Books + Engagment = Better Buddhist
I “became” a Buddhist the day a friend loaned me a copy of the book The Teaching of Buddha by Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, Society for the Promotion of Buddhism. The black cloth bound book is still on my shelf as a reminder of how a book can change our mode of thinking. That was a time of emotional turmoil, when the subconscious part of my mind often trampled the conscious part and a particular quote became a personal mantra: “Even a good thing, once it becomes a burden, must be discarded.” That may not be the exact quote but it captures the essence, and experiential verification has proven it a fact over-and-over. It is still my mantra.
From that day, whenever a friend, acquaintance asked or a form required, “What religion?”, my answer was Buddhist. The long and varied line of books on Buddhism and philosophy authored by Sir Edwin Arnold, Thich Naht Hahn, Pema Chodron, the Dalai Lama, Paramananda, Marcus Borg, Alan Watts, Jack Kornfield, Jack Kerouac, Chogyam Trungpa, and many others; as well as compilations of Buddhist sutras and texts on various Asian philosophies read gave me knowledge of aspects of the ages old philosophy. The terms and ideas became a part of my language and I considered myself a Buddhist.
It was clear that the positive social concepts that Buddhism promoted were parallel to my own. And they stayed parallel for many years. I could talk the talk . . .
Then I studied Buddhism formally, became engaged with a sangha, was ordained a Buddhist Cleric, and got a feeling of interconnectedness that I hadn’t experienced before. Buddhism is not Buddhism when it remains just an intellectual exercise. To “be” a Buddhist one must have practice, both of meditation and of social engagement, along with the study of the dharma. Whether we study and read about Buddhism at home, or try to discuss it with friends, a guide and/or a group of like-minded people are needed for us to . . . walk the walk.
That is one goal of the Engaged Dharma Insight Study Group, to guide others to be engaged Buddhists. My dharma brother, David Astor, and I were “book Buddhists” that learned about the action side of Buddhism. There is be a Buddhist and there is being a Buddhist. Being a Buddhist requires action.
Our path is to help others find ways to be engaged Buddhists in their communities.
Oh yeah, we’ll still be reading books
I bow with respect,
(Ren Cheng) 仁 诚
Reading As Meditation: Methods In Approaching The Dharma
Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor 曦 肯
As informed and educated beings when we respond to a new interest we first work to achieve some understanding in order to know how to engage it’s potential usefulness in our lives. While there are many ways that we can facilitate this understanding, from my experience it is generally done in the beginning through reading or listening to an awakened teacher. I would like to speak to you about how we should consider approaching the study of Buddhism from our reading and self-directed research. After all, many of us started our Buddhist life as “book-Buddhists”.
English language books on Buddhism have increased in number since they began to be published in the nineteenth century. Until very recently, virtually all of them have taken one of two distinct contemporary forms, either they put themselves within the modern scientific tradition in order to analyze the history and sociology of Buddhism, or from a more romantic sense as they attempt to transmit the truth and transformative nature of traditional Buddhist principles. As Buddhism engages our Western culture we often encounter current re-prints of older Asian publications that also gives us a chance to study Buddhism from an Eastern perspective. It is my reading-experience that each of these forms have tended to criticize the other severely. From a scientific point of view, romantic transmissions of Buddhism are simply inaccurate. They project forms of Buddhism more in line with contemporary non-secular ideals than with anything that has ever existed in Asia, and often miss the spiritual aspects of Buddhism. And from a romantic point of view, scientific studies miss the point of Buddhism altogether. They inadvertently transmit the mentality of a modern science worldview, and do nothing to awaken the mind, or alleviate unsatisfactoriness, for that matter. The scientific motive for the study of Buddhism is to obtain accurate knowledge of our world – awakening defined as a thorough understanding of world culture and history. The romantic motive for the study of Buddhism is to give us a breakthrough to a new kind of experience – awakening defined as a fundamental transformation of the human body-mind. These approaches seemed to be irreconcilable until recently.
If scientific rationalism and modern romanticism can now be seen to share a similar worldview, the perspective from which this can be seen is no longer completely within either one of them and therefore in some sense has created a stronger platform from which to study Buddhism from our contemporary experience. And it is this new development that has acted to create platforms life Pragmatic Buddhism, the Ch’an tradition that Ven. Wayne and I were trained under. The quest to understand what Buddhism is without understanding cultural influences is analogous to the academic demand to set aside all personal preferences and just examine the information, or read the text, in and of itself. Our minds are context-dependent; they come to a particular form of understanding that they do within particular cultural and historical settings. As we read and study available Buddhist books we have the obligation to take care to also understand the cultural and social references, as well as the perspective, of the author. We do not just read for pleasure. We read for understanding and assimilation into our own worldview. In the language of Zen, it calls forth “the one who is right now reading,” and refuses to allow the reader to cling to his or her own invisibility. The dharma is transmitted to each generation through the process of the human connection. Transmission is the process through which all forms of culture, including Zen awakening to the Dharma, makes their way from one generation to the next, one form leading to a transformed other and to another, without end. It is another example of our causal Universe at work. Here I am using the word “transmission” to mean universal understanding of the Dharma (or what is real), not the formal transmission you may be more familiar with where a teacher passes on to their Dharma-hire the “teaching” style and methods of a particular school. The dharma is transmitted in many ways, and those of us that have stepped onto the path have opened ourselves up to receiving Siddhartha’s legacy when we became receptive to its relevance in our lives.
We are challenged to read as a form of meditation. Our reading, therefore, is focused on three aspects: thoughtfulness, self-awareness, and self-transformation. First of all a meditative reading practice should be thoughtful. Although understanding what we are reading is essential, reading is not a passive activity; it should be active and engaged. In order to receive transmission, or skilled understanding, the reader must do what the author has done — think. Dogen was often heard challenging his listeners after a Dharma discourse to “ponder this day and night.” Meditative reading is a philosophical and reflective activity. We must not be just satisfied with the content, but we must read and push the boundaries of our understanding in order to grow our awareness of the unspoken meaning beyond language. The initial act of reading serves to lure the mind out of complacency and challenging it to consider something new, or to experience more deeply what has already been thought. Dale S. Wright, a contemporary Buddhist scholar, puts it this way, “A critical reader seeks freedom through the practice of reading, freedom from immature forms of grasping, self-deception and confinement.” What is happening when we read meditatively is we link the writer and reader in such a way as to seek cultivation of the mind. It is another form of mind-to-mind transmission.
Secondly, when we develop the ability to read meditatively, we must be willing to remain self-aware. We learn to use the text as a mirror upon which the reader’s own mind can be reflected and observant. In this sense, our reading becomes a form of a dialogue, a back and forth movement between the reader and the text. In this way we learn to question what is said in the text, and at the same time, we let the text question our own worldview and personal preferences. For every statement made in the text an implicit question is presented – what do you think? A unilateral reading, which seeks only to absorb what the author has said, does not challenge us to consider how it fits into our own life experience, and fails to develop our growing awareness. Meditative reading is a practice requiring our full presence of mind. When we read critically and thoughtfully, we will begin to see the reading-practice of the author. We will see not just what the author has read, but how, why, and to what effect his own practice reflects the Dharma. The value of this way of reading is to develop awareness of our own reading practice, and to evoke change. And make no mistake, when we read, change happens in our perspective and knowledge. Reading at its best is an engagement of the mind that alters the mind. Wisdom begins to blossom.
The goal of meditative reading is self-transformation. Through the practice of studied-reading, some change of mind and character is sought. Change, however, requires openness to change, which is never easy. This transformation can only be accomplished in an open process of questioning. In Zen we call it “great doubt”. In this way we open our mind to something that is other than its current state of awareness. We open to real possibilities of a spiritual transformation. We read to seek the meaning of the Buddhist ideas that we encounter as we engage self and other. This challenges the reader to true sincerity in the enterprise of study, and the openness of the mind when encountering alien ideas. I say ‘challenged’ because it requires that our own ideas and states of mind be placed at risk and open to transformation by being tested against those of the writer. When these practices are developed, philosophical meditation becomes a practical, ethical activity, one through which our own forms of awakening will be shaped. This is why it is so critical to take care when we select our reading material.
Making something our own is never simply and individual matter. Transmission of ideas always entails the convergence of many forces. But we must never forget that Buddhism is not primarily a philosophical movement, practice, not theory, is the emphatic focus of our reflection as we read and study the Dharma. Yet another pillar of engaged Buddhism.