Water It Down for the West

A repost of a post from January 21, lost in a backup restore to recover a year’s worth of lost comments.

A third and final-for-now post on the relevance of the Dharma – a topic that is consuming me.

In my last post I said that if people don’t seem interested in Buddhism, we need to find ways to teach that interest them.  We need to draw the lines between the foreign “Dharma” and their real 21st century lives.  I said that it seems lazy to just shrug our shoulders and assume that other’s “karmic seeds” have just not yet ripened, and continue droning on about the Dharma as we always have.  I argued that we can take a more active, more creative role – we can make the Dharma interesting.

Shodhin and Mike posted two useful comments challenging that.  And I think they are right.  Is the point just to make the Dharma “interesting”?  People are interested in getting a bunch of money – should we say that the Buddha will bring them a bunch of money?  That meditation cures allergies?  That it increases your productivity and gets you ahead?

What remains of the Dharma if we do that?  And why would we care so much about people’s interest that we would compromise or sell short the Dharma?  Wouldn’t that amount to, as Shodhin put it, counting shoes outside the temple door; or, as Mike implied, feeding our egos by making people feel good?

But on the other hand, isn’t the Buddhadharma nothing but skillful means?  The Buddha in the Lotus Sutra confesses that he offered his disciples a magical city – something to gain, something to get.  He did so to interest them.  He was meeting them where they were, which was more important than “the truth.”  In fact, there is no “truth” above and beyond that meeting. 

The Buddha bent the Dharma so that others could hear it.  All we ever do is bend the Dharma so we can share it with each other.

So when we say, for instance, that we can’t waver on the Zen forms or on the radical non-gaining of shikantaza practice, aren’t we forgetting that those things are themselves skillful means?  Aren’t we confused in thinking that they are the “true Dharma,” instead of just skillful means (for OCD types and grasp-addicts, respectively)?  When we set our own practice and forms and understanding above the realm of “skillful means,” mere “tricks to get people interested in something larger,” we are not preserving the core of the Buddhadharma but are confusing the essential and the inessential.  We are stuck thinking we’re really on the Right Path.

That isn’t to say I think we should waver on the central points of our Dharma lineage, like “non-gain” or “no self to improve” – I don’t.  They are Our Path, and we should be true to that.  But I also really question the idea that we lose something or sell something out by making a sincere and even radical attempt to meet people where they are.

Meeting people where they are – “an appropriate response” – is the essence of the teaching, not an incidental, not a compromise.

The question is how much to move from our comfortable Dharma ground, our own views and principles, to do that meeting.  And I’m suggesting that sometimes we – sometimes I – could move a little farther, meet a little more on someone else’s terms.  Bring up the Dharma in the languages of our day – languages of psychology and ecology and economics and race relations.

I think David McMahan, in his book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, presents the dance, the balance, the tension really well:

This reformulation of Buddhism in the languages of western modernity could have two potential and opposite effects. It could position Buddhism to bring novel conceptual resources to the West and the modern world that might indeed offer new perspectives on some of modernity’s personal, social, political, and environmental ills. Indeed, if it does not speak the language of modernity, it cannot address these ills. The second possibility, however, is that it could accommodate itself so completely to mainstream western values and assumptions that it no longer is an alternative to them and thus accedes the resources it has for critiquing them. 

That is, if we can’t connect it with the world most people really live in, the the Dharma has no channel by which to connect and give gifts to our culture.  It dies in a museum.  But if we allow the Dharma to be just completely subsumed in the larger culture – “what people are interested in,” like Buddhism as self-help, Buddhism as consumer product – then it’s so far watered down that it just tastes like Coke.  Some of us True Zen types tend to fall into the former, and there are certainly countless examples of the latter.

I’m saying we need to really look for this middle, and we shouldn’t assume we’ve found it.  I don’t know what that middle look like, but I do know that we need to keep the dance going.  We bend some, and the culture bends some.  If we stay too upright and fixed in our “true Dharma,” then we’re really a bunch of humorless wallflowers.  And by we I mean me.

That may mean we end up with “No Zen in the West” but at least we’ll have something that’s alive and that’s meeting.


4 thoughts on “Water It Down for the West

  1. When you talk about meeting on someone else’s terms, I wonder exactly what does that mean, and that seems to be the issue you are raising here. I personally don’t feel that I even have a handle on what the doctrine, philosophy or main points of Soto Zen are, or even Buddhism; it seems to be shifting sand itself.
    Is ‘watering down’ just another way of assuming that I am holding out some superior truth that must be distilled for lesser others – pointing to that fixed, rigid place or is ‘watering down’ a way of getting caught in not full authentic expression in order to get something (like approval, or acceptance by people and thereby a full temple of people who expect to gain something) or is watering down skillful means. Seems like it is more than just the terminology used but the situation at hand.

  2. For example, is it “watering down the Dharma” to make eye contact and smile at new-comers….or old-comers…. at the monastery? Genuine, compassionate friendliness or approval-seeking?

  3. I think that most religions globally have lost a significant amount of zeal. It is more difficult for me to imagine in current times a California resident sending his arm to a senior dharma teacher in order to receive training. I don’t mean to suggest that people in the West are slothful, but rather that they are typically less fervent than their religious ancestors.
    I would like to make a distinction between watering down, making the dharma relevant to modernity, offering different teachings based on the experience of the person, and altering the tradition. In some martial arts schools in the west, teachers offer black belts after a short period of training and thus water down the honor and achievement associated with the black belt. Meditation instructors who declare that moving your legs in zazen or scratching an itch is completely permissible, in my thinking, also water down zazen. If we have a service that remembers the suffering and cultivates compassion for beings affected by climate change we make the dharma relevant to modernity. I attended such a service and was brought to tears of sorrow. This is the only time I have felt any bodhicitta in the zendo and I prefer this type of worship to chanting words in a foreign tongue that I don’t understand. The notion of “gaining ideas” introduces the possibility of offering different teachings for different levels of experience. I have been told that the attitude of detachment from the fruits of zazen is essential to practice. However, I don’t think it’s skillful to tell a novice, and I’m still a novice too, that they have nothing to gain or should not desire gaining anything. Buddhism does relieve suffering as well as enhance the quality of our lives and for people who spend all of their waking hours trying to be happy, it would be a good point for Buddhists to emphasize that we have good medicine. Finally it seems wrong to conflate altering a tradition with watering it down. San Francisco Zen Center has a way of doing oryoki that’s different from many Japanese temples. That’s seems to me to be just fine.

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