Whenever Buddhism has moved to new lands, such as Japan or Tibet, it has needed to discover a wise expression of the teachings appropriate to its new home. When one inherits a lineage as rich as Buddhism, one is forced to consider which teachings to emphasize. The range here is enormous: some eighty volumes of Pali texts (not to mention hundreds more from the Mahayana); and twenty-five thousand years of often contradictory tradition. Even within a single large Burmese or Thai retreat center I have seen ajahns and sayadaws hotly dispute who is really enlightened. I have heard teachings from Theravada forest masters that were entirely different from those of masters in the Adhidharma schools or the retreat practice traditions, and I have heard these masters contest whether the other masters even teach liberation.
By contrast, my wisest elders were quite open-minded. Ajahn Chah said, “Teach the essence of freedom from grasping and call it what you like.” Buddhadasa Bhikku, whose thorough study indicated that many of the Pali suttas were misguided additions made after the Buddha’s death, said, “Only those texts that speak of finding selflessness and liberation here and now can be said to be the words of the Buddha.” And the Dalai Lama has suggested,“Perhaps it is best just to teach kindness and emptiness; that is enough.”
Here’s the dilemma: While many of the monks and nuns of Thailand and Burma demonstrate lives of tremendous dedication, beauty, honesty and caring, there is no doubt that much of Buddhist tradition describes the Dharma in patriarchal and life-denying ways, viewing life in the world as filthy, dangerous, full of snares—a realm of suffering to be renounced and escaped. What are we to do with these teachings? Are they the “true teachings” or simply skillful means that were developed by renunciate monks in an ancient Indian culture? (This dilemma exists not just in Theravada Buddhism. While Mahayana, Zen and Vajrayana teachings tend to give lip service to the possibility of awakening in the midst of the everyday world, their texts rarely speak of the beauty and sacredness of life; rather they most often view life in terms of emptiness and see the highest of human purposes as helping all beings to find release from suffering.)
What will we teach in the West? Are we going to emphasize the approach expressed in the legend of the Buddha’s abandonment of his wife and child in which even after enlightenment he returned to name his son Rahula, or “the fetter”? Or will we allow that a genuine path to liberation can include wise childrearing as a mindful practice leading to compassion and freedom? Will we teach the attitude expressed in the Magandiya sutta, in which the Buddha tells a king who offers his beautiful daughter in marriage, “Your daughter’s body is a thing full of water and excrement. I would not even touch it with my foot”? Or will we emphasize the Buddha’s teaching of respect for all things as the means to “peace not of arrogance, nor of tradition, but free from all grasping and aversion”? Will we adopt the view reflected in the Buddha’s statement that the inclusion of women in the holy life would shorten the sangha’s life by centuries and cause its great decline? Or will we teach about the sacred feminine and how even the Buddha had to call on the Earth Goddess for help as his witness in his struggle with Mara on the night of his enlightenment? Will we reference the hundred texts that extol “the loathsomeness of the body” and celebrate “the end of existence”? Or will we teach reverence for the interconnectedness of life, which blossoms in the precepts, the vinaya, and the practices of lovingkindness and freedom, which the Buddha says “fill all the worlds with a scent more delicious than flowers and incense”?
In past years Western vipassana teachers may have taught “getting off the wheel of life.” But our understanding has matured. As Joanna Macy has said, “How can I get off the wheel? I am the wheel.” Nirvana is not somewhere else, teachings of cessation and extinction notwithstanding.
We know that the Buddha walked, ate and taught for forty-five years “in Nirvana.” This Nirvana he called just “the heart free of greed, hatred and delusion.” It is the ever present reality of our true nature. It must not be confused with fear of life or fear of feelings, nor with the judgments and harshness that mar our culture. The Dharma must not be taught in a way that reinforces our wounds or our sense of unworthiness, that misuses religion to encourage shame or destroy respect for life. Rather, the Dharma must be taught as that freedom from self-clinging in which we come to know that the nature of the mind is “as receptive and open as the ocean, as vast as the sky,” timeless, ever-present, free and empty, filled by feelings of connectedness and compassion.
In emphasizing reverence for the interdependence of all life, we must not negate the depth and magnitude of suffering in our world, but meet it with the compassion of the open and free heart. We cannot separate ourself from life, for we are life awakening to itself. In leaving behind what is life-denying and unskillful for our time, we must not fool ourselves and settle for a lightweight, watered-down Dharma. Rather, we must dedicate ourselves fully, in our lives and our practice, to discovering here and now the great freedom of the heart proclaimed by the buddhas.
To do so our language must also become more thoughtful and wise. In teaching the “dangers of attachment” we must acknowledge such healthy attachments as that of mother and child. When teaching the dangers of anger or desire, we must acknowledge that their expression is sometimes helpful on the road to health and freedom. We must, therefore, distinguish between anger and hatred and between desire and grasping. We must value the inherently compassionate desire to care for one another. When we get too literal, too tied to the words of the texts, we are like those who quote the Bible but miss the teachings of love. Dharma words are simply pointers to freedom.
Masters from Thailand, Burma, Japan and Tibet have remarked on the sincerity of Western students and have acknowledged that we will have to find our own language and our own way. Our way will surely be more inclusive of and integrated with the everyday world as well as being open-minded, egalitarian and feminine. It will lead us to a freedom that cares for the earth, just as the Thai forest-monks are also now learning to place their robes around old growth trees to save their endangered forests.
Already we can hear these new emphases growing in Western dharma. At recent teacher councils at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and Insight Meditation Society, teachers discussed whether they considered themselves to be Theravada Buddhists. Most replied, “No. We are not Theravadins. We simply follow the essential way of the Buddha.” This is the middle way, embodied in the teachings of virtue, mindfulness, compassion and non-clinging. The middle way is not life-denying, for it rests neither on ideas nor philosophy but on great compassion and freedom of the heart. To practice it fully leads to the end of greed, hatred and delusion, to the end of sorrow. As the elders of our forest tradition teach, when the heart is pure “all things become holy, proclaiming the one true nature of life.”