I’m following with a lot of interest the recent comments on Jiryu’s posts “Whole Religion” and “In the beginning was the Dao . . .” This debate about what exactly we uphold and what we reject as we engage deeply with our tradition is hugely important for the future of the Dharma, East and West, and it’s a sign of our growing maturity in the West that the debate is becoming much more nuanced and subtle than it has been historically. Of course what seems nuanced to us will seem grossly filled with projections and distortions to our descendants, but that’s part of a tradition’s life as a dynamic, evolving set of beliefs and practices. That part doesn’t worry me so much.
The issue, I think, is less one of trying to get the tradition “right,” whatever that means, as if we could simply transport ancient Indian, ancient Chinese, or medieval Japanese understandings into a globalized contemporary world, and rather more of clarifying and deepening our relationship (set of relationships, really) to the tradition, of clarifying what exactly it is we vow to maintain. On the one hand, there’s a kind of arrogance and naivete in simply dismissing any part of the tradition that makes us uncomfortable and only reading into the Dharma the things we like–this, I think, was exactly Jiryu’s point in “Whole Religion.” On the other, there certainly will be things we dismiss. From the Majjhima Nikaya, for example, Bahudhatuka Sutta:
But, venerable sir, in what way can a bhikkhu be called skilled in what is possible and what is impossible?
Here, Ananda, a bhikkhu understands: [. . .] ‘It is impossible, it cannot happen that a woman could be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One, there is no such possibility.’ And he understands, ‘It is possible that a man might be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One–there is such a possibility.’
[. . .] In this way, Ananda, a bhikkhu can be called skilled in what is possible and what is impossible.
It is impossible, it seems to me, that we will avoid transforming the Dharma as we take it up in the particular cultural circumstances of our time. There is no such possibility. And it is possible that we will distort the the Dharma as we take it up in the particular cultural circumstances of our time. There is indeed such a possibility. Also, it is possible that our distortions will be invigorating, will allow a new unfolding of the ancient way. There is such a possibility. We will absorb, digest some of our tradition, and spit some of it out. What seems most important to me is that we do all of this in a way that isn’t glib, isn’t too quick or too easy. There’s a Middle Way between a kind of cult of the past and a lack of respect for the past. There’s a rich and honest struggle with a tradition that has always marked the deepest expressions of religious life. We take responsibility for a tradition when we try as hard as we can to understand what it meant to our ancestors, and try even harder to understand what it most centrally means to us.
As an example of all of this in action, I’ll end by quoting a text that Nagarjuna, Hui-neng, and Dogen could never have read. Here’s James Baldwin, from “Sonny’s Blues”:
For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.
And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country and another depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, Listen.