Monday, 14 January 2008

Practicing American Buddhism

In the 1960’s Shunryu Suzuki, a popular Zen teacher new to America, told his students if they wanted to practice meditation, then they should sit with him at 5:30AM. While Japanese students were required to bow 3 times after a meditation session, Suzuki asked his American students to bow nine times. He made it harder for his American students than his Asian ones, and they liked the strict discipline.

Suzuki's teaching style surprised me. In American Buddhism today, I have watched teachers adjust the discipline to be more accommodating for their students’ convenience. Meditation and retreat times are often varied, to fit comfortably with most schedules. I practice vipassana or insight meditation, which is based in the Theravada tradition. I enjoy being able to attend a sitting at 7AM before work, or a 6PM dharma talk after work or school. But I wonder how much more the dharma might be transforming me if I were forced to make a bigger commitment by waking up early and practicing for longer periods of time. Of course I know I could meditate more on my own or go to the meditation center every night and weekend; however, my commitment and the commitment of those around me doesn’t seem as if it could ever be the same as the American students of Shunryu Suzuki. They practiced in the context of a counter-cultural movement. Yet today, since Buddhism is more available to the public, most practitioners do not have to sacrifice much to practice.

Teachers have been commenting on this tension between discipline and accommodation in American Buddhism. Bhante Gunaratana, a Sri Lankan monk, founded the Bhavana Society in West Virginia, where he has discovered that one does not need to relax the discipline in order to build a Buddhist community. In his book, Mindfulness in Plain English, he discusses how people have respect for the discipline involved in the Buddhist practice; it inspires them. A retreat at the Bhavana Society separates men and women, and participants are not allowed to eat after noon There is a strict daily routine and no contact with the outside world. Regardless of these rules, his meditation center is popular enough that he does not need to concern himself with accommodating to attract students.

In contrast, other teachers in America have been advertising for students to come to them, instead of the traditional method where students search for the right teacher. In Buddhist magazines such as Tricycle, Shambhala Sun, and Buddhadharma, it is common to see advertisements on many pages discussing a certain teacher's book, retreat schedule, or upcoming lecture tour. Co-founder of New River Zen Community, Ellen Birx, believes that advertising can sometimes be necessary and can be done skillfully. In an email correspondence she stated that it is important to let the interested public know who is available and the type of Buddhism this teacher offers. We have so many teachers available to us, and it seems the best way for them to get their particular teachings into the public is to promote themselves and their work through these advertisements. Bill Martin, guiding teacher of The Still Point, considers advertising a means of practice for teachers. Martin wrote to me in an email, “I have watched my ego take whatever side was convenient for it – accusing me of promoting myself if I used my name and credentials, then doing a quick flip and feeling smug if I don’t use my name.” He has taken both approaches, advertising and not advertising, and watches his ego regardless.

Mu Soeng, a teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, speaks about this issue in the Winter 2005 edition of Tricycle, in an article called ‘Dharma for Sale.’ He finds that accommodating for Western students is buying into our capitalist culture, and Buddhism is in danger of becoming another consumer item. Teachers are at risk of succumbing to marketplace dynamics. They are caught in the cycle of what our materialistic culture has to offer. In Korea, where Mu Soeng studied, an unflinching and uncompromising commitment to Buddhist practice was expected. It shouldn’t matter how many students you have, or if you practice alone. In Asia, not everyone becomes a teacher, and if they do, it’s after a long time of practice.

On the other hand, there can be positive aspects to varied choices among teachers and levels of flexibility within the practice, making it easier to spread the dharma to more people. If people need comfort and flexibility in order to practice, then that might be better than not practicing at all. Martin believes students practice because they want their suffering to end. His students are concerned with ‘waking up,’ not whether the path is strict or gentle. Some of them enjoy long and rigorous periods of meditation but many are happy with short sitting periods and interviews and classes with teachers. Either way “each will find the appropriate path and practice at the appropriate time.”

It is obvious that religion has to change in order to survive. Buddhism has had to modernize often in its long history. So perhaps this change in Buddhism is helping the tradition grow. A relaxed atmosphere might draw some people into mediation and later they will be ready for greater discipline. While this environment promotes relaxation and stress-reduction, it does not often lead to transformation. Martin believes the practice will change for students with various needs because every practitioner is unique. Some students will start slow and some with great rigor. Birx acknowledges the fact that Buddhism has always met the people’s needs, but she believes that sincere practice is best from the start. Sitting in meditation should be transformational for both beginners and long-time practitioners. Birx says that some students come prepared to do a disciplined practice and some are only interested in reading about Buddhism. Both ways will enrich one’s life, but only a serious practice will transform, and not simply enrich.

For many of the critics of American Buddhism, it seems that teachers are the problem. Some of them are encouraging a Buddhism without the implications of the whole religion, a Buddhism without true renunciation and generosity, but only with more retreats and meditation. However, only individual teachers can decide their motivations: whether to attract more students to increase their ego, or to skillfully gain followers of the Buddha by adjusting the dharma to fit people’s specific needs. If the latter is the case, then one would expect that these teachers would complicate and increase the rigor of the dharma.

Few teachers would choose not to adhere to a strict discipline so that they can gain more students, and they would not be respected in the long term. People are inspired by discipline, and when it is not there, they might not be as serious about practice. Some students might be looking for discipline, and others may be looking for more flexibility. In America both avenues are provided, and it is up to the student to choose. Of course, the student can also change from a flexible teacher or center to a more disciplined one, and vice versa. As Buddhism is affecting America, so is America affecting Buddhism, and many Buddhists are on both sides of this issue.


  1. This is a thought-provoking topic Brooke. The problem with making Buddhism less strict for westerners is that although it may be easier to swallow, this is because it avoids challenging the personal mind or ego and in fact panders to it. I enjoy sesshins precisely because they are quite strict.

  2. Brooke, I believe you've unintentionally made a historical error here. Soen Shaku died in 1919. It was Suzuki Shunryu who made his American students bow nine times.

    I think this issue of discipline that you've pointed out will continue to reverberate in American Buddhism for many years to come.

  3. Thanks Jeff, I have made the correction.

  4. I can see the skillfulness of flexibility in practice, but logic of commodities that threatens to co-opt Buddhism should be a constant topic of discussion so it does not get subsumed and unnoticed when we want to talk about skillful sorts of flexibility.

    For example, there is nothing skillful about upsetting a friend who has, say, cooked a dinner for you that contains meat because you have vowed to not eat meat. Flexibility here is truly skillful.

    The same could even be said of working around/with job schedules and the like. However, and it is particularly here where it applies, what this means is that you have to alter your whole approach to what your practice will consist in. For example, this means abandoning the idea that you can or should practice the same as, say, your friend who has much more time to devote to their practice. What may only be possible is a very short session in the morning or evening, or even just at lunchs. I think consistency in sitting is still fundamental though, and that flexibility is not likely to be skillful.

    What we practice is a discipline, and of course that means working with what we got too. When it becomes a problem is when we think that flexibility is a license for all sorts of selfish distractions, which we may feel are necessary, but with proper insight we can set aside as not. The example of flexibility in practicing vegetarianism illustrates this from within practice itself, as we set up a wrong view when we think "this is how it's got to be."

    The key is disciplined mindfulness in whatever flexibility we exercise, that way we do not lose sight of our practice, even as we conform it to practical circumstances.

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  7. I just wrote a blog entry about the development of American Buddhism and, although there is not the depth of information that you get into, I would appreciate some insight.