what the hell is the dharma?

I warned you in my last post, there’d be a part two. Here it is.

Among the many interesting things I saw, read, and felt while perusing this issue of Buddhadharma, one issue actually a raised more of a question than an out-right “you guys are nuts” reaction.

It started with this quip from Rod Meade Sperry:

While I love Buddhism — its culture, the sweep of it, its teachings and its teachers — I don’t have anything personally invested in whether or not “Buddhism” lives. All I care about is whether or not the practice lives.

This is an interesting statement. I really (openly and genuinely) want to know what he means by this. My question would be, how can the practice of Buddhism survive without it’s culture, its teachings, and its teachers? If we take away those things, presumably those “religious institutional” things, how would Buddhist practice survive? Would it not be left entirely in the hands of the writers of books? People whose actual training or practice or credentials would not be verifiable? And, therefore, how would you know if it was worth the paper it was printed on?

But this leads me to my real question for Buddhadharma. Rod mentions “practice.” And, throughout this issue, people throw the word “dharma” around like it’s going out of style.

So. My real question is this: what the hell is the dharma?

When we say that we should spread the dharma in the West (or anywhere), exactly which dharma are we talking about? The dharma that says full awakening isn’t even possible in this lifetime but takes aeons of rebirths? The dharma that says awakening is a possibility, right here, right now, in this very body? The dharma that says not only is the Buddha’s teaching going to vanish from this world, but that it already has and the only hope any of us has for awakening is reliance on the Lotus Sutra?

Remember, the Buddha said a lot of things. His teaching, “the dharma,” is not simply one thing that is easily distilled into a sound-bite of “compassion” or “meditation” or “interdependence.” The dharma is these things, yes, but it is not just this these things. It is these things and so much more.

I think this is important. I do not believe that there is one dharma. In fact, I know there are at least eight-four thousand “dharma doors.” There are eight-four thousand dharma doors for a reason. Because everyone’s different. The hang-ups I suffer from, the issues I’ve got to come to grips with this time around before I can move further along the path, are not the same as yours. The dharma (or, more to the point, that one slice of the dharma) that works for you might not work for me.

And that’s okay.

I think we need to find a way to be comfortable with the wide diversity and complexity of multiple dharmic paths — and, yes, we need to embrace the uncertainty that comes with this complexity. Why? For the simple reason that if we say that the Buddha dharma is just this one thing, we’re necessarily going to loose people. Once you turn Buddhism into just one thing — once you claim, like Karen Maezen Miller does in her Commentary that meditation was the “only practice Buddha practiced” — once you equate Buddhism with meditation, you’re necessarily claiming that the only path to awakening is your path. You’re being a fundamentalist.

As much as this is true of the word “dharma,” it’s also true of the word “meditation.” As I was telling my students yesterday, “meditation” does not equal zazen. Meditation does not equal vipassana. Meditation includes those things, but it is not exclusively those things. Throughout the whole history of Buddhism, meditation has been constantly defined and redefined in all sorts of ways. And, more importantly, Buddhists have done a whole host of other things besides sit on meditation cushions in cozy zendos and retreat centers.

This limiting of Buddhist practice to meditation has, in my view, potentially disastrous consequences.

The point here, however, is not to say that people shouldn’t meditate. The point here is not to say that you should wince every time you see a zafu. The point is that the whole of the American Buddhist community — and I mean everyone from the hipster who just started meditating based on a clip she saw on You Tube to the fifth generation Japanese American kid who’s father’s father’s father’s father was a Shin priest — all of us need to be open to and respectful of and acknowledge that we don’t have the market cornered on how to be a Buddhist.

Why? Why is this important? It is important because diversity is an inherently good thing.


15 thoughts on “what the hell is the dharma?

  1. A great piece, Scott! You bring up a great point about diversity. It’s important to support a diverse Buddhism because not only are our problems different from person to person, they also differ as we ourselves grow. The teachings that benefit me now are very different from the teachings that I benefited from when I was twenty. Besides, I have so many problems that I need all the dharmic diversity I can get!

    That said, from experience there is also a very thin line, where on one side you have diversity and on the other side you have unabashed heresy. But that’s maybe for another post…

  2. Ah, Arun, always bringing up those elephants in the room. The heresy question is a great question… maybe that’s our next week-long kvetch!

  3. But what is concerning is that if you read magazines like Buddhadharma or Tricycle, or visit the “Eastern Spirituality” sections of Borders or Barnes & Noble, you would hardly be aware that there IS any diversity of Buddhist practices and beliefs out there, other than doing sitting meditation. Of course WE may know that there are many practices and beliefs of Buddhism out there, but how would anyone else? This isn’t a critique of white “American Buddhists” there are also plenty of ethnic Asian Buddhists out there totally unaware of other practices other than the one they grew up with – I’ve met lots of young JAs or Thais who didn’t know that anyone else other than those in their own ethnic group even practiced Buddhism. Since we are in a place where diversity is right in our face, we should take advantage of it!

  4. Yuinen, you bring up a great point regarding isolated Asian American Buddhists. I’ve been working to bring various Asian American institutions to interact on various levels, but it’s not easy. (Politics, politics, politics…) Lots to say about this — it’s definitely worth a blog post.

  5. This is such a good post. I think it’s important to remember that we can also appreciate a diversity of practice even within a single Buddhist tradition! Zuochan (“zazen”) is my main focus of practice, but I also recite sutras, attend ceremonies, etc—and these are just as important (and just as “Buddhist”) to my practice as sitting.

  6. Pingback: Angry with Asians « Dharma Folk

  7. “Dharma,” apparently, has about 10 meanings in Sanskrit. One crucial one for the canon of teachings was “truth.” So, one would evaluate a statement or a teaching to see if it was “dharma,” that is, if it accorded with reality or not. The Buddha’s teachings are known as “dharma” because they verifiably accord with reality. The debates arise about what parts accord with relative reality, and which ultimate, but there it is.

    I wonder how Buddhadharma’s editors could let Ms. Miller’s statement about meditation stand. There are numerous sutras that examine the eightfold path, for instance, detailing about morality that it’s one’s practice to correctly identify and abandon unwholesome mental states and actions, and vice versa. If she had said meditation is the only practice by which the Buddha attained the direct experience of wisdom, then I might agree.

  8. I was just looking over King Ashoka’s edicts for something I’m writing, and he says this: “Dhamma is good, but what constitutes Dhamma?(It includes) little evil, much good, kindness, generosity, truthfulness and purity.”

  9. Thanks to everyone for all your comments.

    Konchog, yes, that’s really hitting the nail on the head isn’t it? “The debates arise about what parts accord with relative reality and which ultimate…” Debates indeed. And I think important debates. And that what saddens me about the mainstream “American” Buddhist press — that they seem unwilling (or simply uninterested?) to have those debates.

    Instead, it’s mediation meditation meditation. Ah well. Like I said before, to each their own, and to the extent that someone (us, for example) is pushing at the edges, the full diversity of the dharma will be heard.

    One can hope anyway!

  10. hey. just to quickly address your question about what i said: it’s almost a cliche at this point, but as they say: the buddha wasn’t a “buddhist.” he didnt practice meditation and compassion with any of the trappings we all understand to be buddhism. he just practiced them, period.

    that’s kinda all i’m saying. i don’t ultimately care if anyone self-identifies as “Buddhist”; i just care that the practices (meditation, experiential training, etc) continue. if i never bowed to a statue again (quite unlikely) that wouldn’t make nearly as much difference to my life as if i never meditated again.

    that’s all.

    i love yr blog. i think you know that, though!

  11. Hey Rod. Always nice when the Horse walks in, and thanks for the compliment. (I really want to make a bad pun about gift horses but it’s too early to pull off that level of funny.)

    I think I know what you mean about practice/”Buddhist” and there’s part of me that wants to respond, at length. But it’s not the sort of response that’s fit for a comments thread and I know it’ll come off as too professorial, so I’ll refrain. I’ll refrain and simply say that sometimes I like the trappings!

    That identity things raising an interesting question, though. One that’s come up for me recently in a number of areas. A longer post is forthcoming.

    Thanks again for your support.

  12. Why do some folks forget what the Buddha did AFTER he sat under the Bodhi tree and became enlightened? He decided to go out into the community and put into action what he had realized through meditation. Although I do not claim to be an expert on the Buddhadharma, it seems to me that the most fundamental aspect of Buddhist practice is not meditation, but to relieve the suffering of others. This is the way of the boddhisattva. If our meditation is practiced in a self-focused or self-centered manner, we have fallen into a trap.

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