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Exploring New Terrain

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In its long history, Buddhism has repeatedly adapted to different cultures and fresh circumstances. The lore of every major lineage honors pioneers and pilgrims who journeyed to new lands, semi-legendary figures who still serve as archetypes of spiritually motivated exploration.

The "first ancestor" of Zen, Bodhidharma, is said to have traveled all the way from India to China, reaching his goal by crossing the Yangtze River on a single reed. Padmasambhava trekked the Himalayas to bring Buddhism to Tibet. The Chinese master Chien-chen endured dangerous shipwrecks and other reversals to transmit a monastic lineage to Japan; by the time he arrived, he had gone blind. The first Westerners to seek Buddhism in once exotic places like Lhasa, Kandy, and Kyoto endured physical and emotional hardships in order to taste the wisdom of cultures that were profoundly foreign. The luminous courage of these pioneers is another attribute of bodhisattva mind.

What are the contours of terra incognita for engaged Buddhism today? Significant elements are new: methods of inner practice, forms of outer involvement, the ever-growing fields of application, even the forthright affirmation of engagement itself. As lines of inquiry go off in different directions, some quests bear fruit, and others do not. Individual and group explorations intertwine. Any map of the movement will accordingly have areas where only the coastlines can be sketched, like maps of the New World in the age of Magellan.

I don't think that we have too much sense of how to practice with a partner, a group, a community, or an ecosystem.

Donald Rothberg

A Zen teacher has described Zen practice as "a lonely trek through winding canyons of shame and fear, across deserts of ecstatic visions and tormenting phantasms, around volcanoes of oozing ego, and through jungles of folly and delusion." Although those words point to an inner spiritual journey, they also apply to engagement in the world, where a sensitive person similarly struggles with shame, fear, folly, hopeful and bleak visions, and an ego that oozes forth incessantly. Meditators who assume that mindful participation in society is relatively well-marked territory are surprised to stumble into a samsaric wilderness not very far from the meditation room. New models are needed for personal transformation and for social transformation. Today, exploration may call for reinhabiting the land rather than leaving it, and crossing disciplinary boundaries rather than crossing oceans.

Reflect on some of your past explorations. Which were especially fruitful?

Further: Is there unfamiliar terrain in your current life situation?