Theravada Practice Off the Cushion

For anyone dedicated to a spiritual path, the concern that recurs most often is how to keep one’s daily activities in line with one’s highest aspirations. Special religious activities may punctuate the calendar to give energy to this daily quest, but the basic issues of any spiritual life are shaped by the need to ensure that the particulars of one’s day-to-day decisions don’t run counter to one’s larger vision of a life well-lived.

Over time, people who have adopted Buddhist practices have discovered that retreats and mass events don’t provide the support they need in applying those practices to their day-to-day concerns. In Asia, and particularly in the Theravada countries, this support is supplied by monasteries, which—unlike their Western counterparts—are open to lay people at all times to provide the fellowship of like-minded people, sanctuary from the turmoil of work and family life, and advice on day-to-day matters from those who have given their lives to the study and practice of the Buddha’s teachings. Because Buddhist monasteries in the West that provide these opportunities are few and far between, Western Buddhist practitioners have developed structures of their own design to provide the sanctuary, fellowship and advice they need to keep focused on their highest aspirations and to connect those aspirations with their day-to-day practice.

Because these and other questions of community building will eventually face all Buddhist communities as they mature in the West, the following roundtable discussion among vipassana teachers is presented as part of an ongoing discussion that will probably occupy dedicated Western Buddhists for a long time to come.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Buddhadharma: How is lay practice understood in the West?

Gil Fronsdal: I understand Theravada spirituality very broadly. It’s a very rich and profound spiritual path with many elements. Meditation and mindfulness are key elements, but I think they get overemphasized at times. I like to think of the path as creating a pyramid, and if your pyramid is upside down, it gets wobbly. It’s very important, especially in a community meditation center like ours, to help people make a strong foundation for their practice, so they can go very deep. Part of that foundation is the practice of generosity and the practice of ethics—the practice of the paramis.

Marcia Rose: The Theravada vipassana tradition has come to the West with very little cultural overlay from the countries of its origin in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, yet it has kept a deep, integral and pure connection to the roots of the dharma and to the Buddhist teachings. Because it has so little cultural overlay, it lends itself easily to being integrated into one’s daily life here. Someone can easily adopt a lifelong practice in this tradition and bring the teachings and practices directly into their lives without having to overcome cultural barriers.

Michael Liebenson Grady: The Theravada tradition in North America takes many forms that emphasize different aspects of the teaching. In our center in Cambridge, we strongly encourage yogis to practice wholeheartedly in whatever conditions or situations they find themselves in. That means being mindful, bringing fresh attention to whatever you encounter wherever you are. This principle is at the core of our teachings at the center. We balance formal practice and daily life. We preserve the methods and forms that have proven useful for 2,500 years, and we bring them to bear on the lives people are living today.