Pragmatic Buddhism: A Common Sense Approach To The Path Of Awakening
By David Xi-Ken Astor
The overwhelming reality that I hope emerges from the study of Buddhism from a pragmatic perspective is what does our contemporary worldview require to be cultivated from what the Buddha taught over 2500 years ago. The primary result of walking the Buddhist path is toward cultivating awakening to how the Universe is and how we are in it. In the 21st century we are challenged to understand what elements of Buddhist thought is of vital importance for our attention, study, acceptance, and engagement that promotes the survival of a dharma practice that is not obscured by ancient visions of how the world looked to medieval minds. A good example of this would be the turning away from the metaphysical concepts of reincarnation, and what is the true meaning of karma that moves away from the notion of determinism producing an attitude of fatalism. Considering the modern advancements of science that inform us of how the Universe expresses itself, any conclusion of what is a truth is still at risk of being wrong. Yet, we work to improve our perspective of each situation we encounter recognizing our responsibility for the choices we make that have real consequences for ourselves and others.
Not only is this awakening a human endeavor, but a cultural one as well. This cultural transformation is reflected in acts of social justice, spiritual and religious practices, situational ethic guidelines, artistic expressions, as well as how the culture interacts with others on this very diverse planet of ours. As Buddhism has an opportunity to merge into the mainstream of a human-enriching practice both here in America and the West in general, it will assume features of our contemporary language and cultural moral and ethical norms that will vitalize specific dimensions of it’s traditional practice that will allow it to assume a perspective of legitimatization. How this will happen is yet to be seen, but the transformation has begun. The concern we must be conscious of is that it must not become a marginalized subculture at risk of losing it’s inner vitality. This is a crucial period of Buddhism’s cultural transformation in the West, in which the traditional schools of Buddhism are being uprooted from their ancient environments and directly confronting the realities of modern science, communication technology, and social unrest. It is unrealistic to assume that as Buddhism develops roots in the West, that it will remain unchanged. It is up to those in the West that study and teach the dharma to define a Western orientated path up the mountain as Buddhism struggles to find its voice in a new language. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this is to emphasize Siddhartha’s humanity.
The sense of community is the link between an individual practice and social engagement. For those with a Buddhist practice today, how we bring our individual spiritual insight into community interaction that has a useful and productive impact on our culture, may be the important element in how we practice the dharma in the future. If we take this aspect of how Buddhism is to transform itself as a philosophy, and for some a religion, in this post-Christian and post-philosophical American culture, and if we choose to call it the sacred, it is still not a metaphysical undertaking. It seems to me that our American culture does not need another religious institution, but a community where respect for individual social engagement is valued as much as the philosophical platform it represents. The community of sangha is vitally important for nourishing individual meditative practice. It is when the sangha engages the social fabric of the community it is meant to serve, Buddhism reflects it’s true potential for changing lives for the better. Buddhism then becomes a tool for promoting the common good through inter-connective-actions. It is not about Buddhism, it is about the common link we all share as expressions of the Universe. Leadership and spiritual guidance is of course important for transmitting the dharma. We should all support and respect those that have chosen to dedicate their practice to teaching and serving their sangha’s spiritual needs. What will not serve Buddhism well is that it develops into yet another authoritarian and monolithic institution, for each sangha represents communities of awakening that reflects what works in their own areas of engagement.
No matter how one sees the world around them, sometime in their lives, they will have moments that point directly to what makes us human when they find themselves seeking the spirit and wonder of the moment. This experience is not about religion or the mystical. It is about how the meaning of religion is constantly rearticulated in a language and in a way of understanding that is compatible with the social and cultural conditions of the time. It is important though that we maintain a basic structure of principles from which we use to guide us on the path of awakening. We should never allow the elements of this structure, however, to become so fixed and permanent, that it assumes absolute value in itself. All the principles underlying Buddhist thought are pragmatic ways of actualizing the human potential for refining the nature each of us has in every moment.