I just finished reading The Accidental Buddhist by Dinty Moore. It was an amusing-looking book I found while poking around Borders at their liquidation sale. The premise is that the author travels to many places in the United States looking for the essence of American Buddhism. He experiences a variety of practices and perspectives with varying levels of formality and coming from a variety of core traditions, from Tibetan to Theravada to Zen and more.
By the end of his experience, he feels more at sea in regard to defining American Buddhism than he was when he began. His fundamental conundrum revolves around the question of how close is American Buddhism to “true” Buddhism. Are we taking on traditions of other cultures as accessories to Buddhism without having any connection to the context of those traditions? Conversely, are we watering down the principles of Buddhism to fit our tendency to flatten authoritative levels and eschew formality? Of course we can amuse ourselves forever with the irony of the fact that it is precisely these types of divisions that Buddhism tells us we need to detach from…tee hee hee!
That notwithstanding, I have asked myself on too many occasions whether or not I am a “real” Buddhist. I find myself getting hooked and lose my patience more than I think I should. My meditation practice is inconsistent and I have to work for every moment of prajna I encounter. There was a point in the story though, near the end, that illuminated a large part of the source of this self-doubt-dukkha. I will quote:
“And remember, most Buddhists in America will remain lay Buddhists, just as the vast majority of Buddhists in Asian countries do not live in monasteries, do not meditate daily, have not memorized the sacred Pali texts.”
He’s right. We are immensely fortunate to have had so many skilled and caring Buddhist teachers in the form of monks, nuns, Rinpoches and Lamas come to the United States to transmit to us their wisdom, but where does that leave us in terms of how to evaluate our own place as Buddhists in a society without a strong Buddhist laity? We have no one to compare our daily practices with except those who have dedicated their lives to be in essence members of the clergy. Can you imagine if the typical Christian in the United States thought they needed to live like a monk, nun or priest to be legitimately Christian? Hardly. It is our own sense of isolation in the context of not having a large enough societal sangha that leaves us feeling as though we are always lacking in dedication, in knowledge, or in skill. In truth, most of us are doing just fine. To quote again:
“One drawback, to my mind, of maintaining the Asian ritual, customs, and language when we teach Buddhism in the West is the danger of mistaking the trappings for the truth. The ability to throw around foreign terminology, chant in a strange tongue, and wear odd-looking clothes does not make one more fully awake to the true nature of human existence.”
At the street level that means we are creating a true and valid American Buddhist laity every time we sit on the cushion or bow, every time we say “thinking”, every time we commit a compassionate act. We grow that laity every time we share our views with each other, in person or in cyber space, every time we give our honest opinion when others ask our spiritual advice, every time we are bold enough to answer the question “What’s your religion?” with “Buddhist.” We are the American Buddhist laity and that’s just fine.
Now buy the Book!