from Rebel Buddha, Chapter 15, “Building Community – Heart Advice of the Buddha (pp. 175 -177)
When Buddhism first arrived in the West and was welcomed by the pioneers of Western Buddhism, they had to break through certain barriers. They were not only meeting a foreign culture, they were also meeting alien concepts like “selflessness” and “emptiness” that made little sense to the Western mind. But they said “Yes” to meditation and working with ego. Now, roughly 50 years later, it is time for a change. We are stuck at a certain level of our spiritual development. What at first woke us up, now barely stirs us from our thoughts. What supported our inquiry into who we are, now blocks our realization of that. Now, we have to ask ourselves how to break through again. This time, we are challenged to break through our attachment to all that brought us to this point—the spiritual cultures that we so respect and emulate that they have become another trap for us.
You may say, “That’s not my problem. Someone else may be doing that, but I am not that stupid!” If that is your view, then I would say, “Look again.” We are still collectively dragging old forms and ideas into the present. Without even noticing it, we are walking down the street wearing the clothes and paraphernalia of another time and place—metaphorically at least. The reason we do this is because we still think spirituality is “over there.” We don’t think spirituality is right here with us, in our everyday life. That’s why we dream of going to Asia or finding someone called a “guru.”
When the Buddha awakened, he was sitting on a cushion of grass under a tree in a forest. There was nothing particularly sacred around him; he was not doing anything but looking at his mind. All that he had was his experience in life and his understanding of how to work with his mind. His only other possessions were his determination and his confidence that he could deal with whatever occurred in his mind and transform it into a path of awakening.
I have often told students to go outside and meditate—sit on a park bench, breathe in the fresh air, look up in the sky! It is so beautiful. Many find this difficult, though, because they think they are not in a “practice atmosphere.” They are without their shrine, their Buddha, their cushions and their meditation bibles. When it comes to practicing at home, it does not occur to them that they can sit on the chair passed down from their grandmother or a pillow they bought from IKEA. They think, “I need a Japanese zafu or a Tibetan gomden, the standardized ones with the correct dimensions from an official meditation supplier. Without these, I cannot meditate!” In that case, I guess that the time we spend in a grocery store or driving a car or doing anything else is inferior to the time we spend doing our “real” practice in the shrine room. But please explain to me: what is the difference between your driving mind, your shopping mind, and your sitting mind? Do you have different kinds of thoughts and emotions?
When we adopt too many aspects of the culture we are learning from, we can begin to feel pressured by it. We stop relating to situations with any immediacy. Instead, we relate to what is happening in front of us through a filter of rules and regulations. Especially in the shrine room, there is the sense of an unspoken rule. If we do not follow that rule, we feel extremely uncomfortable. The teacher comes in and we bow. That is a rule. We would be shocked if we were asked to do something different. We would feel like we were doing something wrong. Nevertheless, we don’t see the actual person walking in; we don’t make contact because we are already thinking, “Oh, he’s a great reincarnate being. He was recognized before his birth and trained in such-and-such a way.” That’s our conceptual bullshit.
If we look like a Buddhist and talk like a Buddhist and sit on a cushion like all the other Buddhists, then we think we are automatically followers of the Buddha’s teachings. But all of these concepts are cutting us off from the utter simplicity of the Buddha’s example and message. We do what we do simply to wake up, simply to be free. Any form we use is only a support for accomplishing that purpose. We could be perfect in the performance of a thousand rituals and they could all be empty of meaning and benefit, if we don’t connect with our heart. If we are not developing our awareness in our everyday life, then we are missing the point.
A genuine lineage of American or Western Buddhism within any particular contemporary culture can develop only when we have a direct connection to the teachings—one that is personal, experiential and brings us back to our own lives, our own minds. This will only be possible by breaking through this shell of blockages, which we have built up layer by layer out of these cultural traditions. We are not talking about simply changing one form for another form. That is not change. That would be more like a corporate take-over, like Visa taking over MasterCard, which would only mean that our bills arrive with a different logo. We are also not talking about simply ignoring all aspects of Asian spiritual culture and hoping that there will be something left that can become Western Buddhism. It is not just by ignoring another culture’s forms that you evolve your own tradition.
What frees us from being stuck? What cuts through our psychological blockages? We need the courage of our rebel buddha heart to leap beyond forms, to go deeper into our practice and find a way to trust ourselves. We must become our own guide. Ultimately, no one else can lead us through the landscape of our own life. When we stand up in this way, we are not isolated from all that’s come before us. The past becomes a true support for the first time, instead of a drag. We are buoyed up by its wisdom and energy, yet the open space ahead of us is ours to navigate. It is an adventure. What we do has purpose and meaning: our discoveries bring us a true sense of freedom and eventually become a support for other travelers. This is the way we untie the knots that bind us and evolve a genuinely contemporary and relevant tradition, along with the forms of its expression.