Article Swap: Nate of Precious Metal on the Role of Tradition

As part of the 2011 Article Swap, the following piece was written by Nate from Precious Metal on the role of Buddhist tradition in the current age.

I want to thank Al for being part of the Article Swap, and for hosting me here today.

I was a bit unsure how to approach the topic that Al chose, which is my thoughts on the role of tradition in Buddhism in the current age. I thought a lot about it, and the complexities of it. I could write a book on the subject, especially considering the scope of Buddhism in the world. So, I figured I’d whittle it down a bit and concentrate more on the US/ North American region.

The topic engenders a multitude of different directions, but stripping away everything, the core should be something like, do cultural traditions translate well in todays world? Specifically, as folks travel to other parts of the world, does the cultural leanings on Buddhist tradition from their country ring true for those that are now learning from that teacher/ mentor?

Ever since Buddhism made it’s way to the shores of the US, like elsewhere in the world, it has adapted. The first temple in the US was built in 1853, though it wasn’t until the 1950’s- 1960’s that we really started to see Buddhism take root on this soil. The influx of Buddhist masters during this time seemed to coincide with the need for Dharma teachings to be transmitted. Masters from all over the world, such as Japan, China, Korea, Tibet and more descended on the US like a charge of locusts. You had guys who were setting up temples and centers, and others that had been invited into homes to teach smaller, more intimate groups. Zen seemed to adapt well, and really became a solid foundation for future. As His Holiness The Dalia Lama’s profile became a media spotlight, the Tibetan tradition gained some steam to, and due to it’s popularity, grew at a quick rate. Statistically though, according to the Pew Forum, the three major branches of Buddhism have roughly the same amount of followers.

Due to the variations in each school of Buddhism, it gives the seeker an array of options to choose from. While one tradition may have a bit more ritual practice, one might chant quite a bit, and others might engage in more meditation. Each school, contrasted with the others, are at the core the same. Like flavors of a lollipop, there is a Buddhism for just about everyone.

For the most part, things will remain the same for Asians in the US. For those that have immigrated here and have a heritage steeped in Buddhism, the role it plays in their lives will continue. The traditions they carry with them are an important part of their lives, in a new country it helps keep them grounded with where they came from.

Sometimes, these cultural traditions have actually become a stumbling block in relations with American Buddhist counterparts. Some of the more “purist” folks look down on Westerners as if we/ they are some sort of infidel to their religion. As if we are not able to comprehend the true meaning of the Dharma and so we are unworthy. This dichotomy has at times strained relationships, and turned off some Americans.

With that, we’re already seeing the emergence of various forms of Buddhism in the US, which may or may not exemplify where the tradition is going. A couple of these forms are Engaged Buddhism and Secular Buddhism.

Engaged Buddhism isn’t something completely new, Thich Nhat Hanh could be considered the “grandfather” of this movement, but recently it seems to be growing more and more. Engaged Buddhism can be summed up as a practice that involves taking our meditation routines and our dharma practice into social and political situations. There are a number of organizations that exist that exemplify these practices such as The Prison Dharma Network, Buddhist Peace Fellowship, Zen Peacemakers, Liberation Prison Project, The†Interdependence†Project†and more. These groups, and the people involved, are highly active and believe the Dharma is not just an on the cushion activity. Some of the teachers that are attributed to the Engaged Buddhist practice are Bernie Glassman, Robert Aitken, Fleet Maull, Roshi Joan Halifax, Bhikku Bodhi and more

Secular Buddhism is growing because of it’s more practical approach to Buddhism. I do not consider myself to be a Secular Buddhist, but the methodology for inquiry has peaked my interest. Secularist’s believe that Buddhism should be stripped down, to take away the religious aspects, and practice what they believe in something that more closely resembles the practice of the Buddha himself. One of the preeminent teachers, and proponents of Secular Buddhism, is Stephen Batchelor. His books lay out the groundwork for skepticism of ritual practice in Buddhism, and belief in such teachings as karma an rebirth. One of the main reference points for Secular Buddhists is the teaching in the Kalama Sutta.

We are also seeing the manifestation of some young teachers who adhere to specific lineages and traditions, but teach in a †manner that a lot of younger folks can relate to. Whether you are a punk, a†metal-head†or consider yourself a geek, there are people to learn and take inspiration from.

You’ve got Noah Levine, who’s referred to in some circles as the†Tattooed†Bodhisattva, author of books such as “Dharma Punx”, “Against The Stream” and his newest offering “The Heart Of The Revolution”. His first book spawned a small movement of†tattooed†punks bucking the idea that Buddhists need to have this clean and proper exterior shell. His students believe that Buddhism is similar to the punk rock movement in the way they are both radical, rebellious forms. I tend to agree and enjoy his books, and dharma talks, immensely. He recently opened up shop at the Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Society in Los Angeles.

Brad Warner is another one that does not fit in the box. His books, such as “Hardcore Zen”, “Sit Down and Shut Up”, “Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate” and “Sex, Sin and Zen” can be, and are to some, controversial. I’m not of that belief, I think his books are very necessary today as he cuts through the bull, he is by far a “cookie cutter” Buddhist. The controversy with Brad comes from his columns he has written for the soft core porn site, The Suicide Girls.

There are a variety of other Buddhist teachers and groups that are worthy of mention, that again, have stepped outside of the box. You’ve got Ethan Nichtern, of The†Interdependence†Project, who’s project falls under the Engaged Buddhism idea I was talking about earlier. For those of us that are little more geek-ish, there are the Buddhist Geeks podcasts. Buddhist Geeks was founded by†Vince Horn and Ryan Oelke. BG started in 2007 and has grown so much, this year they will be running their own conference.

We are still very new to this Buddhism thing here in the US, and as our personal relationships grow, so will our spiritual relationships. The Dharma, in theory, with all of it’s schools and lineages will become just like the rest of America, a big melting pot. I believe wholeheartedly, as time passes, a boiled down, palatable version of Buddhism will emerge. We are beginning to see small hints of it, but there is still to much divisiveness for something like that to take hold just yet.

– Nate