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Lions Roar : January 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2009 60 In his own country, when it existed as a country, the Karmapa would not have been considered strange or exotic. He was the establishment. Neither Suzuki Roshi, Ajahn Chah, Thich Nhat Hanh, or any of the other teachers responsible for bringing Buddhism to the West would have been considered fringy or freaky in their homelands. But as Buddhism came westward, it took hold not with mainstream Americans, for the most part, but with people who rebelled against the culture—the Beats and then the hippies. These first adherents naturally colored Buddhism’s identity in America. While at the core of Buddhism lies a revolutionary spirit that subverts the conventional, making the dharma a part of ordinary life also means blending right in. But that takes a while. Before the seventies, anything Asian in America was other- worldly, but in 1965 country-of-origin quotas for U.S. immigra- tion were lifted, and by the late seventies, Asians accounted for al- most forty percent of U.S. immigrants. It became possible for many Buddhists, including prominent teachers, to move to America. For those first Americans who took up Buddhism, it was not primarily a means of dropping out. As Sojun Mel Weitsman, ab- bot of the Berkeley Zen Center, told me, “The bohemians and flower children were already dropped out. Buddhism offered them a way to drop in. It allowed them to create a culture out of the counterculture.” Weitsman has watched as Buddhism has gone from something “nobody paid attention to” to a noticeable element in American culture. “It’s the swing of the pendulum,” he says, “the counterculture becoming the next culture.” According to David Rome, senior fellow at the Garrison Insti- tute and long-time private secretary to the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Buddhist path provided a timely refuge for many. “The initial high from drugs and the rest of it was starting to wear off, and on the political-activism side, there was disillusionment about not really being able to affect the mainstream culture. The teachings offered a more serious way of carrying on explorations of consciousness and an opportunity to come together in a com- munity bound by shared teachings and practices.” By the late seventies, small islands of Buddhist culture existed in America. The scene had been dominated in the early years by the austere and simple Zen world, and then the outlandishly colorful Tibetan scene. These worlds were very much formed by their leaders as amalgams of West and East. Suzuki Roshi talked of his students establishing a “special practice that is not exactly priest’s practice and not exactly layman’s practice,” and Trungpa Rinpoche combined Tibetan, Zen, and Western forms to cre- ate a world, a mandala, that according to Rome “inspired and squeezed people to clean up their acts.” By contrast, the Theravadan Buddhist culture in America, aside from the south Asian immigrant temples in major cit- ies, developed in a form that in Jack Kornfield’s words, quoted in Heartwood: The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America, by Wendy Cadge, left “much of the Eastern culture, ritual, and ceremony... behind in Asia.” Western practitioners of Theravada felt, according to Kornfield, that “it was an unneces- sary barrier. It seemed to us that for our culture the simplicity and straightforwardness of mindful practice itself would speak best to the heart of those seeking practice.” The form of practice molded by Kornfield and his fellow founders of the Insight Med- itation Society, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, would in- deed resonate with a large number of Americans for those very reasons. In the late seventies and early eighties, their community received a boost from visits by the prominent Theravadan teach- ers the IMS founders had studied with in Asia: Mahasi Sayadaw, Achaan Chah, Dipa Ma, and others. Eventually, the internal cultures of the various Buddhist com- munities began to intermingle much more with the greater culture. As people needed livelihoods, businesses began to start, such as San Francisco Zen Center’s very popular Greens restaurant, and as Rome points out, the need to send children to school also contributed to “a very organic re-engaging of the mainstream culture.” As Kornfield told me, people slowly began to think, in a very nascent way, of a “greater mandala of hospice, healing, social engagement.” It was a heady time for people who had found Buddhism and a life within a spiritual community. There was an exhilarating freedom, a sense that the cultural rebellion had paid off and that Buddhists had arrived in a promised land. But Kornfield says, “Along with tremendous idealism, there was a lot of power and glamour.” In Rome’s words, “a three-way culture clash” was brewing between Asian culture, American culture, and what was left from hippie culture. “These various cultures,” he said, “were uncomfortable bedfellows.” Something had to give. 2. Power, Scandal, and a Gender Revolution By 1983, Richard Baker Roshi had led the San Francisco Zen Center for twelve years, since the Mountain Seat Ceremony in which Suzuki Roshi, ailing and soon to die, installed him as ab- bot. During Baker’s tenure, according to James William Cole- man’s New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition, Zen Center increased its budget 600-fold, acquired property worth approximately $20 million, and established a suite of student-run businesses. Baker Roshi saw it as his role to finance a big future for Zen Center, and indeed for Buddhism in America. He made friends with wealthy patrons and influen- tial political figures, including Governor Jerry Brown. They were considered part of a network of power and influence that would help to spread the dharma.