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            Comparing and investigating the role of the American Buddhist practitioner is of vital importance to me.  Often the Centers and Temples in this country seem to validate practice of contributing members, while not totally addressing the possible potential a person has for practice on their own.  Many factor contribute to this trend, including the concept of validation through lineage:  the idea being that true practice occurs only when connected to an official dharma lineage that can be dated back to the actual lifetime of Buddha.  Although obviously the pattern for practice came from somewhere, it is obvious that these lineage claims may in fact exaggerate or stretch the actual connections between former generations, to further validate their own identity.  Many inconsistencies arise from these endeavors, including a comparison with the Buddhist principles in regard to senses of identity or separateness.  If both of the latter are illusions, then why all the fuss about which identities agreed with you in the past?

            Another problem in dealing with the current state of affairs, namely with American Zen Buddhism, is that in rejecting the religion that they are brought up with, Americans seem to simply carry their cultural baggage into the realm of Zen Buddhism.  Greed and materialism seep in, until the practice of non-attachment becomes an abstract motive that is not actualized.  Part of non-attachment, it seems, is the capability to live with serenity and dignity whether one drives a sports car or walks; whether one can afford vacations from work or not; whether one is in a position acquired through accomplishment and advancement or not.  An ongoing tradition of world culture has been that of over-consumption by the few, resulting in the suffering of the many.  Do we contribute to this as Buddhists when we go on a retreat that bears a four-figure price tag?  I have read of retreats led by Thich Nat Hahn, in which the participants yelled at each other in the parking lot over who got to park their SUV where.  As Americans, we need to watch out for this tendency.  Perhaps the most sincere modern American actualization of Buddhist practice to date stems from the prison system.

            A certain amount of Orientalism enters in, also, when dealing with the uniquely Japanese characteristics of Zen.  Issues such as blind loyalty to a position of authority, regardless of behavior, come into play.  But no matter what the country of origin, or the certification of dharma transmission, if the lay precepts cannot even be followed or actualized then the whole process becomes a shadowplay done for looks….the essence gone, absorbed by the pages of glossy, expensive books that seek to validate the teachers in question.   Once a Zen Buddhist, “enlightened” or not, drinks, indulges in sex and affairs, abuses the power that is granted by the students, boasts of their own status, or harps on the superiority of Japanese culture, a heartfelt reevaluation must be made by the people in support of such a person.  It is very hard to do; but it must be done.

            America has the potential to bring equality, democracy, and a healthy sense of questioning authority to the practice of Zen Buddhism.  It also has the potential to immerse the entire practice into a sort of cultural elitism, materialism, hedonism, and outright quests for power in a variety of manifestations.  The individual practitioner, whether alone or not, has a role to play in establishing this tradition.  We must be very, very careful how we do this.


Links of Interest:

The Buddhist Icon and the Modern Gaze (by Bernard Faure)

A Code of Ethics For Spiritual Guides

Coming Down From the Zen Clouds

American Buddhists: Who Are They?



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