At long last, a social justice lens has emerged in convert American Buddhism. Slowly but steadily, we have begun to identify systemic biases—the psychologies of capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and so on—and the imprints they’ve left on our fledgling tradition. These include, but are not limited to, secularism, intellectualism, a disdain of faith-based philosophies, and an escapist tendency to bypass the realities of the world.
I believe something fundamental is finally being exposed in the process—that our tradition, as practiced today, needs more heart.
When we think of “the ideal Buddhist,” we might envision a meditator, perhaps even Siddhartha Gautama himself, sitting in serene practice. But this is not the whole story. We should remember, for example, the story of young Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, weeping at the death of an insect.
Just as a bird needs two wings to fly—as the fully realized Buddha would later teach—a student of the dharma must develop, nourish, and rely on the interdependent qualities of compassion and wisdom. To make the most of our collective moment, modern Buddhists should take special care to develop the heart.
Here are three ways we can start.
Practicing Heart-centric Meditations
As the teachings, especially those related to mindfulness meditation, say, cultivating stability of mind through concentration practice allows insights and wisdom to emerge. These ideas about how meditation can affect the mind are fascinating, and true—but we mustn’t overlook the heart.
In 2013, I spent a month and a half in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in a remote village in the Ladakh region of India. Although it may sound stereotypical, I was struck by the warmth and cheer of the everyday villagers. Yes, there is danger in the racial trope of suggesting that Tibetan society is perfect. It is not. Yet it seemed to me that many of the Ladakhis I encountered moved with joy, a joy rooted in deep realization.
What was their practice? Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra dedicated to the bodhisattva of compassion, Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit). This was not their preliminary practice, nor a side practice. It was the primary, lifetime practice of old and young alike, holding at once joy, grief, ecstasy, and sorrow.
If the profound peace in turn exhibited by them is any measure, we should feel no compunction in saying this practice works. We ought to take notice. Instead, many American Buddhists subtly (and not-so-subtly) look down on practices, and even entire traditions like Pure Land Buddhism, that center on compassion. Metta, or loving-kindness, meditation is still only an occasional practice in most convert lineages in the West, despite the clear results it offers.
Such a heart practice is a tool for meeting all of our moments—from expressing gratitude in times of joy to offering desperate prayers in times of deep pain, and everything in between. For those who don’t resonate with the sometimes impersonal nature of concentration meditation, it can be radically more accessible. So it is my hope that we start to make room for heart-centric meditation as a primary practice within convert American Buddhism.
Committing to Learning with Heart
If convert American Buddhism is truly to flourish, we must reemphasize the traditions of committing to a trustworthy teacher and learning how to be a student.
We Americans are married to our individuality and squeamish about commitment and faith. We believe we can have many teachers, picking and choosing teachings as we see fit. And yet, isn’t it remarkable how the most enlightened people also seem to have the most devotion to their teacher?
This is no accident. The teacher, ideally, serves as a conduit for our liberation. The world is too much, too large and unknown and scary, to open to fully on our own. In developing deep devotion to a teacher, we practice the exact type of opening that allows us to let the whole of life into our hearts—and that is liberation.
Such liberation flows from the teacher’s heart and into our own in a way that is magical, mysterious, and direct—beyond our ability to grasp, beyond words and letters. But it’s real, and it holds our awakening. Learning from a teacher is not an exercise of the intellect; it’s a process of transformation that rests on the bedrock of the heart-energy of devotion.
I formally train with a well established Zen lineage. We have a monastery and a city center, brimming with robust programming on the arts, the dharma, and, of course, meditation. I see the same faces frequently, exchanging hugs and hellos, feeling the warmth of the sangha.
Yet, after three years of practicing regularly with them, I probably know only fifteen of my sangha-mates’ names, and intimate details of about three or four of their lives. This is, unfortunately, not untypical.
We develop the heart in fellowship. Sanghas should get to know each other, not just in the quiet of practice but in the messiness and depth of our lives, deepening our bonds as we walk the road of liberation. The strengthening of these bonds is exactly the practice of heart: in growing closer to each other, our hearts expand, and in seeing what blocks us from this, we understand where we can further grow. Moreover, community is the foundation for the tougher aspects of awakening, like social justice work. How are we supposed to explore the ways we’re still blind to our biases except from a place of deep love for those around us?
The jewel of sangha offers us both goal and method for going beyond any undue emphasis on individual liberation in convert American Buddhism. By participating in potlucks, volunteering, even casual nights out together, we can foster genuine connection and community in our sanghas.
Looking Backward to Move Forward
Individualism, capitalism, and the privileging of certain bodies, mindsets, and experiences have all shaped convert American Buddhism. They have given emphasis to certain bits of the Buddhist tradition and left others behind.
What’s been left out—the bits deemed less important by the men (for the most part) who have defined the tradition thus far—contains gold. Reclaiming this gold is crucial for the continued development of our tradition. We have no further to look than the many heritage Buddhist communities to see how heart-centric meditation practice, devotion to a teacher, and fellowship can be centered.
I realize this is no small matter. In fact, it calls for a fundamental shift: from the too common conception of Buddhism as an individualistic, intellectual, and secular philosophy and practice to a model of both personal and social awakening that draws on faith, devotion, and compassion as antidotes to suffering. Now that the seed of Buddhism has been planted in America, the flower should get all the love it needs to blossom.