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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Meditation and Conquering Fear

Our local station KABC ran an interesting story on the Healthy Living segment of the afternoon news about how meditation and overcoming fears. It had to do with a Burbank father of two diagnosed with lymphoma who was so fearful of the radiation treatment he was almost willing to forgo it. He did refuse to wear the mask that is apparently required.  This irrational fear stemmed from his claustrophobia.

Being a very short segment, the piece did not go into a lot of detail about the meditation angle, but did say this:

Sedatives didn’t help, so his doctor recommended visual guided imagery. Raking in a zen garden is one form of relaxation, but visual guided imagery is a specialized form of meditation that teaches a patient to focus on their breath and different muscle groups.

“It can be really helpful for people in terms of increasing immune functioning, helping to deal with daily stress levels,” said Dr. Harden.

After a few weeks the patient overcame his fears to the point that he could do the treatment and he felt that he had learned to excerize more control over his mind.

I’m not sure I would describe focusing on your breath as visual guided imagery, and even less sure what they mean by that, but the bottom line here is further proof that meditation is a powerful tool we can use in dealing with all manner of suffering. If you want to watch the segment here is the link to ABC7’s site.

As far as visual meditation goes, I think it helps to break away from focusing on your breath occasionally, if that is your primary practice. Doing something different prevents “mindfulness” from getting stagnant. Visual meditation to me means using some image or object other than your breath as the object of meditation. This can be loving-kindness meditation, or visualizing the chakras or a mandala, and so on. I’ve had some good experiences with visual meditation – I like the term creative visualization better – especially in group settings where I have been both a participant and the one guiding the meditation. I don’t know if it is any more effective, but it makes you feel better, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as it doesn’t become a sort of drug or escapism.

Actually, I don’t think the method or technique matters as much as our frame of mind – our intention. I think its all about learning how to concentrate deeply and keep it going. This brings to mind something that Lama Govinda wrote in Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness:

Just as the archer concentrates on his aim and becomes one with it in order to hit the mark with certainty, so the meditator must first indentify himself with the aim and feel one with it. This gives impetus and direction to his striving. Then, whatever his ways and methods – whether creative or discriminating, emotional or intellectual, synthesizing or analyzing, imaginative or discursive – he will always proceed toward his aim. He will neither get lost in the desert of discrimination and dissection, nor cling to the products of his imagination . . .

The demonstration of the mind’s capacity to create a world and dissolve it again, demonstrates better than any intellectual analysis the true nature of all phenomena and the senselessness of all craving and clinging.

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Lama of the White Clouds

Yesterday’s quote by Lama Govinda was from his book, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism.

Lama_GovindaLama Govinda was an interesting guy. He was born Ernst Hoffman in 1898, the son of a Bolivian mother and a German father. He served in the German army during WWI and discharged after two years when he contracted tuberculosis.  In 1928, he went to Sri Lanka where he studied under Nyanatiloka, a German Theravadin monk, and took the name Govinda. A year later, he became a Bhikkhu in Burma.

Although he later was considered an expert in Tibetan Buddhism, originally he was opposed to it. He considered the Tibetan tradition demonic. However, his view changed after a meeting with Tomo Geshe Rimpoche.

He lived in India for thirty years, much of that time spent in seclusion, and during that period he also founded a number of Buddhist organizations, worked with universities, including Tagore University, and published quite a few books. In the 1960’s he lectured extensively around the world, eventually settling in San Francisco area where he died in 1985.

As his interest in Tibetan Buddhism grew, he left Theravada and married a Persian photographer, Ratti Petit, who took the name Li Gotami. He was the first Western Lama, which simply means “teacher”, and it was his teachings that were largely responsible for popularizing Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

In addition to being a prolific prose writer, Lama Govinda was also a poet and abstract painter. He was an extraordinary scholar, and a mystic, yet I have always found his brand of mysticism to be filtered through a practical and scientific view of the various forces and processes of our world, coupled with a forward thinking mindset.

Along with the book mentioned above, some of his other works include, The Way of the White Clouds (the story of his journey through Tibet before the Chinese invasion of 1950), The Psychological Attitude of Early Buddhist Philosophy, Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness, The Inner Structure of the I Ching, and A Living Buddhism for the West, in which he wrote:

“It is time for people to wake up and realize that the great religions have collected many things at a superficial level in the course of centuries, things that were significant for these religious movements at particular points in their history. But we, as people of our time, should recognize that it is not our task either to imitate the forms of past ages or to take over without question thought patterns that were once valid but are not outmoded. Rather we should try to extract from a doctrine everything that is relevant to our own time. The point is to distill the essence for our own daily practice and meditation, while recognizing what is outmoded for what it is: the record of previous stages that led to the religious, social, and cultural situation of the present time.”

Religions must grow and change if they are to be “living” and relevant to our times. New interpretations should be formed which are based upon evidence of known facts, pointing to the necessity of understanding history properly.  It is easier to see where you are going, if you know where you have been.

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