Inconceivable is the beginning of this samsara. Not to be discerned is the first beginning of beings who, obstructed by ignorance and ensnared by craving, are hurrying and hastening through this round of rebirths…. Thus, have you long undergone suffering, undergone torment, undergone misfortune, and filled the graveyards full. Long enough to be dissatisfied with all forms of existence, long enough to turn away and to free yourself from them all.
My soul can find no staircase to Heaven unless it be through Earth’s loveliness.
These two statements, contradictory though they are, both express an essential aspect of the spiritual life. Whether we so recognize them or not, these inner tendencies shape and guide and live themselves out through our spiritual pursuits. We feel their insistent pull, even if we don’t quite know their names.
In introducing this forum, I’ve put the statements together in order to set their meanings apart. The viewpoints they express cannot be separated, but they can be distinguished. On the one hand, we long to find richness, meaning, depth and beauty in the particulars of life. That is, we seek that resonance with the world that the religious historian Mircea Eliade called the “discovery of the sacred.” On the other hand, we are inwardly impelled to transcend those very particulars and to be free from our entanglement with them. That is, we seek the unity that Buddhists call liberation. These two movements of the inner life—the one toward sanctification of the world, the other toward salvation from it—constitute a psychic polarity, which appears in our felt experience sometimes as conflict, sometimes as congruence, and sometimes as complementarity. But deal with them as we will, the claims they both exert upon us remain irresistible.
No single formulation of this polarity does it full justice, and this includes the one given above. It is a subtle matter, one not of clearly delineated categories but of associations held loosely together. But with each formulation, partial though it is, some light is shed upon the nature of this apparent dilemma. It has been spoken of anthropologically as the contrast between the cosmopolitan religious concern with universal principles and the localized concerns of specific groups, which focus on the particulars of place, custom, history and the group’s relationship to the spiritual world. Philosophically, the issue might be framed by the twin principles of eros and logos: the first governed by the impulse to find in life the form of beauty; the second, to discern the design of truth. Theologically, we might speak of the contrast between transcendence and the immanence. But this sort of analytical approach to the matter can easily get too abstract, calling to mind the old Hindu tale of the blind men and the elephant: one takes hold of the tail and says an elephant is like a rope, another grabs a leg and claims that it is more like the trunk of a tree, and so forth. It is the living quality of the polarity that concerns us here.
The idea for this theme grew out of a rambling kitchen-table conversation one morning this past February at the home of editor Barbara Gates. I had joined Barbara and our publisher, Alan Novidor, to discuss my role as guest editor while Barbara’s editorial cohort, Wes Nisker, took a temporary leave to work on a book. As we bandied about ideas for this issue, Barbara, in passing, tossed out the observation that few of the meditators she knows practice with the expressed aim of liberation from the world. For many, she guessed, meditation is something that enriches experience: a source of clarity and release, allowing increased freedom while engaged in daily life.
Over the next several days, Barbara’s remarks worked on me. They seemed to point to something of significance for Buddhism’s transmission to the West. For many, the inspiration, direction and fruit of practice are experienced quite differently from the way these things are expressed in the mainstream Asian traditions. Further, this seems true regardless of one’s degree of commitment. The differences are as likely to be felt by an old-timer as by a beginning student.
What are we to make of this? Is it an indicator of the need for cultural adaptation, or is it deluded folly? Are we witnessing a process of translating the Dharma to address a distinctively Western ethos or, alternatively, the watering down of the Buddha’s message? What can the situation tell us about ourselves and about the tradition in which we practice?
When I spoke with Barbara several days later, I found her thinking had been moving along similar lines. We explored these observations together, working to find a way to frame our theme so as to stimulate a provocative dialogue.
In truth, no spiritual path is a pure version of one or another end of the polarity I’ve outlined. Rather, it is a matter of emphasis in the mix and match of elements. But from the very beginning, Buddhism has been strongly cosmopolitan. Indeed, its universalism has been essential to its migration across the cultures of Asia. But in its journeys, the Buddhadharma has coexisted with and rooted itself within the particulars of the customs and spirituality native to its host cultures. It has mingled freely with folk beliefs, practices and all manner of superstition, and it is, in many ways, all the richer for it.
Frequently a kind of religious division of labor has evolved. For example, the Japanese celebrate a marriage in a Shinto ceremony, while a death is marked with a Buddhist one. The animism of Shinto lends itself to the celebration of earthly abundance; Buddhism, with its dour vision of worldly suffering, is the religion of choice for those occasions that are more, well, funereal.
For new Buddhists in the West, much of the tradition’s appeal stems from its universal message of liberation, which addresses our widespread sense of displacement by offering a spiritual home that is everywhere and yet nowhere in particular. Our modern (now postmodern) sensibility can’t fully relate to or comprehend many elements that are rooted in the particulars of Asian culture. This is both reasonable and inevitable. But in the process we have uprooted the Dharma from its relationship to an embedded sensibility. And we feel this. And so we seek out ways to connect practice with a sense of sanctity in our relationships, families, workplaces and the natural world.
Finally, as Norman Fischer writes in his article, we are left straddling the horns of a dilemma, seeking both freedom from and resonance with the world. From the point of view of Buddhism, one might of course say that the dilemma posed here is a fallacy: that it is a language game whose categories are without ultimate basis; or that the sacred is best understood precisely as that which leads to freedom; or that the apparent polarity can be unraveled to reveal a deeper unity. This is no doubt true. But the immediacy and fruitfulness of the issue resists such premature closure. For now, rather than sidestep the dilemma, let’s explore it. Let’s take the bull by the horns.