Saturday, April 14, 2012

cultural appreciation of Buddhism

I went to the lecture braced for my own revulsion and came away quite happy to have been gently chastened. Intellectual appreciations of Buddhism are aspects I am wary of because they cannot and do not ameliorate the screams in the night -- the suffering that human beings actually experience, the edginess that can make life uncertain and unsatisfactory. To my mind, Buddhism's approaches to such dis-ease are what make it worth more than piss in a snowbank. 

The lecture pointed out to me that I am just an old Zennie who felt as if, somehow, he had been brought back, full-circle, to a time when how-it-fits, how-it-works, and where-is-its-place were matters I cared about because I was uncertain and didn't want to get caught flat-footed by something out-of-the-ordinary, weird, and conceivably insane.

For an hour and a half yesterday, the speaker, Jeff Wilson, never mentioned "enlightenment" or "suffering" or "compassion" or "The Four Noble Truths" or "The Eightfold Path." Much to my surprise, I didn't mind a bit. Instead, he talked about regional and cultural impact on the Buddhism that might spring up here or there. Wilson acted as a reporter and his reporting was very good. Not that I can remember it chapter and verse or do it justice, but the effect his talk had on me was pleasantly corrective. My view of Buddhism was and probably remains too simplistic. True, perhaps, but simplistic ... living under a bell jar. Wilson may have been making a living along the intellectual and sociological periphery of whatever "Buddhism" might be, but those peripheries are interesting and important. What is beside the point is never exactly beside the point. Cultural disquisitions on Buddhism still do not get to the point as far as I am concerned, but ignoring cultural concerns is not much good either. As Vimalakirti was said to have said,  'The companions of passion are the progenitors of the Tathagatas: I fear that people will destroy the worldly aspect to seek the real aspect.'

Anyway, I cannot do justice to Wilson's talk, which was nice and straight and will no doubt provide him with an income. I wasn't taking notes and have no intention to read his several books, but it had an effect that might be summed up as getting a sense of what a curio lifestyle (my own included) Buddhist practice can be. Buddhism in the United States is pretty insular (East Coast, West Coast and a couple of places in between). And not just geographically insular ... serious practice also seems to be limited to what James Ford once described to me as "a bunch of smart, rich white guys." No doubt this is a vast generalization with exceptions aplenty ... but still, that's the feeling I got based on Wilson's talk. A world of unintended arrogance.

Not to do Wilson's talk the injustice of sieving it through my limited mind, here is the p.r. blurb that preceded the lecture:

"Dixie Dharma: Regionalism in American Buddhism," a talk by Professor Jeff Wilson (University of Waterloo). Professor Wilson will discuss the importance of regionalism as a category in understanding Buddhism in America by focusing on a multi-denominational temple in Richmond, VA.
From the talk, I came away feeling the weight and impact of cultural considerations ... what an uphill battle Buddhism might be for anyone seeking serious understanding of their lives and misperceptions. When no one else (or anyway a very few) is doing what you are doing and when the comfort of society is pivotal to human existence, who will have the daring, the outright insanity, to set out and keep going? How lonely and uncertain. It is touching beyond words in my mind.

I guess Wilson's talk made me feel lucky and also reminded me that my good fortune was not something either to take for granted or stuff down anyone else's throat. I am too old now to pick my nose over the cultural considerations that impinge on or inform whatever it is that "Buddhism" might be. That's a young man's sport. But I was grateful for an elbow in my ribs ... hey, asshole, there are 84,000 gates, not just something called "Buddhist" gates.

The lecture was interesting and, as anyone can see from this flimsy posting, something I found affecting without much explanation of how or why. Anyway, I didn't run for the exit.

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