Today’s post reflects themes that I explored in my first post on Elephant Journal— Was the Buddha a Social Activist?—almost two years ago. A January pilgrimage to India in the Buddha’s footsteps reignited in me reflections on the role of the founder of Buddhism in my Buddhist practice.
The Buddha says, Don’t Cry.
The Buddha’s response to his father’s death as portrayed in Thich Nhat Hanh’s biography of the Buddha, Old Path White Clouds, didn’t quite jive with my understanding of my Buddhist practice with regards to death:
The king smiled weakly, but his eyes radiated peace. He closed his eyes and passed from this life. Queen Gotmai and Yasodhara began to cry. The ministers sobbed in grief. The Buddha folded the king’s hands on his chest and then motioned for everyone to stop crying. He told them to follow their breathing… [At the funeral, the Buddha said] “A person who has attained the Way looks on birth, old age, sickness and death with equanimity.”
This seems different from what my teachers teach. Is it because my teachers focus on the Bodhisattva path instead of the Buddha path? Are they really so different? From What is Bearing Witness? by Bernie Glassman:(Street Retreat)
It is the role of the Bodhisattva to bear witness. The Buddha can stay in the realm of not-knowing, the ream of blissful non-attachment. The Bodhisattva vows to save the world, and therefore to live in the world of attachment, for that is also the world of empathy, passion, and compassion.
Ultimately, she accepts all the difficult feelings and experiences that arise as part of everyday life, as nothing but ways of revelation, each pointing to the present moment as the moment of enlightenment.
We bear witness to the joy and suffering that we encounter. Rather than observing the situation, we become the situation. We became intimate with whatever it is – disease, war, poverty, death. When you bear witness you’re simply there, you don’t flee.
In my experience at Bearing Witness Retreats on the streets or at Auschwitz, tears fall. However, the tears aren’t frantic tears that can’t accept what I’m seeing. They’re a gentle opening to fully embracing and experiencing the range of experience.(Auschwitz Bearing Witness Retreat)
At a workshop at Rowe Camp, a participant once asked Bernie if he cries. “I don’t know if I would call it crying,” he said. “But sometimes tears fall. Reading the news, learning about stories of great suffering. It tells me that I need to lean in closer and learn more. It fuels me.”
Indian Vs. Chinese Meditation
Does Bernie’s perspective reflect the change from the ideal of the Buddha to the ideal of the Boddhisattva and from Indian forms of meditation to Chinese ones? According to A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy Translated and Compiled by Wing-Tsit Chan:
In Indian meditation, the mind tries to avoid the external world, ignores outside influence, aims at intellectual understanding and seeks to unite with the Infinite.
From the ninth century to the eleventh [in China], novel and unconventional techniques were developed, and vigorously, if only occasionally applied: travel… the koan… shouting and beating. Even these are not madness or dramatics but an unorthodox way of shocking the pupil out of his outmoded mental habits and preconceived opinions so that his mind will be pure, clear, and thoroughly awakened…
This type of mental training is utterly Chinese. Nothing like it can be found in the tradition of Indian meditation.
Bringing it Together
At the 2009 Symposium for Western Socially Engaged Buddhism, that I helped host as a member of the Zen Peacemakers staff, participants debated whether social engagement is inherent to all forms of Buddhism or whether it is something that developed later on.
A plurality—about 65% of the presenters at the Symposium—were Zen leaders and only about 5% practiced in the Theravadin tradition, what is considered the closest style of practice to the classic teaching of the Buddha. Is this because the Symposium’s host, Bernie Glassman, comes from the Zen world and knows more Zen people or because the Theravadin tradition tends to emphasize a more renunciant approach to practice?
Reflecting on this topic, my Zen teacher, Roshi Eve Marko, warned me against oversimplifying the concepts of Buddha and Bodhisattva into dualistic opposites. When the Buddha spent many decades teaching and spreading his methods for reducing suffering, he was, after all, immersed in the world doing the work of the Bodhisattava.
What do you think? If you have a job and a family, do the renunciant threads of either Buddhism or Yoga interact with your lifestyle? Do the Dharmic concepts of equanimity and presence, as well as the practices of meditation and yoga inform your work in the world?
Am I oversimplifying the classical teaching?
Editor: Andrea B.