Sometime in the early 1970s, two Buddhist masters met in Cambridge,
Massachusetts. One of them, Kalu Rinpoche, was a renowned Tibetan
meditation master who had spent many years in solitary retreat in
the remote mountain caves of Tibet. The other was Seung Sahn, a Korean
Zen master who had recently come to the United States and was supporting
himself by working in a Providence, Rhode Island, Laundromat, slowly
planting the seeds of Zen in the minds of those coming to wash their
clothes. At this now famous meeting of enlightened minds, Seung Sahn
held up an orange and, in classic Zen dharma combat fashion, demanded, "What
Kalu Rinpoche just looked at him, wonderingly.
Again Master Seung Sahn asked,"What is this?"
Finally, Rinpoche turned to his translator and asked, "Don't
they have oranges in Korea?"
We are living in remarkable times. A genuine Western Buddhism is
now taking birth. Its defining characteristic is neither an elaborate
philosophical system nor an attachment to any particular sectarian
viewpoint. Rather, it is a simple pragmatism that harkens back to
the Buddha himself, who pointedly questioned the established tenets
of ancient Indian thought. It is an allegiance to a very simple question: "What
works? What works to free the mind from suffering? What works to
engender a heart of compassion? What works to awaken?
In the West, our open, diverse society acts like a magnet for different
spiritual traditions, and over the past few decades many people have
been turning to the wisdom of the East in search of practical and
tested methods of spiritual inquiry. Because Buddhist practices rely
on wise investigation rather than belief and dogma, they resonate
strongly with the scientific and psychological paradigms that inform
What makes this time unique in the development of Buddhism is not
only that East is meeting West, but also that isolated Asian traditions
are now meeting for the first time in centuries, and they are doing
so here in the West. Emerging from the fertile interaction of these
ancient teachings is what we can now begin to call Western Buddhism.
Not bound by Asian cultural constraints and strengthened by a society
that encourages investigation, we are willing to take what is useful
and beneficial from different traditions and add it to our own practice
experience. These diverse methods of cultivating wisdom and compassion
enhance one another and, at the same time, challenge our familiar
ways of understanding. Teachings are being tested by other points
of view, not in schools of abstract philosophy, but in our own lives
and meditation practices. Many of us are learning and practicing
several of these different disciplines simultaneously. It is not
unusual for people to list as their different teachers Tibetan Rinpoches,
Burmese Sayadaws, Korean, Japanese, or Chinese Zen masters, Thai
Ajahns, and Western teachers of all the various schools.
genuine Western Buddhism is now taking birth.
This abundance and variety of teachings in one place has not happened
since the great Indian Buddhist University at Nalanda, which ourished
from the fifth to the twelfth centuries. According to documented
reports of travelers in those times, there were over two thousand
teachers and more than ten thousand monks from all over the Buddhist
world who practiced and studied there side by side. Today, although
we are not all gathered on once campus, the ease of travel and communication
has created a similar wealth of available teachings.
But as old traditions meet in new ways, pressing questions arise.
Is the melting-pot approach simply creating a big mess in which essential
teachings of a tradition are lost? Or is something new emerging that
will revitalize dharma practice for us all? Will it be possible to
preserve the integrity of each of these distinct cultures of awakening,
even as we nurture the enrichment that comes from their contact with
each other? How much of our spiritual practice and discipline is
embedded in cultural overlays from the East that are neither relevant
nor helpful in our Western society? And do we sometimes water down
or leave behind the essence of the teachings simply because they
take us out of our Western physical or psychological comfort zone?
How much can we pare away or alter before we start missing the point
of it all?
What works to engender a heart of compassion?
works to engender a heart of compassion?
Other questions too, more personal and immediate, burned in my mind
as I began to study with teachers in different traditions, who often
expressed contradictory viewpoints. What do you do when two of your
most respected teachers say opposite things about that which is most
important to you? Which fork in the road do you take when both signposts
seem to point in the right direction? As I struggled with these dilemmas,
one underlying and vital question began to surface: Is there a path
to liberation that embraces them all?
One Dharma explores the answer to this question. It is neither a
scholarly examination of comparative Buddhism nor an exhaustive study
of particular traditions; rather, it is an inquiry born from my own
meditation practice and from a compelling interest in understanding
and realizing the essence of freedom.
Which fork in the road do you take when both signposts seem to point
in the right direction?
fork in the road do you take when both signposts seem
to point in the right direction?
This exploration leads to some fundamental and thorny issues: What
is the ultimate nature of the liberated mind? Is it something already
here that we need to recognize, as some of the traditions suggest?
Or does it have a transcendent nature quite apart from our ordinary
experience? Is it the total absence of any nature at all? Is it all
of these? Do different methods of meditation practice in fact lead
to different ends? Or, on the path of One Dharma, is there a way
of holding even opposing perspectives in a greater unity?
The investigation of these questions requires great humility. When
we step outside the safe bounds of the various individual traditions,
each consistent within itself, we need to acknowledge the exploratory
nature of a unified theory of Dharma, continually testing it against
both our experience and the teachings as they have been passed down
over thousands of years.
In Buddhism there are many names for ultimate freedom: Buddha-Nature,
the Unconditioned, Dharmakaya, the Unborn, the Pure Heart, Mind Essence,
Nature of Mind, Ultimate Bodhicitta, Nirvana. Various Buddhist traditions
give it different names, each emphasizing certain aspects of this
absolute nature. Although philosophical disputes often arise because
of these different perspectives. Some of these issues have been debated
for thousands of years. A harmonizing understanding comes when we
move away from the confines of metaphysical systems or statements
and enter into the world of direct experience.