Twenty-First-Century Buddhists in Conversation - Preface

Leading voices of Buddhism discuss issues and ideas important to Buddhists in the twenty-first century.

 

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The community of Buddhist practitioners is said to be the oldest continuous institution in human history. Yet while the outward manifestations of Buddhism—its organizations, culture, and body of teachings—are vital, its essence is a living lineage of practice and realization, transmitted unbroken from teacher to student for 2,500 years. The success of this transmission has never been guaranteed. It has always depended on the realization, skill, and integrity of teachers and on the devotion, merit, and diligence of students. Particularly challenging to the success of this process are those times when the transmission of the Buddha’s teachings takes place not just from generation to generation but from country to country.

Transmission across international borders is not something that happens quickly. The establishment of a genuine Buddhist tradition in a new culture can take centuries. As Buddhism moved outward from its birthplace in India—south to Sri Lanka, north to Tibet, and east to Southeast Asia, China, and Japan—it had to adapt to the various traditions, religious beliefs, social structure, and psychology of each place, while always maintaining the essential integrity of the teachings. In every new culture to date, this has been done successfully.

Now Buddhism is in the early stages of perhaps its most difficult transition ever—to find a true home in the West.

Western culture offers unique challenges for any genuine spiritual tradition. Modern capitalism is finely tuned to create and increase materialist appetites. The explosion of entertainments and communications distances us from the present and the natural. Stress, speed, and anxiety weigh on all, and a multitude of spiritual and philosophical systems offer competing promises of relief. The ethics of individualism and egalitarianism pose a challenge to the teacher-student relationship at the heart of the Buddhist transmission.

Yet the basic challenge is the same as it’s been in every culture Buddhism has entered: to change what is culturally dependent in order to adapt to the new culture without weakening the timeless and radical truths of the Dharma; to speak in new ways to communicate effectively with the local mindset without giving in to its neuroses; and to create opportunities for serious meditation practice and Dharma study in a culture where none previously existed.

It will take many more decades at least—some say centuries—before the development of Buddhism outside of Asia is complete. I believe there are five markers that will define the successful development of Buddhism in North America, Europe, Australia, and beyond. As committed practitioners, we need to be working toward a Western Buddhism that is:

Genuine—serving only nonego and enlightenment and not corrupted by physical, psychological, or spiritual materialism.
Complete—encompassing the full range and depth of Buddhist practice, philosophy, and ritual.
Sustainable—supported by the institutions, infrastructure, and financial resources needed to establish a religious tradition that will last for generations to come.
Integrated—becoming an accepted and natural part of Western society, not a foreign implant or fringe phenomenon.
Successful—reaching all who would benefit from it.

As daunting as this may seem, the good news is that millions in North America and Europe have already been touched by Buddhist teachings and practice. Hundreds of thousands more are serious practitioners of the Dharma. Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly is where committed Buddhists come together to deepen their practice and to study and ponder the challenges Buddhism faces in the West.

Reflecting Buddhadharma’s mission to serve Buddhists of all traditions, each issue features a panel discussion bringing together leading figures from across the Buddhist spectrum. Nowhere else is such an outstanding and diverse collection of Buddhist voices assembled. They include leading Asian-born teachers and many Western Buddhists who are important and insightful teachers in their own right. They are joined by leading Buddhist academics, writers, activists, and sangha organizers.

Buddhadharma’s readership is primarily in North America, and almost all of the panelists are based in North America. Naturally, their focus is on the unique challenges they face as practitioners in the West, but the issues they discuss are relevant to Buddhists around the world. In traditionally Buddhist areas in Asia, Buddhists also face the challenges of twenty-first-century global culture and its values. This book offers them abundant experience and insight as they work to maintain or re-establish genuine Buddhist traditions in their own societies.

This book brings together twenty-seven of the best panel discussions from the pages of Buddhadharma. More than sixty of today’s outstanding Buddhist figures are represented, discussing all the important topics of concern to Western Buddhists today. I have grouped the panels into three sections:

Buddha: The Practice

The future of Buddhism always depends on the sincere and devoted practice of individual Buddhists. This section offers insight and instruction that will benefit every reader’s meditation practice. Here we can see one of the unique benefits of Buddhadharma: that while we may be practitioners of one particular school of Buddhism, we can always learn from the teachings and experience of other traditions.

Dharma: The Teachings

It is vital to Buddhism’s future in the West that practitioners not only meditate but also have a deep understanding of Buddhist teachings and philosophy. In some of these discussions, experts take us deeper into specific teachings, such as the practice of lojong and the philosophy of Dōgen. In others, leaders in different traditions debate and analyze questions of importance to all Buddhists, such as the nature of prayer, the doctrine of rebirth, and the relationship between Buddhism and Western psychology.

Sangha: The Community

Here, teachers, organizers, activists, and practitioners discuss the challenges that Buddhist communities face in Western society. Many reflect the difficulty of adapting a religion with its roots in conservative Asian countries to a modern society that values diversity, freedom, and individualism. Others offer thoughts on systemic sexism, racism, and classism that Buddhist communities are not immune to. While progress has been made, there are still many difficulties to overcome before Buddhist communities truly reflect the core value of Buddhism—that all men and women are created equal in their buddha nature.

 

Twenty-First-Century Buddhists in Conversation makes a unique contribution to Buddhism at this important moment in its history. Nowhere else are outstanding Buddhist figures of all traditions brought together to discuss such a range of important subjects. This book provides a valuable snapshot of Western Buddhism early in the twenty-first century. I hope it will deepen your practice and study and invite you to participate in this extraordinary effort to bring the Dharma to a new world. How fortunate we are to be present, here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, for this important moment in the 2,700-year history of Buddhism.

 

Buddhadharma is published by the Shambhala Sun Foundation, an independent nonprofit, and everyone at the foundation has helped make this book possible. However, two people are most responsible for this outstanding collection. Tynette Deveaux has been the editor of Buddhadharma since its birth. She is a diligent and highly professional journalist who is deeply committed to the Dharma. She is doing it real service. Many of the panels in this book were moderated by Barry Boyce, who brought to them his journalistic skills and deep knowledge of the Dharma. A longtime student of the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Barry is now benefiting all sentient beings as the editor-in-chief of Mindful magazine.

I would also like to thank our friends and colleagues at Wisdom Publications, whose work I admire greatly. Josh Bartok was the original editor for this book, and he passed the reins to Andy Francis. Both are skilled professionals and a pleasure to work with. On behalf of all Buddhists, I also want to thank Tim McNeill, president of Wisdom Publications, for his lifetime of great work for the Dharma.

Of course, the people truly responsible for this book are the more than sixty teachers, organizers, academics, and practitioners who have offered their insight and knowledge to the readers of Buddhadharma, and now to us. They are latest generation of an unbroken lineage that goes back to the Buddha himself, and their commitment and realization is our most hopeful sign for the future. They are the reason we can be optimistic Buddhism will continue to grow in the West, genuine, complete, and successful.

Melvin McLeod
Editor-in-chief
The Shambhala Sun
Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly