Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Book Review: The Accidental Buddhist

So remember back in September when I mentioned a growing interest in Buddhism? Yeah still interested. In fact I have joined a meditation group that meets in Old Town on Sundays. My legs fall asleep, my monkey mind chatters, but it gets me out of the house and into a group setting every Sunday morning.

As usual, I have turned to books, and a growing stack of them at that, of Buddhist philosophy and musings to explore this interest. Upon finishing The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying I realized that this was a huge thing to undertake alone. All the culture, tradition and Tibetan words were kind of overwhelming and while excitingly foreign, still very foreign. I wanted to write about the book a bit but really felt like I had no grasp on the subject to do so. So I'm backing up, taking it light and moving in slowly.

So I chose a softball book to start. The Accidental Buddhist was an incredibly quick read. If I hadn't started that book at 10pm I easily would have crushed it in a day and even starting it that late I was done with it by early afternoon the next day. But this book, while humorous and silly a lot of the time, packed a whole lot of ideas in one quick punch.

While there is a beautiful, exotic quality about Buddhism, yoga and meditation there are times when it strikes me as so very un-American. And I don't say that in a "Well if you don't like it you can..." kind of way, just...well.... it's not what I grew up with and its certainly not a language I'm familiar with. And I have been to Buddhist meetings or done chanting and thought to myself "What the heck does that even mean?"

Dinty Moore talks about this a lot in the book. As a man who was raised Catholic, turned apathetic to all religion, turned accidental Buddhist, he goes through the process of trying out lots of different forms of Buddhism searching for an American style. He questions the practice of dokusan (basically a private meeting with your teacher that is proceeded by a series of complicated bows and prostrations and has specific rules for where you can sit, when you can speak and when you must leave), he questions the intersection of Christianity and Buddhism (he meets with several practitioners of meditation that hold positions of leadership in the Christian faith) and he questions the possibility of our American gusto marrying with such a calm and careful lifestyle.

The whole concept of an American style of Buddhism can have people up in arms. You'll get people all in a tizzy bringing it up and they'll start defending the tradition for traditions sake. Listen people - I don't buy eating meat just because it's traditional so I'm not going to fall for this "you must sit on your uncomfortable cushion and chant these unpronounceable words because that's the way it's always been" kind of attitude. It seems that the reason "American style" is unappealing is that it seems to translate to a Buddhism that is cheap, self-obsessed, stripped away of all substance, and is brimming full of misguided egos buying every accessory and looking for the magic instant cure to help them relax after a traffic jam while totally missing the point.

But does it have to be that way? Does it have to be traditional strict Buddhism or nothing? Do we who want to practice Buddhism need to turn our back on our culture, throw up our hands and say "Americans are too shallow to get it so I'm going Tibetan." I really don't think so and while Moore doesn't find a definitive answer or American style on his quest he does run across some interesting ideas. At one point Moore actually gets a chance to speak with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and he asks him where he thinks Buddhism fits into modern American culture. The Dalai Lama gives a surprising response. Basically - it doesn't.

While I perhaps wouldn't go as far as that (no disrespect to His Holiness of course) I do feel like Buddhism will need to be adapted to our culture some - while still retaining the things that make it so attractive and worthwhile of course!

In looking at American culture there are several things right up front that clash with Buddhism. For example we are a status driven society. Those who don't strive for more, those who don't compete are seen to not be making progress. Progress is everything in the US - from how we go through school to our jobs to our relationships and whether we have children or not. Those following an "alternative" lifestyle - for example those who don't want a car or those who would rather live with friends in a group rather than with a partner - are often pitied in our society. They are seen to be "failures."

So how can a society with such a competitive drive approach the world without expectations as the Buddhists teach? How can they be mindful, compassionate, even present when we are so consumed with our neighbors car, when we can take our next cruise, or whether or not the color of our jeans is still in style?

Moore writes "By expecting things to deliver everlasting delight, we are setting ourselves up for a fall" He uses the example of wanting a new job and how we are so sure that a new job will fix things. But the excitement of the new job is fleeting and then the cycle starts again. Moore terms this "feeling vaguely dissatisfied." Buddhists call it samsara.

My roommate and I have talked about this in relation to travel. We both are attracted to this idealized dream of a traveling lifestyle but my personal fear is that the NEED for that lifestyle, the fact that it seems IMPORTANT to be somewhere else, only really means that I'm grasping. That I'm placing expectation on it. Moore says "It is the same thing with marriage - we expect marriage to make us happy, and it does for a while, then our problems creep up again, and we think, "Gee, I guess I married the wrong person."

Sitting in meditation, for an American, fights against all our upbringing. We are pushed from a young age to participate, perform, and multitask to our highest potential. And in mediation...well you just sit. And that's it. Don't think. Don't try. Just sit.

Moore gives a perfect example of how our American brains rebel from this idea of just sitting without expectation and instead tends towards setting up mental checklists of progress. Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the first Zen training center in America and author of Zen Mind, Beginners Mind talks in his book about what he calls mind weeds. Mind weeds are the distracting thoughts in your head. The Monkey Mind as it is also called. Suzuki says that these weeds are in fact a good thing. He says just as weeds can be composted to nourish a garden, sitting and watching your weeds can turn them into nourishment for your practice. In response to this Moore writes:

"So here I am, it seems, with a mind full of dandelions and crabgrass, worrying about it, and once again missing the whole point. Weeds are good. Weeds aren't what's stopping me, it's just my Monkey Mind insisting that weeds are somehow bad. If I let the Monkey Mind pronounce me an abject failure before I even begin, what chance will I have against him? ...Quit worrying so much and just do it. Just sit. ... Now I see. The difficulty I have with Buddhism is that it's just too damn simple."

In general I found this book to be engaging and thought provoking. When I finished my roommate and I had a good hour or so conversation about it and the concept of an American style of Buddhism. She brought up the fact that one of the things she appreciates about Buddhism is that it teaches you to question everything, even Buddhism. With that point out in the air I postulated "And why not Buddhism in America then? Why can't we question the chanting and the language?" Im not saying tear it all down and start from scratch. The lessons are there - the teachings are there, but at what point do you continue with the trappings of the rituals when they have no cultural significance? Buddhism has adapted many times. The Japanese have their own style of Buddhism, why not the Americans?

Learning the traditional ways is of benefit for sure. But blindly following a practice that holds cultural significance for a people you are not a part of seems counterproductive. It seems like a story we are telling ourselves. Like a beautiful picture. Like an obsession with the exotic qualities of a tradition that have led us to accept all the bowing and bell ringing as the teachings itself, rather than seeing this for what it is, a cultural manifestation of the root ideas. And in this vein of talk - the root ideas of Buddhism are in so many ways similar to the root ideas of Christianity. In the book Moore draws a link between the ideas of Nirvana and the Holly Spirit.

Father Kennedy, a Jesuit priest as well as being an ordained Zen teacher that Moore meets says "The very meaning of Zen is not to imitate anyone, because there is nothing to imitate, but to be yourself, so it is rather silly for Americans to continue to imitate Japanese, or Tibetan, customs. We respect our teachers and respect the forms that they bring, and we keep them up to a certain extent, but always it has to be an integration with the present moment."

In my newly developed interest in Buddhism, I found that this book had a lot to offer. Not only did it help expose me to some different style but it did so in a modern context.

In the end though I will just have to sit and see. One of the quote I really liked from the book came from Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi. He said "All of this talking, this is not really Buddhism. You can get instructions for swimming, but if you want to learn to swim, you have to get into the water."


Jamie said...

Interesting that you mention Father Kennedy's compromise - I have been practicing unconventional Zen for years (accidentally - it took months of conversing with a close friend before realizing that I had "invented" zen buddhism) and all the while have maintained my practices in Judaism, and have long considered attending rabbinical school to become a Rabbi myself.

Rachel Molenda said...

Lacey, you might also enjoy Awakening the Buddha Within by Lama Surya Das, who is an American lama.