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Western Buddhist Teacher’s Conference Keynote Address

By: Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 06/20/2000
In Topics: Religion

In this talk delivered to an international conference of Buddhist teachers, Norman suggests several questions concerning the life of Buddhism in western culture with the attitude that it is best not to be in a rush to find answers. “Without questioning there is something to defend, and where there is something to defend trouble and suffering are not far behind.”talk delivered to Western Buddhist Teacher’s Conference, June 20, 2000. Spirit Rock, Woodacre, California

I am very honored to be able to address such an audience, and I wonder why it is that I am doing so- why not rather the many of you who are wiser and more experienced teachers than I? It is easier to see why Achaan Amaro is speaking, harder to see why I am speaking. It may be because I am on the planning committee for the conference and am one of the hosts. It also may be because this keynote address is a non-keynote address: it is to be brief, and to raise more questions than it answers. Raising more questions than I am able answer is a specialty of mine and that is what I would like to do in my talk- and I think this is what we would like to do also in this conference: not so much present to each other our views and visions of the how and where and why of Dharma in its new turning in the West, but rather provoke in each other many questions. Let our hair down so to speak and uncover questions and doubts we may not even now know that we have. I wonder if we will be able to have enough confidence in each other to raise questions without rushing quickly to answer them. But that is what I hope we try to do.

I am one who like many of you is a student of the world, a student of life. I am interested in what goes on. Also, as a poet whose subject matter is more or less language itself, I am curious about how we make the world we live in, and how that world can be unmade. It seems to me that in the last half of the last century there was much trouble and also- not uncoincidentally- much thinking that was very confusing. If you followed all of that work in language philosophy, in technology, in science, in cultural and critical studies, you may have found yourself like me aware of the many contradictions, paradoxes, and blurrings of our time. If it was ever a simple thing to be a person it is now clearly not such a simple thing.

I have been very grateful, as I know many if you have also been, to have been able to study the Dharma, and to find there a purity of truth that is sustaining not only for the mind but also for the heart. And I think it has been marvelous that the Dharma, particularly as represented on behalf of all of us by His Holiness Dalai lama,has been actively involved in all this post modern perplexity. The Dharma has been an island of sanity in the midst of troubled waters. But it is clear also that the Dharma is not a solid rocky coast, not a fixed entity impervious to the changes and challenges of the times. And this is one reason why all of us are here. We have things to talk about.

I would like to share some of my own thoughts about the confusions that confront us, as I see them. In my view, what is interesting about these various problems is the fact that one can’t really be sure about any of it. Things seem more and more in doubt as themselves- more and more there is a blurring of boundaries, a relaxing of borders, and this is as disturbing in some ways as it is liberating in others.

Lets take some of the ideas represented right here in this conference. Here we have Tantrayana, Mahayana and so called Hinayana schools of Buddhism. I suppose many of us could give definitions of each of these schools and how each one is distinct from the others. But I am sure that if any one of us were to do this there would be immediate protests, refinements, and rewordings from others until finally we would be lost in a confusion of terminology. This may be because we, like all humans- and maybe more than many- have a certain amount of contentiousness in us, but I think more than this it would be because it is no longer clear what the differences between these schools is. After a short half century or less of the mixing of the schools in the West, there may no longer be any really important distinctions between them that are worth mentioning. It is not clear whether this is true or not- and if it is whether it is a good thing for Dharma or a bad thing.

But lets go further afield: suppose we were to attempt to make clear distinctions between Buddhism and the Western religions? Even here we might find ourselves, after some initial certainty, once again in confusion and doubt. I was at a conference a few years ago in which HH Dalai Lama said, with a bemused tone of voice, that he supposed that in a way perhaps emptiness was after all like a creator god in that it is only thanks to emptiness that anything at all exists. And more and more we are seeing Buddhism mixed in with Christianity and Judaism- I know that some of the most respected teachers in the room today would say that there really is no difference between the traditions at bottom. Is this is true or not- and is it’s truth or falseness a good thing or a bad thing? Is Buddhism disappearing into Western culture, or is it transforming Western culture? And can any of us tell the difference between these two things?

But what about further still: beyond religion to secularism. I am astonished by how often I see the word “zen” mentioned in book review sections, sports pages- almost anywhere I look. References to meditation practice are even more ubiquitous. It is even on the Oprah Winfry show. When I began practicing Zen thirty years ago zazen practice was an obscure hard core spiritual austerity indulged in only by the young and desperate. Now aging housewives do it for their health and well being, and they learn it through the dozens of books you can surf on the web with titles like “Meditation Made Simple” “Meditation for Beginners” “Meditation and Everyday Life,” “Meditation for The Heart,” “Meditation for The Soul.”Maybe some of you have written these books. Maybe I have myself. Is this a positive development?

Last time we had this conference we were all Western born teachers teaching in the West. This time, and I am sure we are all very glad of it, we are teachers in the West, some of us born and acculturated here, some of us born and raised in Asia. I find as I study Dharma more that I become aware of a tremendous cultural gap between Asia and the West. Thirty years ago I felt that I understood the Japanese mind and the Japanese approach to Dharma very well; today I am baffled by it and see it as something very foreign. I wonder if I have gotten more stupid or more wise. And I wonder if there are any Japanese people anymore- I mean non-Westernized, traditional, pure Japanese, just as I wonder of there are any actual Tibetans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese, or Thais. And I wonder if there are any Americans either. Certainly America Buddhist students are not Americans. How could they be? Buddhism is an Asian religion. I do not know if anyone any longer can feel assured of his cultural background, or, if he looks deeply enough inside at all that has influenced him, can even begin to sort it all out in any coherent way.

I am sure that most of us here feel a natural respect for and reliance on our Asian roots and those teachers who carry those roots. But what is more important- that someone be Master of a tradition, or master of the culture in which that tradition is being disseminated? And can you separate these two things in any meaningful way? I remember years ago attending my first month long retreat in America with the great Japanese Zen abbot Zenkei Shibayama. All of us young Americans were enormously impressed by Shibayama Roshi’s presence and manner. We had never before seen an enlightened teacher, and it thrilled us. During the retreat we would stay up late into the night discussing his powerful presence: was it simply due to the fact of his foreignness, his Asian appearance and manner, or was it his spiritual attainment? We could never decide, and we finally realized that it was an impossible question: that there was no way to tell the difference between the two. That his enlightenment and his Japaneseness were not two things but one thing that could never be teased apart? Where does that leave us?

The transmission of Buddhism to the West is almost certainly no more jarring a transition that was the transmission from India to China, India to Tibet, or from China to Vietnam or Japan. But in those cases it was a transmission across space and across culture. In our case we have not only a transmission across space and culture, but also across time. How much of what we have received as Buddhism is a twentieth century tradition and how much of it is of the Medieval or Feudal periods in its countries of origin? How much did the great late nineteenth and early twentieth century Asian teachers receive a transformed tradition and work to further transform it, and how much did they receive something much older than the centuries in which they lived? And if they did receive an older Buddhism- would we call that a purer Buddhism, or would we call it a decadent, outmoded form? And if we were to undertake to make such a judgment, how could we do so without being blinded by our own cultural biases?

These are just a few small points. I would like also to have the time to say something about the masculine nature of the Buddhism we have received and how thorough a challenge it is and will be to the tradition to take on and seriously reflect on the changes that a feminization of Buddhism will bring; I would also like to wonder with you about the phenomenon in America of African-American Dharma and the passion and power it will some day bring to the Dharma. If we let all that in- and we want to let it all in, and even if we did not want to it would come in anyway and we could not stop it – will we have Buddhism or something else? And what is Buddhism exactly? Is there a core of it that we can count on, that is somehow impervious to change? A core we can clearly separate from the outward trappings that do change? I am hoping Achaan Amaro will help us with this. I am not sure what his point will be- I hope that it will be less perplexing than mine.

But perhaps you are not perplexed by what I have been saying- perhaps you remember that I am not the first Buddhist to call Buddhism into question. It is a noble tradition in the Dharma to call the noble tradition of the Dharma into question: Nagarjuna did it much more elegantly than I, and our Zen ancestors didn't do such a bad job either. As I said at the outset, questions are good, questions are necessary. Without questions there is something to defend, and where there is something to defend trouble and suffering are not far behind.

I myself and I know all of you here have a great trust in the dharma. Trust is not the same thing as knowing what you are doing, but personally I prefer it. I hope many of you here know what you are doing. I don’t particularly know what I am doing, but I trust what I am doing, and I trust all of you. This seems a good place from which to begin our conference. Let me finish with a very brief poem of Paul Celan, one of my favorite poets.

A roar: it is
truth itself
stepping among
right into the