the blind leading the blind..
Someone who has REALIZATION in Buddhism and Christianity, actual deep, permanent spiritual development, would have the ability to synthesize the two.. Though I cant conceive why he/she would.
But for just intellectualization, smug philosophizing.. it is truly dangerous.
Not knowing what you dont know, but plunging ahead anyway, is truly the Western scientific reductionist materialistic approach.. even to religion. To say "it doesnt matter an iota" who one prays to, is the cry of a lost soul.. staying in his comfort zone with clever sophistry. Seek a teacher, one far superior to you in understanding, and follow his/her lead. Then learn what you dont know. Then there might be a chance...

My response:

Well, Asa....I guess now I will have to tell Clark Strand that his years of training as a Buddhist monk and senior student of Eido Roshi, and the years he spent as senior editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, were all in vain -- he needs to go back to school, and stop all this nonsense about combining different traditions. Come to think of it, I should also write to Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh and explain to him how misguided he was for writing the book Living Buddha, Living Christ and for drawing parallels between the teachings of Buddha and Jesus. Same goes for the Dalai Lama, and Rev. John Lundin, and everyone engaging in Buddhist-Christian interfaith dialogue -- misguided! And Bernadette Roberts? I'll tell her that from now on, despite her realization, she can no longer write about the Christian mystical experience of "no-self," because Buddhists have an exclusive copyright on that idea. And Father Thomas Keating? A heretic! Burn all his books. ;-)

What I and others have described in these articles and the comments on them is not smug philosophizing or intellectualization, but a deeply informed and very personal spiritual inquiry that is unfolding right now in many individuals' lives and practice. You can agree with it or not, but the fact is that there is a growing number of people out there exploring some version of a combined Christian/Buddhist practice and faith. People are finding many ways of approaching that -- but, clearly, none of those ways involve staying in one's comfort zone. If people really wanted to stay comfortable and follow the status quo, I doubt that they would bother with such a deep and iconoclastic form of inquiry.

Asa, as I like to imagine my teacher might say (I've heard him say it in response to many other things): if you're feeling disturbed, "that's good!" It means your ego is being challenged. Look directly at that. Investigate it. Be curious about it. Find out what is beneath the surface. The greater the disturbance, the more there is for you to look at. Whether you will see what is there or not, and how you will respond to it if you do, is up to you. But -- although I don't claim to have any particular "realization" -- I can assure you that projecting your judgments onto other people's spiritual experience isn't going to lead you towards the realization you seek. That leads in the completely opposite direction.

If you missed "Christian Buddhism?" or "The Koan of Christian Buddhism," find out why they polarized readers so strongly.

Meanwhile, a 70-year-old woman with whom I've been in email correspondence about these articles said this:

What I realized in reading your articles is that I have struggled through my life with a sense that mystical awareness although possible is elusive: it keeps falling apart in my hands.... The Cherokee rose story in the first article is very helpful in giving me an insight into how to proceed. It turns out that the 'program' that I first experimented with to do my meditations, is the most useful after all: first, meditation to approach calmness, second, reading in Buddhist texts and reflecting on them, and third, my Christian prayers and readings. During the day, I try to identify and work through my 'kleshas' and also to keep my focus. This gives priority to Buddhist teachings, and that is just how I need to work it at the moment.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Love or Wisdom?

(Cross-posted today at The Interdependence Project.)

If you had to choose, would you rather be loved or respected?

So goes an old parlor game question. It's something of a trick question, for hidden within it there is another question: Are you the type of person who thinks the best feature of human beings is the head, or the heart? In other words, do you think intellect is the most important thing, or emotion? Wisdom or love?

In "The World's Religions," Huston Smith -- in his chapter on Buddhism -- wrote that this question, along with a couple of others, has divided people into two camps since time immemorial. He even implied that division over this question is one of the reasons why Buddhism, early in its development, split roughly into two major schools. Theravada, according to Smith, largely emphasized wisdom and insight into selflessness (anatta) as the means to personal liberation, while Mahayana emphasized love and compassion as the means to collective liberation.

Those are gross over-simplifications of both schools' views and practices. Theravada practitioners spend lots of time developing love and compassion, and Mahayana practitioners spend lots of time developing wisdom and insight into emptiness and the nature of mind. But Huston Smith argued that in terms of how the two schools differentiated themselves and what they considered to be the most important aspect to emphasize on the spiritual path, that is roughly how the chips fell.

The validity of Huston Smith's theory about Buddhism's split into two major schools is doubtful, but contemplating it does raise another interesting point. Within both schools today you can see plenty of examples of both types of people: those who consider love to be the most important thing, and those who consider wisdom to be the most important thing. Not surprisingly, perhaps, this distinction can often be seen to fall along gender lines. A quick glance around the Buddhist scene these days reveals a lot of female teachers who heavily emphasize loving-kindness and compassion and other emotional qualities of the awakened heart, and a lot of male teachers who heavily emphasize non-dual wisdom and realization of emptiness and other cognitive qualities of the awakened mind.

That is, of course, another stereotype -- for which you can find plenty of exceptions. Some female Buddhist teachers talk quite a lot about wisdom and emptiness, and some male Buddhist teachers talk quite a lot about love and compassion. Maybe a few Buddhist teachers, of either gender, even talk about both in equal measure. But stereotypes exist for a reason, and the exceptions don't necessarily disprove the rule of thumb.

Here is an experiment that would be interesting to conduct, to test whether the gender-difference theory holds water: Pick a certain number of high-profile Western Buddhist teachers from each gender -- let's say, for example, Pema Chodron, Tara Brach, and Sharon Salzberg, versus Stephen Batchelor, Robert Thurman, and B. Alan Wallace. Listen to a range of their Dharma talks and evaluate their books, scoring each one on a 10-point left/right "flavor" scale (all the way to the left being a predominantly "heart" flavor and all the way to the right being a predominantly "intellect" flavor). The scoring would naturally be subjective, but if you got enough people to participate, and factored out gender bias in the scorers by having a balance of men and women participating, I would expect that the data would reliably demonstrate a flavor difference along gender lines. (Maybe this would only prove that we perceive the teachings according to gender expectations, but that would also be an interesting finding, and worth contemplating.)

I wonder to what degree this is a Western phenomenon. In English and most Western languages, we make a very clear linguistic separation between "heart" and "mind" (and by "mind" we usually mean "head"). The Sanskrit word "citta," on the other hand, covers both aspects: "bodhicitta" is translated into English as either "awakened heart" or "awakened mind." (And which of those translations you adopt already says something about your inclinations.) That a single word could represent both of those human dimensions may seem odd to us, for we are accustomed to thinking of heart and mind as being quite distinct.

But the cultural differences don't stop there. Tibetans, when indicating the "mind," touch the chest, but touch the forehead to indicate "body." English speakers, by contrast, touch the chest to indicate "heart" (or sometimes "body") but touch the forehead (or the cranial cavity in general) to indicate "mind." Thus, the fact that English speakers see "mind" as being so distinct from "heart" arises partly from the fact that we think of "heart" (the emotional dimension of human experience) as being down in the chest but "mind" (the intellectual, cognitive dimension of human experience) as being up in the brain.

Maybe that helps to explain why we see a lot of Buddhist teachers in the West specializing primarily in one dimension or the other. Depending on which side of human nature they identify with most strongly -- the heart or the head -- they naturally emphasize those aspects of the Buddhist teachings that resonate with that dimension. That this split so often falls along gender lines, with a lot of seemingly "emotional" female teachers and a lot of seemingly "intellectual" male teachers, seems like a stereotype, but it often operates according to expectation.

There is evidence to suggest that these tendencies are hard-wired into our biology. A significant body of research has examined the differences between "male brains" and "female brains." Most men tend to have a very male brain and most women tend to have a very female brain, but everyone falls somewhere along a spectrum of brain gender. A few men tend to have a more female brain, and a few women tend to have a more male brain -- but those are the exceptions to the norm. "Aside from external anatomical and primary and secondary sexual differences," says Renato Sabbatini, "scientists know also that there are many other subtle differences in the way the brains from men and women process language, information, emotion, cognition, etc."

The male brain, it turns out, is very good at doing certain things that the female brain isn't -- and vice versa. People with very male brains excel at tasks involving a high degree of spatial awareness, motor activity, hand-eye coordination, and so on, while people with very female brains perform, by comparison, rather poorly on those tasks: thus, for instance, you almost never see any female crane operators or airline pilots. People with very female brains, on the other hand, excel at tasks involving a high degree of empathy, communication and language skills. The female brain processes information using more parts of the brain, while male brain activity tends to be more concentrated.

Thus, neuroscience suggests there are biological reasons why men tend to be more analytical and single-minded and women tend to be more emotional and communicative and oriented towards multi-tasking. It should therefore come as no surprise if a lot of male Buddhists are attracted to teachings that have a sharp, analytical flavor, and a lot of female Buddhists are drawn to teachings that have an open, emotional flavor. (I recently heard one prominent, male Buddhist teacher say that all those teachings about love and compassion are nice, and they're good to practice so that we can all get along better, but they have nothing to do with enlightenment. This struck me as a very male way of looking at it.)

As Buddhists, though, we aren't usually satisfied with just accepting what is dictated by biology and social convention. The Buddhist vision of enlightenment is often depicted as the union of masculine and feminine principles, the inseparability of wisdom and compassion or love. (Side note: oddly enough, in Tantric Buddhist iconography, the compassion aspect is represented by the male figure, while the wisdom aspect is represented by the female figure -- the reverse of what we might expect to see.) At the end of the day, we are left with the sense that this habitual separation between "head" and "heart," "intellect" and "emotion," "wisdom" and "love," is a false dichotomy. It seems to operate on the relative level, but ultimately it has no true existence. Wisdom is the space of love and compassion, and compassion and love are the expression of wisdom.

Enlightenment, in other words, involves recognizing and fully embracing within ourselves both aspects of our being: heart and mind, compassion and wisdom, masculine and feminine. We may have been born within a body -- a prepackaged biological and cultural and karmic situation -- that leads us to emphasize one over the other, but we intuitively know that our truest nature lies beyond the limitations of body and biology and culture and karma. At the level of our deepest nature, we sense that we are not only capable of fully manifesting both dimensions of experience -- we must manifest both, because we are both.

Too much emphasis on cognitive wisdom, realizing emptiness, and non-duality, without love and compassion, makes the mind too hard; our approach to enlightenment becomes overly intellectual, dry and cracked. And too much emphasis on love and compassion, without the wisdom of emptiness, makes the mind too soft; our approach to enlightenment becomes overly emotional, moldy and sticky. Just as in the classic children's story about Goldilocks, we need a path to enlightenment that is not too hard, not too soft, but just right.

But here we've run up against that old "middle way" thing once again. You just can't get away from it in Buddhism. Any time you stray to one extreme or the other, you will be called back to the middle.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Buddha at the Intersection

This article appeared yesterday at The Interdependence Project. The editors of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review wrote a commentary on the article (as they also did on my other recent article, "Christian Buddhism?").

When people talk about the establishment of Buddhism in Western countries, they often draw parallels with previous examples of Buddhism coming to a new land and taking root in the culture. While those examples are useful for illustration, I think it's time for us to admit that there are no precedents for what's happening this time around. Many conditions are converging to make this a totally unique moment in the history of Buddhism.

In the past, it was more of a one-to-one cultural exchange: Indian Vajrayana Buddhism came to Tibet, Chinese Mahayana Buddhism came to Japan and Korea, and so on. In the West (a convenient label that actually covers a conglomeration of dozens of different languages and distinct national and regional cultures), we are not receiving just a single tradition of Buddhism into one country, in a one-to-one cultural exchange. We are receiving *all* of the traditions of Buddhism in the West, all at once, and they are all mixing with all of the various cultures and languages in Europe and the Americas and Australasia. Nothing even remotely similar to that has ever happened to Buddhism before.

In the past, people lived in agrarian societies, and information traveled at the speed of horses. In the West, most people live in densely populated cities, and information travels through the Internet, television, radio and other media at the speed of light. Buddhist teachers are using Facebook and Twitter and webcasting to reach thousands of students around the world, all at once. People often say it takes hundreds of years for Buddhism to be established in a new culture, but that old rule of thumb was based on the spread of information in feudal cultures that don't exist anymore. Given the speed at which everything happens today, it's not unreasonable to think that whatever is going to happen with Buddhism in the West will happen much more rapidly than it ever has before.

As it enters the West, Buddhism is also meeting, for the first time, a formidable colleague in the form of Western science and secular values. At the moment, these colleagues are on friendly terms and mutually curious about one another, and Buddhism is finding common ground with neuroscience, psychology and other Western scientific endeavors. But just as Buddhism is bringing fresh insights to science, it is also being challenged to rethink many of its ancient ideas.

Urbanization and global travel and the Internet make it possible for people to actually study and practice with teachers from more than one Buddhist tradition -- creating a mash-up of influences from, say, Tibetan and Theravadan lineages. This is something that happened only to a very limited degree in the past. The fertile cross-pollination between traditions that is occurring among Western Buddhist practitioners today is unprecedented. People reading this blog run the gamut from Tibetan Buddhists to Shingon Buddhists to Zen Buddhists to Theravadan Buddhists to Jewish Buddhists to Christian Buddhists to people who don't call themselves Buddhists at all. Through our near-instantaneous conversations, we are all interacting and influencing one another's spiritual lives and sharing radically different perspectives on the meaning of the Buddhist teachings.

This kind of mutual influence across sects (or what I like to call "inter-section") can be tremendously fruitful, but also challenging. It can bring fresh insights and ways of looking at the teachings of one's own tradition, but it can also create cognitive dissonance. The Theravada and Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, to take one example, have very different ways of conceptualizing what enlightenment is, and this gives rise to different emphases in teaching and approaches to practice. Personally speaking, although I'm practicing in the Mahayana/Vajrayana tradition, I have often benefited from hearing the Theravadan perspective on things. It helps me take a larger view and better discern what is most essential about the practices and teachings I'm working with.

The many schools of Buddhism might be compared to various drugs that are used to treat the same spectral illness. Prozac works well for some folks, while Effexor works better for others -- and a select few with intense problems will need something like Haldol. At heart, we're all just suffering and trying to get well. What is different today, in the West, is that we suddenly have the entire range of drug options from the Buddhist pharmacy placed in front of us, and we -- the patients -- are free to take some of this drug and supplement it with a little of that one. Whether we end up curing our suffering through this experimentation, or only further heightening our neurosis, depends on how we go about it.

Buddhism has always melded with aspects of the dominant religious tradition in a new culture, but it is doubtful that such a pluralistic and cacaphonous hodge-podge of spiritual and temporal perspectives has ever before come together to shape the establishment of Buddhism in one place. As Buddhism stands today at the intersection where all these various influences converge, no one can predict what the fruit of such cross-pollination will look like in a hundred years, or even twenty, or even ten.

One thing seems certain: Western Buddhism in the 21st century is not going to look like the Asian Buddhism of centuries past. And that's okay. I just hope it doesn't end up looking like this: