Thursday, February 16, 2012

"No Thanks" to DIY: Sangha is the Context

The “free special offer” you get when you subscribe to a publication is usually something next to useless. I recently signed up for an online subscription to Tricycle magazine (I can always thumb through the print edition when I visit Barnes & Noble) and I was glad they had a “no thanks” button to click when their free special offer popped up. Whether digital or print, the last thing I needed was a guide to meditation, no matter how many experts were contributors.

But I understand that for a lot of people searching for peace in their lives, any instruction on how to meditate is valuable. And there are probably hundreds, if not thousands of people on the internet who are hungry for any information about Buddhism they find because they live too far away from any Buddhist group. Yet there are all those “night-stand Buddhists” (those who read and write books on Buddhism) who could easily walk or take public transportation to a Buddhist center but don’t want to interact in person with any “organized religion” followers, as if we have some kind of filthiness that would contaminate their practice of “pure” Buddhism.


On the Tricycle magazine website I was impressed by a recent essay “Living Buddhism” by David Brazier – so much so that I posted the link on my Facebook page and sent the article to our temple’s Dharma School teachers. Here’s an excerpt:

Lack of a coherent and meaningful community life and way of relating to others is, arguably, the cause of much of the suffering that people seek to resolve in Buddhism. If what they get is a do-it-yourself, on-yourself, by-yourself, for-yourself, at-a-price technique, this is not going to do the trick, even if it does provide some secondary gains or palliative satisfactions. In Asia, Buddhism has flourished by being a focus for community life. Communities are held together by shared values, attitudes, and forms that affirm their deepest sense of reality. Most traditional Buddhists have little if any concern for their own attainment of enlightenment, except in the very long term. Their spiritual and religious concerns are more immediate: the well-being of their community, the relationships they have with fellow sangha members, and, above all, their relationship to the Buddha, the Tathagata. Buddhism flourishes through an other-centered, rather than a self-centered, orientation toward life. Otherness here refers both to ordinary others—one’s neighbors, for example—and spiritual others—the Tathagata and other spiritual presences. Practice in an other-centered context means expressing one’s devotion, whether practically or ceremonially, toward the other.

The article made me realize I should appreciate anyone who wants to learn about Buddhism through human contact. With all the books, DVDs, YouTube videos etc. on “how to meditate,” I should feel reverence for the person who reaches out to our temple to explore Buddhism in the presence of fellow human beings (although for every ten e-mails and phone calls we get from people wanting to visit, only one will actually show up at the door).

One story that keeps inspiring me is what I heard Rev. Bob Oshita (of the Sacramento Buddhist Temple) tell at an Eastern Buddhist League convention a couple years ago. He talked about his college student days when he started to seriously explore Buddhism and said he went to the San Francisco Zen Center to learn sitting meditation (zazen). He felt uncomfortable and unsure of what to do so he knew he was fidgety and breathing unsteadily, yet when the session was over, the teacher, Dainin Katagiri (1928-1990), said to the group, “Your zazen is much better than mine.” Through Rev. Bob’s story I heard the nembutsu of Katagiri-sensei – he was casting off his high stature as a well-known Zen roshi and humbly bowing down to the pure seeking spirit he received from the newcomers. The story continues to remind me that however jaded I tend to get, I am fortunate to encounter all these new and on-going seekers and be revitalized by their ever-fresh, earnest spirit of going forth to experience truth.

In the above quote, Brazier is talking about devotional Buddhist groups in general, but in our temple’s teaching lineage (Kiyozawa, Akegarasu, Maida), there are no separate “spiritual others” apart from the “ordinary others.” From the viewpoint of Katagiri-sensei, the Bodhisattva Dharmakara was manifesting himself as the fulfilled Amida Buddha in the bodies of the struggling zazen students, so sincere in taking their first steps onto the path of awakening. The tatha-agata is thus-coming through our temple doors with each man, woman and child who enters, no matter how poorly groomed or mentally “out of it” they may seem to be. Whether it is the meditation sessions I preside over when the regular leader is out of town or the weekly and monthly study sessions, there is no Buddha and Dharma for me unless there are those ordinary-looking “spiritual others” present-- the Sangha.

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