—John Stevens, Lust For Enlightenment
Sex, drugs, money, power, food, circuses. Come and get it! It’s all available right here in America. Never before in history has such a sumptuous feast been spread out before the common likes of you and me. Mara, the evil one, is using his full bag of tricks to lure us lay American Buddhists from the dharma highway. Indeed, following the Buddha in this country is like walking on hot coals all the way from Boston to Berkeley and back again. Either we Yankee dharma bums are complete fools, or else lionhearted warriors who have undertaken the most awesome task in the history of Buddhism: facing down Mara at the Mall.
Human life has posed essentially the same dilemmas throughout time, but late twentieth-century America may offer a unique challenge to the seeker of wisdom. Our culture’s devotion to materialism has never been surpassed, even in Babylon or Rome, whose decadent imperial spectacles and popular diversions were simply dress rehearsals for our own. America’s entertainment industry talks almost exclusively of sensual pleasure, especially romantic love and sexuality, as the highest possible human happiness. The national pastime seems to be a continual search for perfect moments, for climax and high drama. Recent history shows our nation reveling in war and violence, hungering for spectacle, for the “really big show.” Most problematic for American dharma students, however, may be the fact that this is the land of the Self, a nation of personalized license plates, a place where people are encouraged to be very special, to “be somebody.”
The Buddha named three marks or characteristics of existence. The first is dukkha, which means that everything is ultimately unsatisfactory. You may experience a moment or two of fulfillment but it will inevitably end, and then you will suffer. The reason there can be no fulfillment has to do with the second mark of existence which is anicca, the fact that nothing is lasting or substantial; everything changes. The third mark of existence is anatta, which asserts that there is no self or lasting entity behind this moment-to-moment transformation of matter and energy masquerading as you. These three marks of existence can be put into contemporary street idiom by saying, “Life is a bitch and will put you through the changes. But don’t take it personally.”
America does its best to avoid or deny evidence of the first mark of existence, the universal truth of suffering. Old age, sickness and death are pushed out of our sight. But just walk through any downtown street in the United States and study the faces; there you will find evidence of the deep sadness and anxiety pervading our land. If you need any further confirmation of dukkha in America, the statistics on drug and alcohol abuse, sexual crimes, depression and suicide will further testify to a dysfunctional society full of people who are suffering deeply.
Although the truth of dukkha is quite evident, I think it is uniquely difficult for Americans to believe that suffering is intrinsic to the human condition. From the beginning this country was promoted as the Garden of Eden, the “new” world, where great freedom and abundance could transform the very nature of existence. Somehow, Americans have developed and still hold on to a naive belief that one can achieve perfect and lasting happiness in life, a continuous fulfillment. Ironically, that belief is the cause for much unnecessary pain. Great expectations almost inevitably lead to great disappointments.
It is relatively easy in America to recognize Buddha’s second mark of existence, anicca. The rise and fall of hemlines each year keeps us aware that things are constantly changing. Our heroes, fads, gadgets, even our morals are here today, gone to Maui. Our cultural imagery changes so quickly that nostalgia is always in fashion. America and anicca, on some superficial level at least, are synonymous.
The third and final mark of existence on the Buddha’s list is selflessness, anatta. In any era, to burst the bubble of “self” involves the most difficult realization, but it may be especially hard here in late twentieth-century America where “self” has been made into a religion. Perhaps no civilization in history has glorified the individual to the extent that ours has. “Be all that you can be” is not just the ironic advertising cry of the U.S. Army, it is the fervent prayer of the entire culture. We are encouraged to be individuals; to stand out; to stand alone. Our socioeconomic system pits each of us against one another, in life as well as in business, and our success or failure depends on each of us alone.
Many of us first-generation Americans were imbued with a particularly solid “self” consciousness. We were fawned over in our youth by self-sacrificing parents who were determined to live the American dream vicariously through their children. We were constantly told that we were “special,” “precious,” “unusual.” Our parents assured us that we could even become president of the United States if we tried hard enough.
The gurus of the ’60s then came along and told us, “You can be anyone you want to be in this lifetime.” These drug-inspired visionaries were not pointing us toward the White House, but toward some abstract notion of absolute freedom or perfect happiness. All we had to do was drop out of the mainstream and create our own world, with ourselves as its heroes.
More and more we are coming to realize the pain hidden in all those promises. As our spiritual practice matures, many of us are discovering that we can be nobody else but who we are in this lifetime, and that may be quite different from who we think we want to be, or who we think we ought to be. The very idea that we might remake ourselves completely is a heavy burden. As Alfred Adler once said, “To be human is to feel inferior,” and most of us feel guilty enough just being ourselves.
It is very hard to shake our Great American Expectations, even though we know that they lead to sorrow. We continue to judge ourselves against some impossible standard in our mind, and then find it difficult to acknowledge those dark inner shadows that follow us everywhere, even into the great white lights of dharma understanding. This is not to say that we can’t change, open our hearts more, cut free from loads of nasty conditioning, or peel off layers and layers of pride and ignorance. But being American leaves many of us subtly hoping for that total transformation or permanent nirvana, the endless perfect moment. It is hard to imagine, after growing up in this culture, that we would be anything but spiritual materialists.
Our persistent desire for utopias, both personal and political, may stem from Western civilization’s belief that humans have the ability to perfect themselves and the world. This idealism was born with the Greek philosophers and their great trust in human reason, and was supported by the Judeo-Christian belief in a deity who, after all, created humans in His own image, and furthermore, always looks after His “chosen people.”
Most Eastern cosmologies don’t give humanity such an elevated place in creation. The Zen Buddhist and Taoist masters see humans as an inseparable part of the cosmic flow, no different from, and therefore no better or worse than the rest of it. The Taoists also tell us that we will always have the dark with the light and the good with the bad. It’s a law of nature. There is no “perfectibility,” no special dispensation to this species, no privileged group of people, no “important” individuals, and furthermore, no steady-state nirvana, no resting place, no utopias. The personal shadows will remain, and in the political realm, the poor will always be with you. Our culture refuses to acknowledge these nitty-gritty realities. We live in an all-smiles country, where everybody and everything are just fine, or will be soon, thank you.
There are some other obstacles on the Buddha’s path through North America. Especially alluring to some of us are the numerous roadside attractions. “Last chance!” “Don’t miss it!” “Nothing like this ever seen before!” The enticements come at us from every direction, telling us about the latest consumer miracle or perfect cultural experience. This is not to imply that entertainments and diversions are intrinsically evil, but most popular American culture is antithetical to the stated values of the dharma. Our mass entertainment is geared to fostering tension, fear, desire or aversion, and gives no nod whatsoever to “peace of mind.”
In America, fun is synonymous with intensity and excitement. At rock and roll concerts the sound is always turned up to decibel levels which automatically cause the blood vessels in the body to constrict. The resulting feeling of tension is labeled excitement or “fun.” Violent and scary movies work in the same way. Of course, we enjoy these entertainments precisely because they pull us directly into the moment, driving everything else out of our minds for a while, giving us a heightened sense of being alive. Maybe that is why rock concerts and big-screen movie spectaculars have become the surrogate religious ceremonies of our culture. Hollywood is Holy-wood, and we are all disciples of the Reverend Screen. We are “Screenies,” and when we go into the darkened theater or sit down in our living rooms, the Reverend Screen programs our desires and projects the myths we live by.
Yet another difficulty on the American dharma trail is speed. Yes indeedy, we live in America the Speedy. Meanwhile, it is obvious to anyone who has done some practice that slowing down is vital to developing the deep insights, or sanity, or peace of mind. But most of us Americans are well over the speed limit, driving madly down the highways and through our lives. Many of the meditators I know, myself included, are caught up in the rush of endless appointments, always going somewhere, always doing something. And since everybody else in the culture is moving fast, we have to move fast too or we get run over. Slowing down in this culture may be the most difficult tantric exercise ever conceived. Mindfulness may be the ultimate speed bump.
So much more could be said about the difficulties of practicing Buddhadharma in America, but there is a completely opposite way of viewing our incarnation in this particular time and place. In fact, the very conditions that make it difficult to practice dharma in America may be exactly the same conditions that lead people to dharma in the first place. After all, here we are, a growing community of Americans who are following the Buddha’s path. This culture must be just right for dharma seeds to take root. Furthermore, just as the classical hindrances are seen as manure for awakening, so living in America may be just what the Buddha ordered.
If you look around the meditation halls and Zendos, you will see the Americans who have heard the dharma call. Most seem to be over twenty-five, Caucasian, solidly middle class and highly educated. There is really nothing very unusual about the makeup of this sangha, and indeed, there appears to be some similarity between today’s American dharma students and the people who followed the Buddha twenty-five centuries ago. Although the Buddha offered instructions to anyone who asked, his discourses reveal that he had many followers from the higher castes. Quite a few of his talks in the sutras are addressed to Brahmans, who were the Hindu priests, the princes and philosophers, the affluent and highly educated elite of India. In fact, the Buddha often seems to chide those high-caste people, saying, for example, in the Dhammapada, “I do not call a man a Brahman because of his birth . . . but the poor man who is free from attachments, him I call indeed a Brahman.”
In America today, as in India during the time of the Buddha, a special combination of circumstances may have precipitated the sudden growth of interest in dharma. Perhaps a certain amount of financial security, leisure, education and existential discontent are necessary to bring most people to the Buddha’s path. Of course, you could get there just by being born into a Buddhist culture, but that still might not lead you to the cushion. Maybe as Westerners we needed to experience the ultimate emptiness of material comforts and sensual pleasures before turning inward for fulfillment. Meanwhile, the perfect example of someone who gets called to the dharma is, of course, the Buddha himself.
The Buddha’s life is a good model for Americans, because like many of us, the Buddha was privileged at birth. Although we were not born into royal families, most American dharma students were raised in the land of the free and the home of the plenty, indulged with almost everything we wanted, or thought we wanted.
According to legend, Prince Gotama had it all too, and then some. The prince’s father gave him the ultimate in material wealth and sensual pleasure, and Gotama was apparently blessed with the good looks, grace and strength to take advantage of everything available to him. In the end, of course, he gave it all up to seek lasting fulfillment. Saint Augustine comes to mind as another profligate youth who had many years of wine, women and song before being transformed. Augustine was such an ardent and articulate convert from sin that he made it all the way to sainthood. The Buddha made it to parinirvana.
We should note that in the last temptation of Gotama, Mara tries to distract the meditating Buddha-to-be by offering him unimaginable sexual pleasures. Mara wanted to keep him from becoming enlightened and saving the world. But Gotama was having too much fun inside the spacious canyons of his awesome mind, and he ignored the temptation. He wouldn’t have given up his big peace for all the sensual pleasure in the world.
Many of us lay American meditators are caught in a tug of war, pulled in one direction by the culture we live in and our conditioned responses to it, and in the other direction by the promise of the higher happiness. In the middle of that tug of war we find our consciousness exercises for this time and place. Our path may be paved, and there may be millions of cars on it moving very fast. So, if you drive, just drive. And if you walk, don’t forget to walk on the side of the road facing the traffic, and put a Day-Glo stripe on your meditation cushion. And no matter what the pollution count, for heaven’s sake, remember to breathe.
I can imagine the Buddha watching us now, his deep, calm almond eyes looking out from all of the statues and personal alters we have erected to him in America over the past thirty years. Through his half smile, I hear him telling us that we indeed have a lucky birth, and reminding us that even here in late twentieth-century America, his teaching is still about the “middle path.” (The middle path meaning somewhere between all the extremes.) And the message is the same as it ever was. You just try to live each day with the deepest truth you know, keep up a steady practice of ego-shrinking, and someday, if your karma is ripe, you just might find yourself transformed. You just might become an “ordinary American.”
Finally, as you go about your practice and your life, you might offer an occasional thanks to our decadent, materialist culture for giving us the opportunity to see through it. As always, our dilemmas are also our deliverance.