Where The Mind is Without Fear: Denison, Nimoy, and Avijit Roy

American Buddhist pioneer Ruth Denison has passed away at the age of 92. She suffered a massive stroke a few weeks ago and was in hospice care.

Denison by Robert Beatty
Denison by Robert Beatty

Ruth Schäfer was born in Germany, where she saw first hand the horror of the Nazis and then immediately after World War II suffered abuse from Russian soldiers in occupied Berlin. She soon left her homeland, came to America, and settled in Los Angeles. There she met Henry Dennison, an independently wealthy intellectual who stimulated an interest in Ruth for the burgeoning counter-culture and Eastern philosophy. Gatherings at their Hollywood Hills home included such people as Alan Watts, Lama Govinda, and Aldous Huxley

In 1960, they traveled to the East, spent time at Zen monasteries in Japan and eventually found themselves in Burma where they met lay Buddhist teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin and learned the art of vipassana or “insight” meditation. Ruth Denison was one of only four Westerners to receive permission to teach from Khin.

In 1977, she founded the Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center in Joshua Tree, California where she stayed until she suffered her stroke.

One of her students, Sandy Boucher, who has written extensively on women and Buddhism, authored a biography Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison, in which she writes that “Ruth brought a strongly female, body-centered approach to Buddhist practice, when this was seen as radical and subversive.” As I understand it, what Boucher means by “body-centered” is that Denison encouraged “deep exploration of our body sensations, with great penetration and subtlety.”

I had always meant to venture out to Joshua Tree and avail myself of an opportunity to meet and learn from this pioneer Buddhist teacher, but I never did. That was a mistake. All I can do now is offer a deep and solemn gassho . . .

Star Trek was definitely a part of the counter-culture that exploded during the 1960’s and you didn’t have to be a sci-fi fan to enjoy the program. I am sad to learn of the death of Leonard Nimoy. He passed away Friday at his home in Bel-Air at the age of 83 from end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Because many of the Star Trek writers were of a certain frame of mind, traces of Eastern philosophy were occasionally woven into the scripts. Nimoy was Jewish by birth and I don’t know if he followed that faith or not, nor do I know the context he was speaking in when he made this remark: “I’m touched by the idea that when we do things that are useful and helpful — collecting these shards of spirituality — that we may be helping to bring about a healing.”

The LA Times described his Mr. Spock role as “transcendent.” I think it is safe to say that after Star Trek Leonard Nimoy lived well and prospered . . . If you ever come to Los Angeles, be sure to visit the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater at the Griffith Observatory.

Writer Avijit Roy, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi origin, and his wife, Rafida Ahmed, were attacked by machete-wielding assailants Thursday while returning from a book fair in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. Ahmed was seriously injured. Roy was hacked to death.

He was a engineer, writer and blogger. His website Mukto-Mona was “an Internet congregation of freethinkers, rationalists, skeptics, atheists, and humanists of mainly Bengali and South Asian descent.” [Wikipedia] Roy was also the author of a number of books and for his writings on human rights, philosophy, religion and science he received several death threats from Islamic extremists. One news report on his death described Roy as “the blogger who wouldn’t back down”.

Avijit Roy/Facebook
Avijit Roy/Facebook

The BBC writes, “Mr Roy’s followers argue that many of his secular ideas are in the tradition of the great Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, who died in 1941 and is often referred to as ‘Bengal’s Shakespeare’”. In the photo to the right, he holds one of Tagore’s books. Tagore coined the phrase “The Endless Further” that is used as the title of this blog, and no doubt were he around today he would have felt a deep kinship with Avijit Roy. I cannot do a complete profile of Roy here, so those who are interested in learning more, I suggest you follow some of the links embedded in this post.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

– Rabindranath Tagore

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The Impossible Dreamer: A Pioneer of American Buddhism

Lately I have written too many tribute posts for individuals who have passed away. Some readers may be finding it monotonous, but here is one more . . . one that I just had to write.

I learned last week that George M. Williams, former General Director of the Soka Gakkai International-USA, died on November 12. He was 83.

I’ve been critical of certain aspects about the Soka Gakkai, yet I have always mentioned there are, or were at one time, many positive sides. Mr. Williams for me epitomized the best values espoused by Buddhism, and as the title of this post indicates, he was a pioneer of American dharma, on the same par as individuals whose names are better known.

GMW-1a
George M. Williams

I don’t know how to explain Mr. Williams to you. I suspect most of you have had no experience with the Soka Gakkai. The SG’s approach to Buddhism is very different from what you are no doubt familiar with, and to paint a complete portrait of this man and his style of leadership would require a great deal of supplementary information. Rather than a full portrait, I hope I can provide at least a good sketch.

George M. Williams was born as Masayasu Sadanaga in Korea in 1930. He first met the man who would become his mentor in life, Daisaku Ikeda, in Japan in the early 1950’s. Ikeda was the Soka Gakkai’s Youth Division leader at the time, but in actuality, he ran the organization from behind the scenes. It was a kind of rite of passage for up-and-coming young men in the organization to go to Ikeda’s house and give him a massage. Sadanaga was one such youth, and that is how the two men began their relationship.

Sadanaga came to America in 1957 to study at UCLA. Ikeda asked him to visit U.S. members when he had spare time. There were only a handful of SG members, mostly Japanese war brides, scattered across the country. After Sadanaga graduated from the University of Maryland with a M.A. in Political Science, Ikeda implored him to stay in the U.S. and head the fledgling SG branch then called Nichiren Shoshu of America, or simply, NSA. Thus began a great saga, a quest really, of 30 years, during which the future George M. Williams crisscrossed the country tirelessly promoting Buddhism, organizing regional groups, and encouraging members.

In the late 1960’s Sadanaga had legally changed his name. He always claimed that George Washington inspired the first name. Obviously, it was calculated to make him seem more American. One of the major aims of NSA was to try to make Buddhism a part of American society. I imagine much of this direction came from Ikeda, but Mr. Williams brought his own unique creativity to the task. NSA was still rather small at that time. Mr. Williams promoted America and Buddhism by organizing patriotic themed conventions, parades, and musical shows, among other endeavors.

By the 1980’s NSA had grown considerably. In 1985 we sponsored a World Peace Culture Festival in Honolulu, Hawaii. As we prepared for the festival, one night there was a big rally at the NSA auditorium on Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica. Mr. Williams led several thousand of us in singing “Blue Hawaii” and “Pearly Shells.” He said we were the “pearly shells from the ocean”, bodhisattvas rising from the earth. Not everyone’s dream necessarily came true in Blue Hawaii, but it was a grand event I’ll never forget.

We took over the Wakiki Shell, built our own elaborate stage on top of the existing one, and for two nights put on a four-hour musical extravaganza. On the Fourth of July we held a parade down Kalakaua Ave. with 13,000 members carrying American flags, and that was in addition to the marching bands, floats, and of course, the Young Men’s Division Gymnastics Team. We presented the Mayor of Honolulu with a petition containing 250,000 signatures calling for a ban on nuclear weapons.

Mr. Williams with Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, 1987
Mr. Williams with Philadelphia Mayor W. Wilson Goode, 1987

Two years later, an NSA member discovered the existence of an exact replica of the Liberty Bell, cast from the very same forge. Somehow NSA latched onto it and Mr. Williams dubbed it “The New Freedom Bell.” He took it all across the country, staging rallies in major cities, the highpoint of which was when Governors, Mayors, and most importantly, everyday people got a chance to ring the bell.

But it wasn’t for these kind of events alone that Mr. Williams deserves to be called a pioneer of American Buddhism. He and the other pioneer leaders and members introduced Buddhism to literally hundreds of thousands of Americans. If only a handful ended up actually practicing Buddhism in the end, it is still an unprecedented achievement.

Discipline was strict under Mr. Williams. Practicing Buddhism in NSA was not a part-time gig. Practice consisted of not only chanting the title of the Lotus Sutra and a twice-daily recitation of two chapters from the sutra, but also participating in ‘faith’ (organizational) activities. We were told that the purpose of the activities was to strengthen our fundamental practice, that what we learned from doing activities would be engraved in our hearts, and we could then apply it to our daily life. Through this action, from this sort of practice, an inner transformation of the individual could take place.

There was also an emphasis on developing people. Helping others to achieve their fullest potential. Taking care of others. In no other group, have I ever seen such focus on and dedication to practicing as a bodhisattva. It wasn’t entirely pure, not altogether selfless. Much of the member-care was driven by a perpetual need to strengthen and promote the organization. That was one of the negatives.

The guidance we used to receive seems filled with platitudes, but when you tried to implement them, they suddenly became profound. In NSA, we were taught that everything is inside us, never to blame or judge others, look for the “diamond” in others. Be sincere, speak to others from the heart. We learned discipline, something many of us, myself included, sorely needed. Setting a goal and struggling to accomplish it was not a matter of strategy, but depended largely on one’s faith, the depth of one’s practice. “The more one struggles, the higher one’s life condition becomes,” Mr. Williams used to say.

Frankly, the discipline wasn’t any more severe that what you would experience in a monastery or on a retreat. I considered it kind of like a modern form of Zen training. We called it “training on the run.” But some people couldn’t handle it. It was relentless, never-ending. There was always some campaign to work on: membership drives, another convention, another parade, home visits . . .

When it came to practice, Mr. Williams led the way. Each morning, when he was in town, he arrived at the headquarters building on Wilshire Boulevard and chanted for an hour and a half. That was about the only time he ever remained stationary. He seemed to be possessed with a form of kinetic energy, always in motion, and he had a boundless sense of optimism.

His favorite song was “The Impossible Dream” from Man from La Mancha. While ‘tilting at windmills’ is usually taken as an analogy for delusion, in this song it’s about dreaming big dreams, fighting unbeatable foes, or as Mr. Williams would tell us “never giving up”:

This is my quest, to follow that star
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far
To fight for the right, without question or pause
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause

George M. Williams gave his entire life for the cause of promoting Buddhism in America. He was rewarded for his unsparing effort by having his mentor, his “forever sensei“, Ikeda, use him as a scapegoat for some of the controversies confronting the American organization at the time when Ikeda wanted to force a split from the Nichiren Shoshu priesthood.

Ikeda came to the U.S. in 1990 to “save us” he claimed. From what? The people who were only carrying out his wishes, the people who got their marching orders directly from him? The contention was that Mr. Williams and the American leaders had strayed, become extreme, drifted too far from President Ikeda’s direction. I have a clear memory of Ikeda walking unannounced into a meeting held in Malibu while Mr. Williams was speaking, interrupting and berating him for being “militaristic.” A charge leveled at Ikeda himself many times only a decade before. It was sad and disgusting, but I remember Mr. Williams taking it like a stalwart soldier, brave, smiling.

Mr. Williams was removed from his position as General Director in the early 1990s when the schism between the Soka Gakkai and Nichiren Shoshu was at its height. Soon afterward, rumors began to circulate about his alleged transgressions: that he plotted with the priests against Ikeda, that he tried to get rich off NSA, and so on.

Mr. Williams’ greatest asset, and to some degree his greatest fault, was his single-minded dedication to the “cause” and to Ikeda. I never once heard Mr. Williams speak, informally or in front of a group, without talking about “our President Ikeda”, praising him, quoting him, throwing the spotlight back on Ikeda as the central figure of the Soka Gakkai. The idea that Mr. Williams was some sort of “lone wolf” is absurd. From Day One, there were advisors from Japan around to look over his shoulder, and report back to Ikeda. I can’t believe that Mr. Williams took money from the organization for his own purposes. He did not get rich. He lived in a modest house in Santa Monica with his wife. They struggled with their finances like everyone else.

The story of how Nichiren Shoshu/Soka Gakkai Buddhism was brought to the United States is one usually left out of books like Rick Field’s How the Swans Came to the Lake, an otherwise definitive history of Buddhism in America. Over the past 20 years, the Soka Gakkai has been busy rewriting this history to magnify Ikeda’s role and to minimize Mr. Williams’. I can’t help but feel that it was truly despicable the way he was pushed off to the sidelines, discarded like a rag, and forgotten. The valiant efforts and sacrifices made by Mr. Williams and the other NSA pioneers deserve remembrance, and deserved to be honored.

I’ve heard that Mr. Williams had Alzheimer’s. There are a couple of brief videos of him from 2010 on YouTube. He doesn’t seem quite all there, but they are such short snippets, it’s hard to tell. I find myself hoping it was true, as perverse as it sounds. I hope that he wasn’t fully aware of how he was being maligned, and written out of history.

This has been a long tribute. However, you will be hard-pressed to learn about George M. Williams anywhere else, and I thought you should know.

I haven’t meant to make it sound as though he was perfect. He wasn’t, of course. He had his faults like anyone else. His vanities, too. He wore lifts and piled his hair up ala early 60’s Elvis to appear taller than he was. While, he may have been small in statue, he was a giant in spirit.

I will leave it with some words spoken by Mr. Williams in 1989, taken from one of my notebooks:

13,000 flag-bearers in Honolulu, July 4, 1985
13,000 flag-bearers in Honolulu, July 4, 1985

“No matter what, we should never allow ourselves to be swept away by fame or self-interest, nor abandon our pursuit. Giving up the challenge means the end of our quest to attain happiness in this lifetime. Accomplishment comes from perseverance, and no one will place you on the plateau of achievement, you have to strive to get there by yourself. By the same token, happiness is something you generate yourself, no one can give it to you. You create your own happiness, through your own actions, and then others will naturally support it.”

Goodbye “Regicho”, and thanks for the dreams, thanks for everything.

 

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I’m A Yankee Doodle Buddha

My All-time Favorite Movie

I’m a Yankee Doodle Buddha
A Yankee Doodle, do or die
A real live nephew of my Uncle Shantideva
Born in the 8th Century

I’ve got a Yankee Doodle dharma
It’s my Yankee Doodle joy
Yankee Doodle came to America
Just to hype some phonies
I am the Yankee Doodle Buddha Boy

(Apologies to Geo. M. Cohan)

Every so often, someone asks me what kind of Buddhism I practice. I used to occasionally reply, “American Buddhism.” “What’s that?” they would ask. I’d say, “I don’t know, we’re still trying to figure it out.”

Old American Buddha

I think that is probably the best thing that can be said about “American Buddhism.” Only these days, I don’t know if we need to figure it out. It’s just another label and we have enough already: Engaged Buddhism, Integral Buddhism, Existential Buddhism, Secular Buddhism, Speculative Non-Buddhism, Humanistic Buddhism, Consensus Buddhism, Post-traditional Buddhism, Neo-Buddhism, Protestant Buddhism, True Buddhism, Rebel Buddhism, Practical Dharma, Living Dharma, Buddhist Geeks, Dharma Punx, and on and on. Some of these, do not make any sense.

For a while, I practiced non-sectarian Buddhism. Another label, another “ism.” These days, I’m just a Buddhist.

New American Buddha

And, every so often, the news media discovers that some Americans practice Buddhism and then they publish articles proclaiming it to be the next big thing. Every five years, I reckon.

Several recent articles have cited findings in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Religious Landscape survey and the American Religious Identification Survey that estimated “the number of [Buddhist] adherents rose by 170 percent between 1990 and 2000, reaching 1.2 million followers in 2008.”

I find that hard to believe. I think a lot of people are interested in Buddhism. A lot of people read about Buddhism. They like the Dalai Lama and think he’s cool. But I don’t think that many actually “follow” or “practice” Buddhism.

One of these articles, at Humanities, notes that Buddhism has become a marketing tool and “its ideas permeate American culture—from song lyrics by the Beastie Boys and spiritual themes in Star Wars, to the publicly professed faith of superstars such as Tiger Woods and Richard Gere. Buddhists have been elected to Congress, and according to recent polls, Buddhists are less discriminated against than are Christians.”

A sales tool, absolutely. But the Beastie Boys, Star Wars, Tiger Woods, and Richard Gere are hardly evidence that Buddhism has permeated anything. And only two Buddhists have been elected to Congress. And I don’t buy that Buddhists are less discriminated against than Christians. The article goes on to ask the probing question, “But what do Americans really know about Buddhism?” I suspect not much when you really get down to it.

Another recent article, actually a guest blog at the Washington Post by William Wilson Quinn, delves into the matter of how Americans practice Buddhism and suggests that they are doing so in un-traditional ways. I have mixed feelings about that. Buddha-dharma must change, and will change. I’m just not so sure that people doing most of the changing know what they are doing.

My real question though, is just who the hell is this guy, William Wilson Quinn? He is identified in the blog piece as “a scholar of Buddhism and brother of On Faith’s Sally Quinn.” But I can’t find anything on the Internet about him beyond this single article which everyone and his or her brother who is not related to Sally Quinn seems to have picked up on. I don’t think he’s a real person. Maybe he’s really Sally Quinn. I think an investigation needs to be launched into this matter. Spurious people spinning specious scripts about Buddhism is suspect. Actually, this may be a job for my favorite crime-fighting Buddhist – The Green Lama!

Maybe William Wilson Quinn is a real person. Maybe American Buddhism will be the next big thing. Maybe Justin Bieber will renounce his career and all worldly things and go to live in a monastery. Maybe he is the reincarnation of John Wayne. Maybe Abraham Lincoln really was a vampire hunter. Maybe this post has no real point to it. Now, that last one is a definite possibility.

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Asian American Heritage Month

May is Asian American Heritage Month – actually, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month as proclaimed by President Barack Obama in 2009. During May all Americans, not just Asian-Americans, celebrate “The vast diversity of languages, religions, and cultural traditions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” May was chosen so to mark the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843 as well as the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, the tracks of which were laid in large part by Chinese immigrants.

In reflecting on this celebration, I find it extremely sad that there seems to be a real division between Asian-Americans and non-Asian Americans in the Buddhist community, as evidenced by a recent online discussion. I have heard many times that Asian Americans are in search of a sense of identity. I don’t know if that is at play here or not, but I feel that through my study of the history of Asians in the United States, I have a fairly decent understanding of the challenges Asian Americans have had in that regard.

What I don’t understand, specifically in relation to Buddhism in America, are accusations of colonialism and white supremacy because frankly I haven’t seen any evidence of it. And I’ve been around Buddhism quite a while. What does seem to be a factor is a certain amount of revisionist history. An example is the case of Henry Steel Olcott, who, up to now, was widely respected for his efforts to foster a revival of Buddhism in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). I recently became aware of several books which attempt to paint Olcott as a sort of white supremacist. In one, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation, Joseph Cheah, a Catholic priest, writes, “Olcotts representation of Buddhism illustrates the assumption that Euro-American values and frameworks were vastly superior to those of Asian Buddhists.” This statement contradicts everything previously known about Olcott, whom a Sri Lankan prime minister once proclaimed as “one of the heroes in the struggle for our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national, and cultural revival.”

I’ve read Cheah’s book and it’s full of inaccuracies. Furthermore, it seems that the bulk of the book is simply rehashing the somewhat dubious theories of other scholars and researchers. For Olcott, Cheah’s primary source is The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott by Steven Prothero, who is not a Buddhist but calls himself a “confused Christian” and who has written at least one other “terribly flawed book.”

White supremacy is the belief that white people are superior to people of other racial backgrounds.I just don’t believe that very many white Americans who are attracted to Asian philosophy have that in their hearts, and I don’t believe they would even be interested in Asian spirituality if they did. My experience has been the opposite. I have been interested in Buddhism for over forty years and during that time I have often reached out to Asian Buddhists and on many occasions I have felt that they have been standoffish, almost unfriendly, and have long suspected that it is they who feel superior and that they really don’t consider non-Asians as real Buddhists, or that we can ever truly fathom Buddha-dharma.

Well, there you have it. As Dave Mason once wrote in a song, “There’s only you and me and we just disagree.” There is a divide and the question is how to bridge it. While I don’t buy the claims of colonialism and white supremacy, I cannot negate the feelings of those who sincerely, without twisting facts, hold that view. Yet, I feel it only makes matters worse to engage in a war of words by taking exception to certain terms and labels when their use is well-intentioned. I think it’s a case of everyone talking and nobody listening.

Perhaps we should take our cue from an Asian Buddhist who is not an American, Thich Nhat Hanh, who advocates “deep listening.” This is the practice of listening with compassionate intention, using compassion and understanding as an antidote to conflict. Thich Nhat Hanh says,

Deep listening is the foundation of Right Speech. If we cannot listen mindfully, we cannot practice Right Speech. No matter what we say, it will not be mindful, because we’ll be speaking only our own ideas and not in response to the other person.

Deep listening is the kind of listening that can help relieve the suffering of another person. You can call it compassionate listening. You listen with only one purpose: to help him or her to empty his heart. Even if he says things that are full of wrong perceptions, full of bitterness, you are still capable of continuing to listen with compassion.”

Maybe that was what has been missing from my own experiences.

I hope that during the month of May, Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we can stop talking at and begin talking with one another, practicing deep listening as we do, and hopefully by the time June rolls around, we will be a few steps closer to the bridging this gulf between Asian and non-Asian American Buddhists. I feel that Buddhists should try to set an example for the entire world, that we should be leaders in making substantive contributions to the collapse of racial barriers, and if we, the Buddha’s children, aren’t capable of doing that in our dialogues with each other, then maybe none of us understands Buddha-dharma.

For more on APAH visit the home page at the Library of Congress.

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An American Buddhist Life

Yesterday I wrote about a book that I haven’t read. Based on the promotional material accompanying it’s release, I formed an negative impression of this work. That might seem unfair. But consider this: the author promotes his book in various ways, including interviews and writing opinion pieces. The idea is to inform potential readers about the author and his book in the hopes of creating a positive impression that will lead to book sales. Sometimes an negative one is created and that’s what happened with the book by Owen Flanagan.

Today, I’d like to mention another book, also by a scholar, which I also have not read, but one that I have a very favorable impression of: “An American Buddhist Life: Memoirs of a Modern Dharma Pioneer” by Charles S. Prebish (2011, Sumeru Press Inc.).

Prebish is a professor emeritus of religious studies at Penn State. The difference between Prebish and Owen Flanagan is that Prebish is also a practicing Buddhist. In fact, he has paved the way for scholar-practioners, a breed sorely needed. So, to me, that’s a big difference. It’s means that Prebish’s thoughts have a bit more credence since he is inside the practice, not outside looking in.

Prebish is also a founding co-editor of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics and the Journal of Global Buddhism, co-editor of the Routledge Curzon Critical Studies in Buddhism series and the Routledge Curzon Encyclopedia of Buddhism project, an officer in the International Association of Buddhist Studies, and co-founder of the Buddhism Section of the American Academy of Religion. If that isn’t enough he’s  written or edited more than 20 books. In other words, he’s got some credentials.

The book is a memoir that details Prebish’s “role in bringing the field of American Buddhism to prominence. The difficulties he faced in establishing American Buddhism as a legitimate field of study, and in trying to be recognized as a “scholar-practitioner,” as one reviewer describes it. The subject of Buddhist studies is not an altogether un-sexy, since apparently Prebish dishes some dirt and names names. It’s also an informal history of Buddhism in America. As I said, I haven’t read the book, which was released in May, nor have I been able to find any excerpts. However, according to the publisher,

Dr. Prebish has been involved in virtually everything exciting in the Buddhist world over the past forty-five years. Because of his unique involvement and longevity, he has an incredible historical record to document and share, and a huge number of stories to tell. These stories allow us to share his incredible personal journey, and provide a true “insider’s” viewpoint.

This sounds infinitely more worthwhile that yet another “lets-fix-Buddhism” tome, a genre that is growing increasingly tiresome. Some of the self-proclaimed historians on the Net who claim that modern Buddhism is some sort of conspiracy being foisted upon us would do well to read some of Prebish’s other books (such as “Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America”) in order to learn something of the real history of Buddhism in the West.

When Prebish calls himself a pioneer, he isn’t kidding. He was one of the first to have “touched on Buddhism as a ‘Western’ phenomenon in any classroom in North America” (his own words). And while he is concerned with the development of “modern” Buddhism, from what I have read of his work, Prebish does not seem obsessed with the so-called hocus pocus aspect of Buddha-dharma, that so many others feel compelled to whine about ad nauseum.

Instead, many years ago, Prebish coined the term “two Buddhisms”: Asian-American Buddhists, practicing what might be described as “family Buddhism” vs convert white Buddhists centered around “sometimes only meditation.” In the early 90s, he rejected the notion that Asian-Americans were contributing little to the development of American Buddhism. Rather, he saw that both Buddhisms were doing valuable work and that if they could only talk with each other, it might be possible to create a harmonious American Buddhism that had nothing to do with one’s ethic or religious background.

This, I think, is an important issue facing Buddhism in the West. Complaining endlessly about karma and rebirth and hocus pocus does not bring us together. It doesn’t add much to our understanding of dharma, since the supernatural aspects are only there if you take everything literally.

Yesterday, I mentioned the spirit of Buddhism. I have found this concretely stated by Lama Govinda in his book, “A Living Buddhism for the West“, in which he writes

The Dharma of the Buddha differs from many other forms of religion in that it does not demand of its followers that they should believe in anything that lies beyond the experience of the individual. It allows a fresh view of reality to ripen within us, which grows from an experience that is only possible through hard work on ourselves and service to others.

There you have it. No one has to believe anything they don’t want to. It would be nice to get past all the discussion over belief and superstition and quit disparaging others because their practice either is or is not meditation based, and starting talking about how we can transcend sectarian differences and create a holistic and inclusive home-grown Buddhism.

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