On Bob Sharf

by | August 01, 2007 at 3:24 PM

August, 2007. Muir Beach, CA

Dear friends,

The other evening I heard a talk by Robert Sharf, a U.C. Berkeley Buddhist Studies professor well known in the Buddhist world for his controversial article on religious experience. (A recent interview with Bob was published an issue or two ago in Tricycle magazine). In that article, and in his talk, Bob seems to be critical of the Western Buddhist movement for its almost exclusive emphasis on meditation and meditation experience as the only relevant part of Buddhism, the rest being mere ritual, institution, and dogma. His historical analysis of how so many Westerners came to this view of Buddhism is eye-opening. He shows, rather convincingly, the ironic twists and turns of history by which all the Asian teachers who introduced Buddhism to the West were themselves influenced by modern Western thought, and were presenting therefore a Western-inflected Buddhism in which the pure, undogmatic, cosmic experience one could have in meditation was seen as the essence of all religion, the so-called "perennial philosophy" of Aldous Huxley. Skeptical of this, Bob seems to be advocating a return to a more "religious" or traditional Buddhism, and to be critical of most Western Buddhist teachers and groups as superficial and uninformed. 

As you can imagine, this has not made Bob a popular guy in some circles. But I appreciate his critique. Anyone who follows post-modern thought notices that the idea of pure experience, unmediated by language and culture, is suspect. Contrary to earlier, probably more naive viewpoints, it is probably true that any human experience, including meditation insights, even so-called enlightenment "experiences," is partial. "Absolute truth" (a term that must appear in quotation marks) is probably simply not available to what we usually mean when we use the word "experience."

I do not come to this view through Bob or even through post-modern thought, though they both point to it. In fact it was Dogen's view in the 13th century, and it is the basis of Soto Zen.

Certainly Dogen, Suzuki Roshi, and Soto Zen are not saying that meditation practice is unimportant. (And neither is Professor Sharf). Far from it. But the view of meditation in Soto Zen is unique. For Soto Zen, and for all of us who practice in the Everyday Zen community, meditation is not an exercise we do in hopes of having powerful, even transformative, experiences. It is spiritual practice that we see as part of a full texture of many other practices (compassion, right speech, mindfulness in daily living, following precepts, to name a few), all of which go to making a religious culture. This culture includes our dharma relationships, our customs and various formal practices, and, yes, as Bob Sharf so much insists on, our ongoing, critical, study of Buddhist scripture and doctrine. (See the study curriculum on the webpage). We know that our participation in this culture changes our lives for the better.

In Everyday Zen we are willing to share whatever we can of this culture outside the Buddhist framework. So in my own practice and in the practice of the other teachers who are now beginning to emerge in our various groups, there is always an effort to share the meditation practice and the meditative understanding with others, whether they are interested in Buddhism or not.

Our practice is not "either/or", it is "both/and." This is probably illogical and inconsistent, so there is no use arguing for it. But in real life it works out. 


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