Nisha R. Shah of Spirit Rock Meditation Center looks at how to support the development of the seasoned, knowledgeable practitioners that Buddhism needs. Our best guide is the three jewels.
Modern Buddhism is having a moment. These are times of both opportunity and opportunism as meditation and mindfulness have not only become household words, but seem to be trending as the latest cool “lifestyle” with which to experiment. A millennial friend shared that wearing mala beads, saying that you have a meditation practice, and posting on social media that you’re just back from a retreat are all commonplace occurrences that apparently convey both a meaningful and hip life. Complexity is part of the zeitgeist of Buddhism today.
I hold these complexities both personally and professionally. I’m a woman of South East Asian descent, having lived and grown up with many core Buddhist teachings embedded within my culture. I study Buddhism academically, which demands critical thought and reasoning of something held so personally. I also currently work as a director at Spirit Rock, in a position responsible for developing programs, retreats, and trainings for a mainly white convert Western Buddhist community.
I believe it’s possible to hold all the elements of who I am and how I engage with Buddhism with respect and integrity. The complexities of navigating the dominant culture, cultural appropriation, power, and privilege does not have to override the unity that can occur when a collaborative community comes together with thoughtfulness and exploration to envision what best serves everyone and to steward it in partnership. Although this isn’t easy, this truly inclusive approach is essential for Buddhism to survive and thrive in our culture.
Much of what has emerged as practice across Buddhist traditions in recent decades has been dependent on access, resonance, and at times, charismatic teachers. Many of the practices that gained popularity were in response to what was happening culturally and politically in the West. There now needs to be more thoughtfulness, inclusivity, and collaboration when considering what Buddhism will look like in the future. Who will it serve? How will it serve? Who will be the next generation of Buddhist leaders? What is needed to ensure that practitioners, not just in the West but also in our broader global community, can continue to study and practice deeply? These are all important questions. Here at Spirit Rock we have focused on increasing access to practice via deep scholarship support and on training the next generation of Insight Dharma leaders.
I would make the argument that, for Buddhism to thrive in the West, what’s needed is for us to go deeper in practice, study, and understanding of the teachings, along with the commitment to integrate them in the way we live in our world today. This depth offers strength when the culture’s attention moves toward the next hip, cool thing to do. Buddhist teachings have always been adapted to accommodate shifting cultures, but deep study and practice have been valued no matter the tradition or point in time.
Ultimately, the Buddha, dharma, and sangha provides many answers.
The Buddha as refuge is such a needed and welcome respite in our world—historically, today, and into the future. For our awakened heart and mind to emerge, we need to find sanctuary in which to rest our human vulnerabilities. This calls for cultivating the beautiful spirit of patronage that’s common in Asian cultures and supporting the development of expanded places of practice within local communities.
It’s also essential for the training of teachers to hold the integrity of both sharing the dharma and working through the filters of the many “–isms” (colonialism, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc.) that continue to create harm. This is important for us as Buddhists practicing non-harming, and simply as human beings.
What also supports the future of Buddhism is utilizing the strength of the dharma. When we consider what is critical for shaping a strong infrastructure that can withstand the tides of cultural popularity and the ebbs and flows of what’s occurring in our political climates, the dharma offers an endless source of wisdom. The Buddhist practice of spending extended periods of time in reflection, study, and retreat provides the conditions—the infrastructure—necessary for transformation.
Spirit Rock continues to reaffirm our commitment to retreat practice. The stark contrast of retreat to our busy, overcommitted ways of living, offers something easily tangible for those beginning to explore Buddhist practice, while also supporting deeper insights for those who have practiced longer. Experiences with renunciation connect us to the monastic lifestyle that the Buddha created to support practice. There’s something inherently simple, beautiful, and nourishing about the structure of retreats that holds incredible value for people today, and for the future of Buddhism. From these deep and transformative experiences, there’s the potential to shift our daily living so that the teachings unfold in how we choose to live as individuals and as a society.
Lastly, we consider the sangha. We’re at a time when it is the community that can best answer the question of what is needed for the future of Buddhism. The loudest and most powerful voice in shaping where Buddhism is heading should include all those whom it serves, not just those who hold power within Buddhist organizations.
Before we move toward what we think is needed to grow, spread, and deepen dharma practice in the West, we need to take this is the time to listen. This is the moment to reflect on how inclusive and equitable participation has been in our centers of practice and what our sense of community is. This is the chance to truly understand that we are an interrelated global community—Buddhism in the West should not be considered separate from Buddhism anywhere else in the world. What we do influences teachings and practices in countries of Buddhist origin. This is where we embrace the fullest sense of the teaching “the next Buddha may be the sangha.”
As Buddhist practitioners, we honor the three gems as a priceless, 2,600-year old gift that we protect with a commitment to collaboration, respect and stewardship. This honors all those who have walked the path before, those who walk with us now, and those future generations yet to come.
Read the rest of the series, “Buddhism’s Next 40 Years: Deepening Our Practice and Study.”