Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"Buddhism in America": Book Review

I was never bored with these forty entries on "the future of Buddhist meditation practices in America." While a few speakers transcribed appeared on paper too glib, too rambling, too esoteric, each essay left me thinking. You hear the long discipline of practitioners who mix the mind with the heart. They range from Asian monks to Western-born nuns, along with a psychotherapist, anthropologist, popularizer, lamas, philosopher, physicist, professors, care providers, and a butler. Al Rapaport compiled their talks from a hundred hours over a weekend, and Brian D. Hotchkiss edited their presentations from this 1997 conference attended by nearly eight hundred in Boston.

Many of these talks may have worked better "live," but the give-and-take format gains summary, and a sense of the techniques conveyed mind-to-mind echoes despite the distance of print. Although some grounding in Buddhism seems a pre-requisite, they can be understood by any reader, as terms earn inclusion in a glossary, but no index is provided. A reading list is appended.

One minor drawback: the typeface for the text is in a less readable font than the citations; one wishes the opposite choice for printing was chosen as this book may wear out your eyes over its 568 two-columned pages. Still, it's a handy resource, accessible and lively. The Buddha talked rather than wrote; oral transmission remains how dharma teachings come down to most of us over 2500 years. Wes Nisker quotes his guru Chögyam Trungpa's warning that Buddhism's like getting into the crocodile's mouth-- once inside, his teeth won't let you back out. The flavor, wit, harshness, and warmth of these vibrant, insistent, and bracing messages survives the packaging-- in black letters on stacked white pages.

Five sections group the challenging material. The talks are compiled out of original order but are cross-referenced and arranged by thematic rather than chronological fidelity. 1) Chinese monks in the U.S. relate a journey back to home, ancient Asian practices merge with loving-kindness, Mu Soeng connects quantum theory, Guru Rinpoche's Tibetan modes earn explanation, and Rizong Rinpoche presides over medical empowerments.

2) Practices informed by monasticism follow: anapanasati breath awareness; vipissana tranquility; shikan mind-calming; dzogchen (well, sort of); ch'an; shikantaza; "don't know" Zen; Miranda Shaw on tantric intimacy; "deep agnosticism" via Stephen Batchelor; and monastic viewpoints. While Wes Nisker seems to skirt "deep ecology" in its environmental framework, he does offer thoughtful reminders on the mind-body tangle.

3) Living and dying practices include more on "great perfection" (again, sort of); Robert Thurman on the consolations of dharma; being in the present; insight meditation; rituals; relationship advice; student-teacher mores; "Celtic Buddhism"; life and death, mind-healing, psychotherapeutic approaches. Tsutrim Allione conducts a "feeding the demons" visualization. Patricia Shelton on hospice care, and Joan Halifax on death preparation end this theme.

4) The socially engaged "not enraged" Buddhist movement expressing compassion in action comes next. Peter Matthiessen addresses not so much American Zen as our "animal nature" and contrasts his meditations at Auschwitz with our shared potential to turn little Hitlers. Next comes Soka Gakkai's diversity; mindfulness and ethics; Bernard Glassman's visit to Auschwitz, his peacekeeping apostolate, and his street people outreach; Kobatsu Malone's work in prison Zen.

5) Finally, Thurman and then historian Rick Fields discuss American Buddhism's evolution; Jon Kabat-Zinn looks at mainstream currents: these three agree that whatever happens in the U.S., it'll be more akin to a countercultural force, a "corrective to religion," or "stress reduction" as the way an unlabeled, less exotic Buddhism expands into the mainstream. Issues of elitism, dilution, and adaptation earn consideration. These speakers tend to anticipate a skeptical, loosely defined, secularized, perhaps New Age or yoga-tinged varietal that will bloom into an American setting. Similarly, a panel follows on media coverage, from three editors of Buddhist-oriented publications. Lama Surya Das's third talk concludes with emergent trends in the West; he encourages an open-minded, deromanticized outlook.

"Don't take it so personally--that's the message of Buddhism."
Wes Nisker sums up the theme of this collection. "We look at ourselves in the mirror of our culture and we can see the distortion, that something is vitally wrong, and there is a hunger for connection and reconnection. I know of no better way than through this particular kind of practice. You don't have to call it Buddhist. You don't have to call it meditation, if you don't want to." But, he explains, the interconnection to all before and after and around us turns into our life's lesson.

He cites Gary Snyder: "Wisdom is the intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one's ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into that mind to see it for yourself over and over again until it becomes the mind you live in." Nisker adds: "That's why we call it practice, because you're never done." (263-4) (Posted to Amazon US 4-27-10)

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