Sharon Salzberg, Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, and Gaylon Ferguson examine the central role of meditation in Western Buddhism and explore how other practices, such as study and ritual, may or may not be necessary. With introduction by Norman Fischer.
The introduction of Buddhism to the West has necessarily involved comparing and contrasting various aspects of Buddhism with our own religious culture, and Buddhism has come off quite well. The earliest interested Westerners saw Buddhism as a refreshingly undogmatic psychospiritual approach that was much more rational than the faith-obsessed Christianity of their day. Actual engagement in Buddhist practice exploded in the West in the 1960s. The dharma seemed in perfect accord with an alienated generation in flight from convention and desperate for a wide-open form of spiritual exploration. Naturally, meditation—personal, colorful, and potentially transformative—was paramount. Buddhism in this period tended to attract adventurous and rebellious types quite willing to sacrifice normal life for the transcendence that intensive meditation practice promised. In the ensuing fifty years, the Western cultural conversation about the positive psychological and health effects of meditation has made Buddhism much more mainstream and respectable.
In the West, then, for a variety of reasons, meditation has always been seen as the essence of a Buddhism understood as beyond ritual, tradition, and even religion, a “science of mind” relevant to anyone, regardless of their particular religious commitment or belief. “Secular Buddhism” without dogma has become the norm for most practitioners—even those who take up intensive practice in one of the Asian traditions. All of this is in great contrast to Asia, where Buddhism has always been very much a religion intertwined with history and culture and bolstered by beliefs, rituals, clergy, and a long scholastic tradition. In Tibet, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, and many other Asian nations, Buddhism forms the basis of national identity, just as Catholicism did for generations in Europe.
This difference raises the question: have Western Buddhists liberated Buddhism from its historical trappings, freeing it to be the open empirical practice it was always intended to be? Or have we missed the point, “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” and “watering down the dharma,” reducing Buddhism to a meditation practice made in our own image to suit our contemporary needs? And if we have done this, is this necessarily a bad thing?
In Asia, meditation was never the be-all and end-all of the dharma—certainly not for lay practitioners. Even monastics historically tended to be more involved in ritual, administration, study, and politics. Meditation was the province of the few dedicated clerics who had the taste for it, and even they understood meditation as a religious act rather than a psychological process for self-understanding. The idea that millions of lay followers would seriously take up meditation for personal reasons, without any ritual container or religious faith, probably still strikes many Asian Buddhists as odd. In the 1990s, I saw a film routinely shown to visiting laypeople at Eihei-ji monastery in Japan that depicted the tough struggle dedicated monks must go through in order to practice zazen. It was an effort no non-monastic Asian watching the film would ever have dreamed of attempting.
A generation ago, Buddhist scholars studied scriptures and doctrines. Today’s scholars of Buddhism and other religions spend more time studying history and culture. They believe that religion is what religion does, not what it says. And what religion does, Buddhism included, has more to do with culture, history, economics, ethics, ritual, and society than with personal experience. Perhaps we are at a stage in Western Buddhism where the subjective experience of meditation is paramount, but could we be moving to a stage where other elements of Buddhism will take on increasing importance, which scholars of religion with their perspective see as typical for religions?
It may be that the Western emphasis on meditation over other aspects of Buddhism marks a beginning stage. Maybe as time goes on we, too, will find it necessary to incorporate the range of other Buddhist activities as a natural outgrowth of our meditation. This has certainly been true for me and for many others in the Zen lineage family to which I belong. We have found ourselves bowing, chanting, engaging in precept practice, performing elaborate rituals, and doing many other things we would never have anticipated, all flowing step by step from our meditation practice. But it may also be that Western Buddhism will follow an unprecedented path that bears little resemblance to Buddhism found in its Asian countries of origin.
As Buddhism continues to move forward in the West, what will its challenges be, and what role will meditation practice— and the many other practices of Buddhism—play? These are the issues explored in this forum.
Buddhadharma: As Buddhism has developed in the West, there seems to be a greater emphasis on meditation than on other traditional aspects of the Buddhist path, such as study, ethics, and accumulation of merit. How significant is this emphasis on meditation, and what are its implications for Buddhism in the West?
Sharon Salzberg:There are many reasons behind the emphasis on meditation in Western presentations of Buddhist teachings. Some people who are interested in meditation are already part of a religious or spiritual tradition and have an existing ethical system. Even those who are not part of such a tradition, like secular humanists, may have an ethical system that guides them. Moreover, there isn’t necessarily the tremendous sense of faith here in the West that one might find in Eastern cultures. So the greatest source of faith or confidence in the path is one’s own experience of the power of one’s own mind or inherent goodness, which meditation can readily provide. Even a glimpse of that through meditation practice is often very important. Then people can broaden their understanding of the teachings in other ways.
Gaylon Ferguson: I agree. Historically, the pioneers who brought the dharma to the West—figures like Suzuki Roshi, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the early Vipassana teach-ers—all emphasized the importance of meditation practice. Chögyam Trungpa said, over and over, “Meditation is the only way.” So over the years, we have seen an emphasis on meditation practice that probably did not exist in Asian countries, where the so-called professionals—the monks and nuns, lamas, and priests—were the primary practitioners. Although the strength of the dharma as it has come to the West lies in that kind of experiential core, there does seem to be a need to expand into other areas that aren’t just about sitting on a cushion.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: In the early years of Buddhism in the West, many fewer texts were available to study than there are now, so perhaps meditation practice needed to be more prominent. But even now, the emphasis on meditation is very important because it’s so easy to approach Buddhism intellectually rather than experientially and to be satisfied with that. Meditation helps cut through that kind of intellectual satisfaction. Also, we’re an intensely impatient culture, and meditation throws that in our face very quickly, compelling us to learn about the virtue of patience.
I think it’s advantageous that Buddhism in the West began with a heavy emphasis on meditation because, over time, the practice of meditation does inevitably seem to drop away, at least among large groups of practicing Buddhists, as Buddhism becomes more popular and absorbed into the culture. In the end, meditation may be left in the hands of, as Gaylon said, the professionals, which in the case of Western countries will most likely be the serious lay practitioners. So it’s a good thing that meditation is being established with strong roots right from the beginning.
Buddhadharma: What other advantages and disadvantages are there to emphasizing meditation as Buddhism makes this transition to the West?
Sharon Salzberg: One of the advantages is that meditation is very accessible and immediately engages people in a practice. People are understandably looking for a tool, for something practical, that will actually change their lives. They may be hesitant about the label “Buddhism” as a philosophy or set of beliefs and may not be familiar with the Buddha’s saying, “Do not believe anything just because I said it.” Perhaps they have had negative experiences with their religion of origin and are not looking for another religion. Meditation practice is something anyone can do if they’re interested, without necessarily subscribing to Buddhist beliefs. All you have to do is pay attention to your breathing or to some other object. What’s more, scientific research has shown that meditation is not something disconnected from people’s ordinary experience and can be helpful to a wide variety of people.
Those who continue to pursue meditation practice are helped tremendously by having a broader understanding of what the path is, through study, involvement in a community, and certainly ethics. They need to see that the path is so much more than a technique, that it’s really about how we live. It’s a seamless garment. You can’t tell lies all week and then sit down on Saturday to meditate and ardently seek the truth. You’ll be too fragmented, too split apart.
Gaylon Ferguson: The Buddha’s vision of an awakened life clearly included more than just being a meditator. It goes all the way back to the eightfold path, which includes not only right mindfulness and right samadhi but right speech, right action, and right livelihood. It’s really a complete way of life. In my own practice and the practice of people in my community and other communities I’m in touch with, the practitioner’s challenge seems to be: How does the meditation experience become a part of the rest of one’s life? How is it a part of our parenting, time at work, families and neighbors, and politics?
Even without a blueprint like the eightfold path, that’s the direction in which the experience of meditation, or the insight gained through meditation, begins to challenge us—so that it’s not just about having an experience at a retreat or a sesshin but about how we deal with Monday morning and the rest of our lives.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: The primary disadvantage of an emphasis on meditation is when it’s seen as being separate from everything else. With any religion or spiritual path, there has to be some sense that it’s having a direct effect on one’s life. Otherwise, what’s the point?
The greatest challenge of all is to realize the nonduality of spiritual practice and everyday life. How do we actually manifest our practice in a genuine way? In that sense, meditation, as the entry point, is the easy part. The much more difficult part is figuring out how to integrate practice in our lives.
Buddhadharma: So how does one do it? Should we be looking to other practices in addition to meditation, such as the practice of merit?
Sharon Salzberg: It seems to be a natural progression to explore these questions, to ask what’s going to bolster my practice? What’s going to help enhance this experience? If one has sincerely followed a meditation technique for some period of time, one invariably sees a change. Then it just takes a bit of guidance to realize, well, this is not only about what happens in those twenty or forty-five minutes; this is about bringing the practice into one’s life.
You know it’s not that easy when somebody looks at the traditional texts and finds that the Buddha said right livelihood means you can’t hunt or fish. I’ve had people come to me weeping and saying, “I work in an insurance company and our policy is to say ‘no’ to any claim. That’s the first answer I have to give people, and they don’t always know that they should come back and appeal. Is that right livelihood?” These areas of inquiry are very vital and dynamic, and everybody who is engaged in them is like a pioneer. We’re all trying to find our way forward in contemporary times.
And that’s where a community of practitioners can be helpful. It’s also our responsibility as teachers to guide people by saying, “There’s a bigger picture here. Let’s look at what that might be composed of.”
Buddhadharma: So what is the bigger picture? And how can we understand our meditation practice within the bigger picture?
Gaylon Ferguson: Sharon has named part of it in saying that it’s a kind of natural evolution in which the practitioner herself or himself comes to sense that this practice needs a context and that this context can often mean community. It’s in the context of community that meritorious actions like generosity really come forth. As we consider our personal involvement, we might decide to donate money to our center or help clean it. We then see what kind of atmosphere our generosity produces and how that atmosphere is more effective and powerful for our practice than an atmosphere of jealousy or competitiveness. One comes to realize that generosity and nonaggression in one’s community and one’s family are essential and that the practice can’t be done in isolation.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: I think Sharon’s use of the word “pioneer” is very appropriate. In my community, we’re very involved in environmental issues and are also working to address racism and sexism. Many communities today are applying the buddhadharma directly to specific areas that affect how people live and the choices they make. And that’s very challenging because, at least within my sangha, we’re making this up as we go. There really is no template for such activity. We can’t just look back and say, what did they do about this problem before?
Buddhadharma: What will support such efforts? Are there traditional aspects of the Buddhist path, such as study, that could play a role?
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: Study is extremely important; it’s what keeps us connected to the spoken dharma, the transmitted teachings. We hold periodic study sessions in our community, and at the moment we’re studying Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. I’m not a scholar, so we approach this very much as dharma study. Always in the foreground is the need both to understand the teaching and to see how it relates to real life. We’re constantly trying to make that clear.
The other day I spoke with a Zen teacher who had talked to some well-known Christian teachers. They were lamenting that so many of the Buddhists they meet don’t really study that much and don’t know a lot about world religions. Reflecting on my own experience, I think that’s true, and it has been a frustration for me. I’ve always wanted to study much more than I have, and the reason I couldn’t is that I was so involved in helping run a dharma center. I sometimes wonder where these other guys get all this time to study! Maybe the next generation or generations down the road will study more, once the foundation has been fully laid.
Sharon Salzberg: I was at a conference, having breakfast with a rabbi, and I asked him a question about Judaism, something like, “What does Judaism believe about this or that?” Even though I was raised Jewish, I didn’t know the answer. And he looked at me and said, “Which Judaism?” And I said, “Oh yeah, right!” One could apply this to Buddhism as well.
I certainly see a positive role for study; it can expand our sense of what the path is and lift us from sectarianism and adherence to one technique, one way of being, one way of practice. I also appreciate and enjoy ritual. But despite the beauty of ritual, there are many people who do not feel particularly comfortable with it or drawn to it. I’m grateful that there are such a wide variety of approaches that somebody who feels very moved by ritual will find a place and somebody who has a kind of antipathy to ritual will find a place. I think that’s tremendous. The same is true of study. One can certainly encourage experimentation with different approaches and not feel that somebody is bereft of a whole path, an integrated path, just because his or her path doesn’t emphasize elements that another approach might emphasize—with the exception of the eightfold path, which is essential.
Buddhadharma: Gaylon, how do you see study and ritual in the context of the Buddhist path? Can they be optional?
Gaylon Ferguson: Studying the teachings, memorizing them, and taking them to heart are both traditional and very powerful in bringing the experience of practice into everyday life and gaining some insight into how the teachings apply in contemporary times. The words “study” and “ritual” also remind me of the aspect of practice we would call contemplation and of contemplative practices broadly.
For instance, contemplative arts like flower arranging and archery, which of course the Zen tradition is famous for, point to the importance of the physical environment. But it isn’t only about how the zendo is arranged; it’s also about how our own households are arranged. This too is part of practice. When my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, taught guru yoga, he said, “How you keep your apartment, or the cleanliness and upliftedness of your house—that’s part of your devotion to sacredness.”
Sharon Salzberg: Uh-oh!
Gaylon Ferguson: Yes, that was our response too [laughs]. To move this a little beyond the psychological, which is our default mode, we can reflect on our physical environment and also on our relationship to nature. Many people experience meditative awareness when they take a walk in the woods. They feel a sense of connection with nature and draw support from that connection to the elements. This may lead one to reflect on how to care for nature and to ask, what is a life-sustaining ethic?
Buddhadharma: I’d like to talk more about the role of ethics. Sharon, you suggested that ethics isn’t in the same category as, say, study and ritual, that it’s somehow bigger than those.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes, but it depends on what you mean by study and how extensive it is. We all practice in a context and everybody teaches in a context, whether it’s a highly traditional Buddhist context or simply a recognition that we have the potential to live differently, to be happier, to help others more, and so on. It’s wonderful that there’s such a variety of approaches that are whole, that are not partial or fragmented or broken. And ethics—how we live, how we treat one another, the sense of community or isolation, the sense of loving-kindness or separateness—is inextricably tied to that wholeness. Ethics can’t be absent or totally lacking, and it doesn’t need to be articulated in a particular way, but in the end, ethics is what we look at to see if a practice is complete or not.
Buddhadharma: So the actual ways of getting there, whether or not they include ritual or study, may not be so important. The path is complete as long as we have that sense of ethics.
Sharon Salzberg: Yes, I would think so, because it will manifest in many different ways.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: I can’t imagine a Buddhist practitioner deeply examining what it means to live a moral life without finding his or her way back to meditation and really working with the practice as one whole thing. In our community, students can formally receive the precepts only after several years of steady practice. Since we’re in the koan tradition, there are also koans on the precepts themselves. Initially the precepts seem so straightforward—you know, don’t kill, don’t steal. What’s so complicated about that? Yet we need to look at the fundamental basis for the precepts and see the various ways they can be understood because life is not linear; it’s not black and white. In some cases, adhering to the precept to not kill may in fact not be compassionate. There need to be specific techniques or skillful means to help students see that, and to begin to think about work, for instance, as part of their dharma practice.
Otherwise, it’s like sending somebody into the meditation hall and saying, “Just do it.” We don’t do that; we give people fairly specific guidelines on how to begin the process, and then they can leap forward.
Buddhadharma: This points to the importance of the teacher. How can the teacher support the practitioner in his or her practice?
Gaylon Ferguson: As Shugen said, the teacher is someone who encourages us to have that larger view. She or he is the friend who invites us to be part of the team—the waking-up team, so to speak. And whenever we might feel like contracting back into the smaller picture, thinking, I’m just going to do my practice, the teacher is there to help us expand beyond that.
Sharon Salzberg: For me the two highlights of this conversation have been implicitly the role of the teacher and more explicitly the role of the community, and the sort of collective effort to find our way in the expression of these values in our time, by both holding true to the tradition and finding the living manifestation of it right now.
Buddhadharma: It seems that the conclusion here is that meditation is indeed the best place to begin, and the rest of one’s practice will grow from that.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: I think that’s a big maybe. Meditation is a word. We tend to talk about it as though we all understand and are doing the same thing. But what is this person actually doing on the cushion? What is their understanding of what the dharma is? What are they seeking? What is their aspiration?
It’s not enough to say just go back to your cushion and develop your meditation. I think there is a need for ever-maturing bodhichitta in our practice—a very clear sense of what this is and what its importance is and whose life is depending on it—particularly in our culture, which is so goal-oriented and materialistic and self-driven. I was reading some talks by early teachers in the Zen tradition in which every answer was: “Go, do zazen. Do zazen. Do zazen.” And I thought, no, it’s not enough just to meditate, you know? Yet if we begin to abandon meditation, that’s not going to work, either.
Buddhadharma: So where does this leave us? Where are we headed as Western practitioners, and where should we be headed?
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: It’s inevitable that Buddhism in the West will go in many different directions. As Sharon has said, there are people who are not going to be interested in a Buddhism that is traditional on various levels, and I suspect there will be a time when people will be interested in a Buddhism that doesn’t specifically involve meditation. I think what’s important is that there be places where some of the older, deeper aspects of the tradition are being maintained so they don’t just disappear.
Sharon Salzberg: I also think it’s imperative that the classical presentations of Buddhism be preserved and that they flourish. Many people are devoted to that preservation and hopefully will continue to put their energy there. In my tradition, this includes the preservation of a monastic community. I think that will be a grounding point in the development of Buddhism in the West.
Gaylon Ferguson: From a practitioner’s point of view, these other aspects are an organic development and extension of meditation practice. Rather than presenting a problem, there’s a sense that these are aspects we need in order to bring meditation into action, so to speak. For some of us there’s already a sense of trust in that process of maturation, having seen it work out in many practitioners’ lives.
We’re all pioneers. We’re all growing up and figuring this stuff out as we go along, seeing “Oh! That’s a blind spot.” Or “I’ve left that unattended to.” Or “I need to bring this ritual into my practice more, and that would be a benefit to the whole community.”
Buddhadharma: What words of encouragement or advice can you offer Buddhist practitioners who are still trying to find their way?
Sharon Salzberg: I have watched as my own motivation for practice has shifted and changed through the years, and I think it’s always good to keep your eye on that as a barometer not only of your particular intention but of your wider understanding and purification. When I first started practicing, I was in so much turmoil and suffering that I frankly didn’t care that much about anybody else. I was looking to relieve my own suffering. That is a viable entry point for a lot of people because it’s very real and compelling. Yet, over time, I developed a much broader perspective of what practice is just through the force of my experience. It’s important to keep looking at your motivation—not with a sense of judging yourself, saying, “I’m not coming from the right place” or “I don’t have the right attitude,” but to see and actually be joyous about how that particular facet of your practice continues to grow.
Gaylon Ferguson: I would encourage trust in the basic goodness of the path as it unfolds. Trust in your own basic goodness and in the basic goodness of your communities and families. That trust will naturally invite you to engage in different ways, and you should not refuse those invitations. We often speak of the particular challenges of our time, the twenty-first century, but it’s also a time of incredible ferment and opening, globally and locally. So that basic goodness of life, or of our particular time, is also bubbling and encouraging us to step outside, engage, and live fully.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold: My encouragement is for each of us, as students of the Buddha’s teaching, to continue to develop bodhichitta and strengthen our own aspiration and resolve to truly realize the dharma and live it deeply. If we’re able to experience traditional training, we can then study closely what it is in those wisdom forms of training that are so helpful and work toward bringing some of the same elements into our ordinary circumstances. What makes a monastery powerful is, ultimately, not the building or the objects found there or even the particular people with whom we practice, but rather the empowerment of our own practice in that particular space, with that sangha. Seeing this, we can then move toward also empowering our home and work spaces and relationships with non-practitioners in the same way. Practice is not something that happens to us; it’s the moment-to-moment presence of the dharma in our body and mind, in our thoughts, words, and actions.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer is the founder and spiritual director of the everyday Zen Foundation and a senior teacher at the San Francisco Zen center, where has served as co-abbot from 1995–2000.
Gaylon Ferguson is an acharya in the shambhala buddhist tradition and an associate professor at Naropa university. he is the author of Natural Wakefulness.
Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the insight meditation society in barre, massachusetts, and the author of The Force of Kindness and Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation.
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold is abbot of the Zen center of New york city and head of the mountains and rivers order, which was founded by his teacher, the late John Daido Loori.