Tuesday, March 2, 2010
The Blessing, Nice, 2006
Over its long history, Buddhism has evolved into a variety of traditions. Many of these have emerged when a Buddhist tradition encountered a non-Buddhist one. Buddhism + Taoism = Zen. Buddhism + Bon = Tibetan Buddhism. Similarly, the various Buddhist traditions have interacted with and cross-fertilized each other.
Some results of this mixing and matching have endured and become traditions of their own. The Harada-Yasutani line in which I practice is a relatively recent fusion of Soto and Rinzai Zen, for example. Others have lingered around a while before either turning into something no longer recognizably Buddhist, or disappeared after their founders or their immediate successors go the way of all that is mortal.
Many prominent Buddhists – not least the Dalai Lama – caution against carelessly mixing traditions. At the same time, especially we in the West have a unique opportunity of being able to study and experiment with many of them. There are even a few efforts at creating an explicitly ”ecumenical” Buddhism that draws from several traditions. The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) is probably the best-established of these movements.
Ultimately, the question of mixing practices comes back to the fundamentals. Why practice at all?
I do a certain amount of physical exercise. I do this partly because I enjoy it, but mostly because I only have this one body, and I want to take as good care of it as I reasonably can.
However, I do not have any particular ambitions to build muscle, or strength, or flexibility, or endurance, or speed, or the rest of it, beyond what I need to do the stuff I want to do. That means that it doesn't really matter what kind of physical exercise I do. If I get bored with gym, I can try chi-gong. If I get bored with cycling, I can try running. The main thing is that I don't completely slob out: any fitness practice is much better than no fitness practice. I'll never become really extremely good at any of it, but it gives me what I want from it in a varied and enjoyable way.
For someone who practices Buddhism for the kinds of reasons I practice physical fitness, mixing traditions makes perfect sense. Meditation practices have immediate benefits. I feel much better when I'm sitting regularly and sitting well than when I'm not. I don't believe that the actual practice you happen to be doing makes a huge amount of difference with regards to these benefits, as long as it isn't something that's completely inimical to your mental make-up. So if your objective is ”bompu Zen” – meditating to feel better – I have a hard time believing that there's any harm in trying tonglen if you get bored with following the breath; meditating on a koan if you get bored with vipassana. Any practice is better than no practice, and if your practice goes so stale you'd stop it if you didn't change it, I believe that changing it is definitely the better alternative.
On the other hand, if you practice for similar reasons a great violinist practices her art, or an Olympic-level athlete practices her sport, things just might look a bit different.
There are musicians who have mastered a variety of instruments. However, they did not usually get there by practicing a bit of violin, then a bit of piano, then a bit of tenor sax, then the accordeon. They immersed themselves deeply in the instrument of their choice, and then extended that to other areas. They had demanding teachers that drilled them and tested them. Even so, most of them retain a main instrument – a great pianist might also be a great cembalist, and she might also be a competent violinist, but it's rather unlikely that she'd be a great one.
I believe that there lies the drawback of freely mixing traditions. It would probably be a lot more difficult to become really good at Buddhism – whatever that may mean – if you hop from one practice to another as your interest takes you, the same way it's a lot more difficult to become a great musician if you hop from one instrument or one style to another. To accomplish that, a teacher and a coherent tradition are if not indispensable, at least of great benefit.
Of course, nobody says you have to practice in order to become really good at it, any more than anybody says that you have to do gym in order to build a body that looks like one of those Belgian Blue oxes. That's nobody's business but yours.
Unfortunately, sticking with a tradition has its downsides as well. Fundamentalism: coming to believe that your tradition is the 'true' one, and other approaches are invalid. Getting discouraged: if the tools your tradition has for surmounting obstacles just don't work for you, for whatever reason, you'll probably just quit, and be worse off for that. There are no easy answers there.
There is another pitfall with mixing traditions too. This one isn't as much of a concern for the lone practitioner, because it involves teachers and sanghas. Highly innovative, nontraditional teachers have a track record that's... mixed. This is largely because going off the rails is an occupational hazard for spiritual teachers.
Whether teachers like it or not, their students want to give them enormous amounts of power over them. Good teachers are able to handle this without turning into cult leaders. Not-so-good ones... not-so-well. Many teachers – even very good ones – often become at least a little eccentric, and I believe a big part of the reason is the sheer weight of the expectations laid on them by their students. They're only human, after all. And, sadly, every once in a while one of them goes spectacularly nuts, turning into Zen Master Rama or Andrew Cohen or Shoko Asahara.
Established traditions have at least some built-in safeguards against teachers going off the rails. If a sangha splits off from the tradition where it originated, or claims lineage from a variety of traditions, or none at all, I consider that a bit of a warning sign. It's at least possible that the leader of the group has fallen afoul of the safeguards in his tradition, and has taken off on his own for that reason, whatever he may tell himself.
Many of these problems take a long time to manifest. It's often only possible to tell that an innovative tradition was solid a generation or two after it was established. Therefore, I would tend to be cautious about relatively young and relatively innovative groups like the FWBO or Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's New Kadampa Tradition. Had I made like Philip Kapleau Roshi in the 1950's and gone in search of a Zen teacher, I would probably not have gravitated toward the then relatively new Harada-Yasutani line. It turned out that Kapleau Roshi made a good call: the tradition has since established itself and is soldiering on with no more than the usual amount of scandal. Perhaps he was an excellent judge of character, or perhaps he just got lucky. I would not have risked it.
That is why I tend to fall on the traditionalist side of the fence. I'm not entirely sure why I practice, but I feel there's something to the reasons that's more than "bompu Zen." I'm somehow convinced that the Way leads somewhere I want to go, even if I don't know where that is. I've – slightly – explored a few of the traditions available in my neck of the woods, and have found one that meshes well with my worldview and personality. I intend to stick with that to see where it takes me, as far as I'm able.