Buddhist practice, says Lion’s Roar editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod, is like life — a never-ending work in progress. We may never know whether it’s “working” for us, but we can trust that it’s true.
Some years ago I was talking with Sojun Mel Weitsman, one of the senior figures in American Zen. I noted to Weitsman Roshi, whom I had just met, that many longtime Buddhists weren’t sure the practice was working for them.
“How would they know?” was his tart reply.
He was right. It is hard to know what effect spiritual practice is having on us—whether it’s really making us kinder and wiser people. We may never know.
We often think of spiritual realization as a kind of lightning bolt, dramatic and obvious. It can happen that way, but more often it’s said to be like walking through the fog. Only after a long time do we notice that our robes are wet.
That’s why the kind of inner science the Dalai Lama describes, the study of our own consciousness and character, is so difficult. Inner transformation generally happens so gradually—if it happens at all—that it’s hard to see. It’s why the modern scientific study of meditation described in this issue is valuable. It offers objective evidence to substantiate the subtle changes in mind and character reported by meditators for thousands of years.
Where do I stand after my own forty years of Buddhist practice? I feel inside that the practice is helping me, but I really don’t know for sure. As for others, I know many fine and admirable people who are Buddhists, but I also know many good people who are not. We also have to acknowledge that Buddhist communities continue to mirror the systemic problems in American society and experience some of the same abuses of power as other churches. In Myanmar and elsewhere, we see that Buddhism is as susceptible as other religions to the poisons of nationalism and ethnocentrism.
If the proof is in the pudding—in the good that people do—then this is proof that Buddhist practice works.
I remember asking my first Buddhist teacher whether the monks in Tibetan monasteries were generally good people. He thought for a moment, and said a third were good people, a third weren’t, and the rest were in the middle. About the same as humanity overall, it seemed to me.
So we Buddhists can’t take a “holier than thou” attitude, neither personally nor collectively. But spiritual practice, like life, is a never-ending work in progress. The standard is not perfection, but the kind of day-to-day human goodness exemplified by some of the people you’ll meet in this issue.
Consider the heart and courage of Justin von Bujdoss and Tony Bernhard, doing their best to bring some love and help into the hells that are our prisons. Consider how Rev. angel Kyodo williams has taken her suffering and transformed it into a moving, Buddhist-informed call for justice, awareness, and liberation. Consider spiritual activists like Van Jones, Lama Tsomo, and Mushim Patricia Ikeda teaching us ways to bring healing and good will to a society in deep trouble.
If the proof is in the pudding—in the good that people do—then this is proof that Buddhist practice works. Of course, goodness, like mindfulness, is hard to measure or “prove,” and the subjective experience of meditators is, well, subjective. The hard science of meditation is young and the quality of the evidence is still mixed, as the team from Greater Good Science Center points out in its survey of the literature.
So does Buddhism “work”? I say yes, emphatically, and if that’s a leap of faith, I am happy to make it. I say this with certainty because I believe something else: that Buddhism is true. It is accurate in its description of reality, of how our minds work, of why we suffer, and of how we can free ourselves from suffering.
That’s why I’m sure Buddhism works: it’s true, and the truth will set us free.