Sunday, March 29, 2015

Spiritual Cover Artists

In Buddhism, challenging the Dharma is not heresy; it's an obligation. The Buddhadharma is not some static monolith to be worshiped and adhered to at all costs. It is performative, something that we engage, test, develop, refine, and at times, revise. We should always be experimenting with new forms of expressing the Dharma.

And yet I am astounded at the sheer volume of stale, recycled Buddhist material circulating online. Most often all that I see are people simply parroting the teachings that they have read, repeating stock responses that their teachers or teachers' teachers once said.

It's not uncommon for Buddhists to spar on the Internet, exchanging the words of long-dead Zen masters, the Bible, or other spiritual figures. It's like an ensemble of spiritual cover bands--sure, it's good music, but none of it is original.

Buddhism expresses itself in many different forms across the globe. It is vibrant, colorful, and verdant. And yet few modern teachers push themselves to communicate the Dharma in a fresh way. I wonder why.

I personally believe that every Buddhist student--and especially teacher--needs to develop his or her own voice, lexicon, and approach to expressing and embodying the Dharma. Quit repeating what someone else said, and articulate the Dharma as you understand it. That's not to say that we should abandon those who have influenced us, but eventually we need to walk on our own. To paraphrase Isaac Newton: Stand on their shoulders and glimpse new vistas of expression. 

Zen Master Seung Sahn taught Don't-Know Mind because that's how he understood the Buddhadharma. 

Suzuki Roshi taught zazen and Beginner's Mind.

Bankei taught the Unborn, Dogen Shikantaza, Mazu "Mind is Buddha," and Linji the Person of No Rank.

But where is the Western Zen idiom? I find it terribly ironic that Zen, famous for its emphasis on spontaneity, has not yet found its own distinctly Western voice. Admittedly, there are several American teachers who have developed their own approach to Zen. John Daido Loori's Eight Gates and Charlotte Joko Beck's Ordinary Mind School come to mind. But by and large, most Western Zen teachers prefer to play it safe and walk in the shadows of the great ancestors than to step off the path into the dark unknown.

Maybe it's the fact that, since Zen reached America approximately a hundred years ago, Americans are still insecure about pioneering their own form. They'd rather rely upon the innovations of the ancients.

My Zen teacher always encourages me to make the Dharma my own. I may not always express it the way that he would, but it resonates with my own experiences and understanding. That, I think, will be the task for Western Buddhists throughout this century--making the Dharma their own.

This situation reminds me of McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He bets the other mental patients that he can lift a massive water control panel and then bust out of the mental ward by throwing it through the steel-reinforced window. It's an impossible task, but he's willing to give it his damn best. "At least I tried," he says at the end of the scene. 

That's what we all must do--be brave. Be willing to fail.

Stop cutting and pasting from Wikipedia; quit copying Ch'an Masters' dialogues, borrowing someone else's words, whether they be from the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, or the Koran

Explore, experiment, integrate, and digest. Exercise that same creativity that our Buddhist ancestors did. Borrow from these great sources. Use their teachings as seeds, but let the fruit be an expression of your own life and insight.

Trust in yourself. I do.

No comments:

Post a Comment