Buddhism’s New Pioneers

It’s possible that most Western Buddhists are “unaffiliated.” There is therefore no record of their activity. They practice off the books.

By Norman Fischer

Photo by Josh Adamski

If you’re unaffiliated, maybe you became interested in Buddhism through reading, or in school, or maybe you met a Buddhist practitioner whose approach to life intrigued you. Perhaps you traveled in Asia. Chances are you are unaffiliated because you can’t find a Buddhist center nearby. But I suspect that many unaffiliated practitioners do live near Buddhist centers but don’t want to go to them because they don’t like “organized religion.” This may be due to a bad experience in the past, perhaps in childhood, or because of a strongly held opinion that organized religion is always bad, on principle.

According to this essentially romantic view (that many affiliated Buddhists share ), “organized religion,” meaning all identifiable religion, is―or should be―an oxymoron. That’s because real religion, according to this view, is essentially personal and dynamic, and is killed off by all attempts to organize it into doctrine and institution. Religion as we know it kills religion. So it is better to rebel against religion, for the sake of religion.

Notice that on both counts―whether one is unable or unwilling to “join”―the assumption is the same: that Buddhism is confined to Buddhist centers. But suppose this isn’t true, or at least not entirely true. What if Buddhism―Buddhism that is as Buddhist as any Buddhism―can also be found outside conventional Buddhist institutions?

Lately I have been fascinated with the idea of the evolution of religion. When Nietzsche pronounced God dead in the nineteenth century, he was not alone. Freud quickly followed, as did others. Religion was dying because humans were growing out of it. Religion had been a necessary, if somewhat juvenile, phase of human development. There was a time when we needed comfort and fanciful explanations for things we couldn’t understand. But now that we were grown up and scientifically minded, religion would naturally fade away and be relegated to nostalgia, history, and myth.

It turns out this wasn’t true. Human beings seem to need religion, just as we need language, food, and air, and this is why religion has always existed in human societies, from earliest times to the present, and why it will probably continue to exist. Some activity, some thought, some feeling that helps us extract meaning and significance from our lives is necessary, because we human beings are creatures uniquely capable of living meaningless lives, and we desperately need to avoid this. Without meaning and significance we literally get sick or go crazy. Religion is our coping mechanism, our natural healing activity. Efforts to transpose religious practice and feeling into politics during the twentieth century (communism) failed spectacularly. Art has been significant as a substitute, but it isn’t enough. Neither is psychology. So religion is almost certainly here to stay.

Everything in human society changes over time, and religion does too. Neolithic religion was quite different from the so-called Axial religions (Buddhism, Judeo-Christianity, Confucianism, Brahmanism, etc), and these religions in their formative centuries were quite different from their this-worldly manifestations (Protestantism, Shin Buddhism, etc.), which allowed modernism to flourish.

We are now in the twenty-first century, but we still have a nineteenth-century view of religion. We see religion as a set of coherent doctrines, rituals, and hierarchies that take shape within real-estate-based institutions. We might be affiliated with such institutions or not. We may prize their doctrines without being affiliated, or we may be hostile to all of it. But whatever the case, what we affiliate with or prize or reject is a centuries-old view of religion.

Intellectual life of the last fifty or more years has been mostly about the breakdown of hierarchies, the relativism of doctrines, and the doubtfulness of real-estate-based institutions in an increasingly network-based world. Religion needs to absorb these developments. Probably it is in the process of doing so. But our thinking has not yet caught up with it.

All of this might provide context for understanding with new appreciation the position of the “unaffiliated Buddhist.” It may also help us to appreciate the distinction people these days so frequently insist on making: “I’m not religious at all! I’m spiritual.” It seems to me that some of the liveliest religion going these days is not in Buddhist centers, churches, synagogues, or other official religious institutions. It’s taking place in the solitude of the private home, in living rooms and community centers, in book groups, twelve-step meetings, women’s and men’s groups, private meditation prayer or study gatherings, corporate leadership classes, human potential workshops, yoga and improv classes, stress-reduction clinics, coaching seminars. And, perhaps, in the practice of unaffiliated Buddhists.

Everywhere I look, what I would call “religious questions,” questions of ultimate meaning and ultimate connection, are spilling out of the official religious institutions and entering the society in various way. Some of these ways, to be sure, are superficial or exploitive, but it’s natural in times of social change that the faulty comes along with the sincere. Religion is evolving under our noses, but we are not noticing it because we are stuck on old forms and old terminologies. It may be that among Buddhists, the “unaffiliated” are our leaders without knowing they are, rather than the poor souls who either by choice or by circumstances have been left out in the cold. As they fumble to find their way, perhaps they are finding the way for us all.

This is not to say that these unaffiliated individuals and small informal Buddhist pick-up groups are the good guys, while the conventional Buddhists are the bad guys, old-fashioned and moribund. If we have learned anything over the last decades, as technologies and social forms have morphed and multiplied, it is that nothing disappears; it just changes its function.

I think of the great world religions as self-contained high-rise buildings. Christianity is a massive Cathedral-like structure. Islam is a giant multi-tiered and multi-storied mosque. And Buddhism is a huge tower, like the great stupa at Bodhgaya but many times bigger. Completely enclosed within each of these separate uniquely designed yet essentially similar structures a coherent conversation has been going on for millennia among intelligent and highly committed interlocutors who share an intellectual system, a history, and a set of rituals and practices that inform them. Because the conversation is so thorough and so old, and because its theme involves what is most mysterious and most fundamental about human life, it is essential that we not lose track of it. These various conversations are human treasures, and we need them now probably more than ever.

In the past if you wanted to participate in these conversations you had to move into the building, because the rule then was that only people who permanently resided in the building could speak and listen to the conversation. At that time it was possible for people to do this, because they could be more or less content living entirely inside one of those buildings.

But times have changed drastically. In a global world where all the buildings have windows and TV screens, and where citizens are so psychologically open and aware that our various identities and impulses can no longer be sublimated or suppressed, very few people can be satisfied with moving into one of those buildings and simply remaining there. Many of us can visit one or more buildings briefly, or we can stay in one but only during the daytime, because we have to sleep elsewhere. Or maybe we can stay for several months, a year, or several years, but eventually we have to go out into the street, in the open air, among the various bazaars, stalls, and markets, where other things we also need can be found. The buildings don’t need to be knocked down. They are beautiful, and we need them. It’s just that they can no longer contain all the dimensions of who we are. They need to be used differently, understood differently.

The question for anyone interested in Buddhist practice is, “How do I discover meaning and find transformation?” This is a challenge, whether we are affiliated or unaffiliated, though perhaps a greater challenge for those who don’t enjoy the resources or the support of coherent institutions and communities. For them there is perhaps more loneliness, more doubt and confusion. But the unaffiliated practitioner can take some heart, I hope, in the reflections above. You might well be engaged in pioneering work, whether you realize it or intend it or not. Though you may feel alone, I am sure that religious practice is always a community endeavor: we always practice together, even if it seems that we are apart, each of us doing what we can, what we are given to do by our situation and our passion.

Norman Fischer

Norman Fischer

Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a poet, essayist, and Soto Zen Buddhist priest who has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose, including most recently When You Greet Me I Bow. He is the founder of Everyday Zen, a community based in the San Francisco Bay area, as well as former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He and his wife, Kathie Fischer, also a Soto Zen priest, have two children and three grandchildren and live in Muir Beach, California.