The development of a genuine Buddhist tradition in the eWest will be natural and slow – centuries long, even – cautions Eido Roshi in this interview with Melvin McLeod.
Eido Roshi has been continuously at the center of Buddhism in America—watching it, helping it grow—longer than any other living person. He has taught Zen to Americans for almost half a century, and so it is not surprising he takes a long view of how American Buddhism, to which he has devoted his life, will come to be. Not for him our impatience to “spread the dharma.” For Eido Roshi, the development of a genuine Buddhist tradition in the West must be natural and slow—centuries long, even. But to doubt that it will happen, he says, or to rush or strategize it, is to show a lack of trust in the dharma. I was joined in this discussion by Peter Turner, president of Shambhala Publications, someone who also thinks deeply about Buddhism’s future. Our conversation with Eido Roshi changed my understanding of the task before Buddhists in the West in a way that is both a joy and a relief.
Buddhadharma: As Buddhism has progressed in the West, it has adopted a diversity of forms, some highly adapted to contemporary life, others quite traditional. From your perspective, what is the relationship between the outward forms of Buddhism and its essence?
Eido Roshi: As you know, I was born and was trained in Japan. Over there the form is so important. It seems there is no separation between essence and form: form is a manifestation of the essence.
When I came to America, I brought what I had learned, and I would say that the way I introduced Buddhism was to introduce the form: how to stand up, how to put palms together, how to bow, how to sit, how to breathe, and so on. How to, how to, how to.
At first, Americans were quite obedient, out of their curiosity and enthusiasm to learn something new. But as you can guess, at some point they started to resist the form. They started to say, “Well, Buddhism is not a form, it is a spirit. What is important is the essence, not the form.” This is what I heard constantly over the years and when I upheld Japanese tradition, they would always say, “Well, this is America. We are Americans.” Which is true. This is America and my students are Americans, predominantly.
I often asked, “Then, why do you keep coming here?” They would say, “There is an indescribable attraction.” Certainly it is indescribable. Even to me it is indescribable. To live in a neat, clean, strict environment-some kind of atmosphere is created by the form, which is none other than the essence. To separate these two aspects doesn’t work.
Yet as form evolves from one culture to the next, how does one safeguard that the essence is still there? There is a lot of confusion about this question.
Actually, this confusion is inevitable-it is an inevitable gift, I should say. If we are not confused, then we cannot create anything new. For a certain period of time, whether it is fifty years, one hundred years or perhaps even longer, this confusion may continue. And, with the readiness of time, new American Buddhism is formed. This is how I look at it.
Is there a difference between what you are saying and those who are promoting the creation of an American Buddhism now?
It’s a matter of the degree of patience. American style, it seems to me, is: “The more the better, the quicker the better. More is better than less; quick is better than slow.” But when we look at Shakyamuni Buddha, he spent years and years in his struggle. It was not overnight enlightenment. And he made this progress all by himself-there was no sangha, no teacher. So when we look at the origin of Buddhism, it is not necessarily like the American way of thinking-the more the better, the quicker the better. There is some element, some essence of Buddhism that cannot be expedited. With ceaseless effort we have to follow the Way until the readiness of time. There is no shortcut.
Do you think that we in the West are fooling ourselves about how easy Buddhism is?
Ah, allow me to be frank.
I have such an impression, yes.
Maybe that’s because we don’t take the objectives of Buddhism seriously enough. If we see that Buddhism addresses the most fundamental and profound questions of life-life, death, suffering, the nature of reality-then how could we think it would be fast or easy?
I think that you have said it very well. The matter of life and death, the matter of who we really are-these are the most profound questions for all human beings, regardless of religious background. Buddhism addresses these points as some of its most important objectives. owever these are not at all easy questions to answer. They require strenuous practice and years of training.
Now, people in the West become sort of discouraged. But as far as human nature and buddhanature are concerned, my unshakable conviction is that there is no East, no West–certainly no Japan, no Tibet, no America. The difference is that the concept of time seems to be quite different nowadays. If you were born two hundred years ago, when there were no automobiles, airplanes or computers, you had no choice but to ‘take your time.’ Now everything is quick, quick. We can pick up a telephone and reach someone across the world instantly. We are so used to this kind of convenience. The disadvantage is that we forget that from sunrise to sunset, there is no way for us to accelerate the day. Twenty-four hours a day-we cannot shrink it.
So as our lives and our expectations have speeded up, our time frame has shortened?
I think it’s a deception. We are deceived. Two hundred years ago, people lived with nature-with sunrise and sunset, full moon and new moon, spring, summer, autumn and winter. They were more with nature, and because of that, this deception of time, of quick accomplishment, did not exist.
How does this impatience influence the way we view the evolution of Buddhism in the West?
When I am staying at Dai Bosatsu Zendo in the Catskill Mountains, I see the new leaves coming out in the spring, and then they grow bigger during summertime. Autumn comes and they start to have their fall color, and by October, they are all gone. This is the natural movement of nature.
What we are expecting in Western Buddhism is to grow a tomato in a greenhouse, available anytime. I am sure you know the difference in taste between naturally grown tomatoes and greenhouse tomatoes. They look alike but the taste is so different. Using a greenhouse, we can make tomatoes throughout the year, as many as we want. But there is some difference between that and the natural one, and if tomatoes are not available during the winter, we could have something else instead. This is what American Buddhism is now-greenhouse Buddhism.
So this is just a metaphor. Buddhism will be Americanized. That is inevitable. It should be so. But X hundred years is needed for that to happen. This is an astonishing statement for Americans to hear, because from U.S. independence to this day is just 228 years, and now it is the “strongest, most influential nation in the world.” This was done in just over two hundred years, so how come Buddhism takes so long?
Why does it take so long?
When you study the history of Zen Buddhism, you see that from Shakyamuni Buddha to the first patriarch, Bodhidharma, it took twenty-eight generations in India. And why? I don’t know. Then from Bodhidharma to the first Japanese patriarch-again twenty-eight generations. And from the first Japanese patriarch to my day is again twenty-eight generations. Now, why twenty-eight? One day I was looking at the lunar calendar and saw that the moon takes twenty-eight days to become full. If I ask you why this is so, how do you answer?
Twenty-eight generations. Twenty-eight days from new moon to full moon. There is no way to expedite it and no one can say why. But that’s the way it is.
What is it that happens over that length of time? In the West we now have the texts, the philosophy, the practices. We have some of the institutions. If it is not this these forms, what is it that takes twenty-eight generations to develop?
You say that you have texts. Yes, but only part of it. You say you have philosophy. Yes, but only a part of it. You say you have form. Yes, but only a part of it. Only part of this philosophy, text, form, discipline, institution-and to make it full requires natural readiness of time. This is the difference between your point and my point. I have no choice but to follow the natural readiness of time. You want to expedite it. Suppose it can be expedited. Then what? What’s next? If this is accomplished-American Buddhism-then what would you like to do next?
Struggling time is far more precious than celebration of accomplishment. This is how I look at it.
To what extent do you think this impatience reflects the Judeo-Christian religious education that’s part of American culture? Because one of the hardest concepts for Western Buddhists to really accept is karma and rebirth, so maybe we feel we have to compress everything into this one lifetime.
First, you say Americans are impatient, but I must say that all modern people are impatient. So it’s not only Americans. Second, I think that the Judeo-Christian brainwashing is a kind of trauma. There is only one life and when you die-cremation, ashes, your soul goes either to heaven or hell, that’s it. As long as you have this concept deeply rooted in your mind, it is perfectly understandable that you want to be successful as quickly as possible.
This is definitely affecting American Buddhism. But remember that the original teachings of Jesus Christ or Saint Francis of Assisi are not at all different from the essence of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings. Unfortunately over the years, they got so distorted.
Of course, I would like to see a glorious paradise of Buddhist world while I am still alive-this is perfectly understandable, it’s human nature. But the contradiction is that we are Buddhists-and we must have a broader view. We must have faith in one principle, which is that when there is a cause there will be an effect. Now, when that effect will happen, nobody knows. But what we are doing now is sowing the seed that is the cause, and if we are lucky we will see the blossom of that seed within our lifespan. But even if we don’t, the next generation, or the next after that, can appreciate that blossom and even the fruit.
Do you think that whether or not we are impatient or make mistakes, we can trust that a genuine tradition of dharma will, in the end, be established in America?
This is my conviction. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.
So you feel that it is guaranteed that the dharma will be genuinely established in the West?
This is my conviction. I will not give a guarantee. It’s too tacky. [Laughter.]
As you may have noticed, in the past thirty years or so, Japanese monks have stopped coming to America to live. They come here for a week or two, one month at the longest, but they all go back. Whenever I go to Japan, one of the questions they often ask me is, “Are you still in America?” It’s almost like they say it with astonishment: “Are you still in America? Is there any hope?” So I say to these people, “Rome was not made in one day.” That is a good proverb!
How long will it take? I don’t know. But at least I gave my life to America, I gave my life to American Buddhism. On the day it is accomplished, if there is such a thing, most likely my corporeal body won’t exist, but that’s not so important. What I’m doing with all my might and limited capacity is what’s important. Whether Japanese monks come or not-and they have their own views-that’s none of my business. My mission is to be here, to practice with Americans, to study with them in the hope-not only hope, but the conviction-that someday American Buddhism will be firmly established.
Do you feel that to doubt that the dharma will be planted here, or to try to strategize it, shows a lack of faith in the dharma?
Faith in the dharma, in my opinion, is another way of saying to know the taste of the dharma. Its taste. Like the taste of tea: it’s bitter yet sweet. To know the taste of the dharma, we need to have some kind of dharma experience. When we have dharma experience, we know the taste of dharma, and then faith in the dharma follows. It’s not a matter of something to cultivate or to believe in, as in some other traditions. The taste of the dharma-the ambrosial taste of the dharma-that is the first step. It’s not a strategy. It almost naturally happens that way.
It seems to me that you are pointing to the difference between tariki, other power, and what is known as jiriki, self-effort. If you are asking whether “self-effort” is indispensable or “other power” will do it all by itself, to me these are inseparable. It is like form and essence. Your effort is indispensable, and at the same time dharma protection is also indispensable. As long as there is “self-effort,” dharma always protects us. Jiriki gives birth to tariki, tariki gives birth to jiriki. If you can believe this, this is what I call faith in the dharma.
There is a lot of disagreement among Buddhists in America about what genuine dharma is, people pointing fingers and saying, “You’re not doing this right,” and “So-and-so is corrupting that.” What do you do if you don’t believe the dharma is being presented correctly? Should we worry about that, because lots of American Buddhists are?
Authenticity is the word I often use. Then, who is really authentic? The teacher, his student, or his students? A metaphor I often use is making a photocopy. There is the original, and then you make a copy, which is a little less clear than the original. Then you use the second one to make a third copy, which is even less clear. Twenty-eight generations later, you see how it is not quite… [Laughter.]
And this is exactly what happens. If we are really authentic teachers, if the teachings are correctly transmitted, we are supposed to be as great as Shakyamuni Buddha. But we are not, right? So, something leaked, somehow, somewhere. Especially between Tibet to America or Japan to America, there is a cultural gap-the language is totally different, the culture is totally different. Yet we are trying to transmit Tibetan Buddhism to Americans, or Japanese Zen Buddhism to Americans. Naturally there is something that will leak, and when it leaks the authenticity may become doubtful.
But at the same time, with American buddhanature, with American style of practice, on American soil, as long as there is someone who makes sure that American teachers have true insight and cultivate various aspects of practice, then what could be called a non-authentic teacher may someday become authentic. This is my faith in American Buddhism.
So to conclude, my view is: Number one, I am quite optimistic. Number two, American Buddhism will be established sooner or later-for Americans, by the Americans in this country. When that will happen, we don’t know. Perhaps nobody knows. But as long as we live, we all have to make our own effort. And as long as we make an effort, dharma will protect us. With this conviction, let’s march on!