A New American Buddhism?



Do you think that "American Dharma" will be a hybrid of Insight Meditation/Zen/Vajrayana eventually? It seems to me that Ningmapa teachings in particular might be expressed to westerners in a language that sounds more Americanized Zen than, say, Tibetan.



Kazuaki Tanahashi

Kazuaki Tanahashi

Dear Friend,

I really appreciate your question. My teachers have always been of the rime or non-sectarian movement. My understanding of the rime movement is that its purpose is not to homogenize the traditions but rather respect the distinctness of each one, and then—as with all teachings—find the essential meaning and make it come alive in you as a practitioner. The great Tibetan rime master, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, traveled throughout Tibet his entire life collecting empowerments from people who held lineages that were almost extinct. I believe sometimes there was only one old man or woman alive, living out in some remote village, who had received a particular empowerment. JKW had to teach him how to give an empowerment and then he could receive it. He could have just said, “Oh, all the practices and lineages are the same..." but we are talking about a long tradition, not only of practices and forms, but of realization. Very precious.

There is something very special about each tradition. Many years ago I spent some time in Thailand. It is so inspiring to see the monks out in the early morning wearing saffron robes with their begging bowls. We would make offerings to them in the morning and it seemed as if we were alive during the time of the Buddha. We shared with them the love of the Buddha’s path…and yet it was a new and very special experience for us; a privilege to be a part of.

I also feel that way with Zen. There is something so simple and beautiful about the expression of Zen practice, the tradition of the koan and the structure of the group retreat. The language and approach is so much different than, say the Tibetan tradition, which is so earthy and colorful.

In Bodhgaya, Buddhists come from all over the world to sit under the Bodhi tree. Everyone is chanting in a completely different way. And they are burning totally different kinds of incense, even. The Indians are wearing saffron robes, the Tibetans are wearing maroon robes. The Koreans are wearing white robes…or is it grey? Anyway, I have seen both white and grey under the tree! It is the most extraordinary scene. But we have all traveled a great distance to sit under that one tree. It is the most extraordinary sensory offering one could witness. May it continue!

Having said all of this…we do need to find ways to express the dharma so that things are clear as dharma is transplanted in the West. I find it an interesting challenge myself. For instance, I have a great love for the emptiness teachings of the Mahayana. So I decided to write a book about this. I have had the opportunity to study the traditional texts with my teacher. But many people do not. The traditional texts can be quite difficult. It’s not something to do on your own. And it takes much time to understand them. At least it did for me.

At the same time I feel that it is important to understand emptiness. I wanted to find a way to talk about it without using the technical language in order to make it more accessible. So I decided to write a book about emptiness without using the word emptiness (except in one chapter where I explained why I didn’t use it). Many people said that they have begun to understand what emptiness means through the book. So I think if we approach things with the spirit of “How can I communicate emptiness (or whatever) in a way that people can understand” we can work with language creatively. But we don’t have to reject the tradition. We don’t have to make everything sound the same.

I think what we are talking about here is keeping the juice of the tradition alive. Sometimes I wonder about this notion of creating a new American Buddhism. I think it is more important to probe deeply and personally into the meaning of the teachings and practice and the lineage of realization.

If the focus of the practitioner is on waking up, then maybe there will be no need to reject anything. I always say, if someone hands you a bag of gold, you will not complain “Oh, I wish a woman gave it to me instead of a man” or “I wish an American gave it to me instead of an Asian.” You will know the value of the gold. You will appreciate whoever gave it to you.

To be an independent and thoughtful person we also don’t have to reject where we came from. I always appreciate how the wisdom of the dharma came to me because it has given me a way to live in a deeply meaningful way and taught me to use my life well.

When I contemplate what the Buddha taught I don’t see it as being about culture. I think the Buddha was asking basic human questions about suffering, it’s cause, freedom and so on. These questions are beyond culture and beyond time. It seems to me that those who have the genuine desire and guts to ask these questions are the ones who keep the flame of the dharma bright.

Katarina Bergh