One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism

Joseph Goldstein


Sometime in the early 1970s, two Buddhist masters met in Cambridge, Massachusetts. One of them, Kalu Rinpoche, was a renowned Tibetan meditation master who had spent many years in solitary retreat in the remote mountain caves of Tibet. The other was Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen master who had recently come to the United States and was supporting himself by working in a Providence, Rhode Island, Laundromat, slowly planting the seeds of Zen in the minds of those coming to wash their clothes. At this now famous meeting of enlightened minds, Seung Sahn held up an orange and, in classic Zen dharma combat fashion, demanded, "What is this?"

Kalu Rinpoche just looked at him, wonderingly.

Again Master Seung Sahn asked,"What is this?"

Finally, Rinpoche turned to his translator and asked, "Don't they have oranges in Korea?"

We are living in remarkable times. A genuine Western Buddhism is now taking birth. Its defining characteristic is neither an elaborate philosophical system nor an attachment to any particular sectarian viewpoint. Rather, it is a simple pragmatism that harkens back to the Buddha himself, who pointedly questioned the established tenets of ancient Indian thought. It is an allegiance to a very simple question: "What works? What works to free the mind from suffering? What works to engender a heart of compassion? What works to awaken?

In the West, our open, diverse society acts like a magnet for different spiritual traditions, and over the past few decades many people have been turning to the wisdom of the East in search of practical and tested methods of spiritual inquiry. Because Buddhist practices rely on wise investigation rather than belief and dogma, they resonate strongly with the scientific and psychological paradigms that inform our culture.

What makes this time unique in the development of Buddhism is not only that East is meeting West, but also that isolated Asian traditions are now meeting for the first time in centuries, and they are doing so here in the West. Emerging from the fertile interaction of these ancient teachings is what we can now begin to call Western Buddhism.

Not bound by Asian cultural constraints and strengthened by a society that encourages investigation, we are willing to take what is useful and beneficial from different traditions and add it to our own practice experience. These diverse methods of cultivating wisdom and compassion enhance one another and, at the same time, challenge our familiar ways of understanding. Teachings are being tested by other points of view, not in schools of abstract philosophy, but in our own lives and meditation practices. Many of us are learning and practicing several of these different disciplines simultaneously. It is not unusual for people to list as their different teachers Tibetan Rinpoches, Burmese Sayadaws, Korean, Japanese, or Chinese Zen masters, Thai Ajahns, and Western teachers of all the various schools.

A genuine Western Buddhism is now taking birth.

This abundance and variety of teachings in one place has not happened since the great Indian Buddhist University at Nalanda, which ourished from the fifth to the twelfth centuries. According to documented reports of travelers in those times, there were over two thousand teachers and more than ten thousand monks from all over the Buddhist world who practiced and studied there side by side. Today, although we are not all gathered on once campus, the ease of travel and communication has created a similar wealth of available teachings.

But as old traditions meet in new ways, pressing questions arise. Is the melting-pot approach simply creating a big mess in which essential teachings of a tradition are lost? Or is something new emerging that will revitalize dharma practice for us all? Will it be possible to preserve the integrity of each of these distinct cultures of awakening, even as we nurture the enrichment that comes from their contact with each other? How much of our spiritual practice and discipline is embedded in cultural overlays from the East that are neither relevant nor helpful in our Western society? And do we sometimes water down or leave behind the essence of the teachings simply because they take us out of our Western physical or psychological comfort zone? How much can we pare away or alter before we start missing the point of it all?
What works to engender a heart of compassion?

What works to engender a heart of compassion?

Other questions too, more personal and immediate, burned in my mind as I began to study with teachers in different traditions, who often expressed contradictory viewpoints. What do you do when two of your most respected teachers say opposite things about that which is most important to you? Which fork in the road do you take when both signposts seem to point in the right direction? As I struggled with these dilemmas, one underlying and vital question began to surface: Is there a path to liberation that embraces them all?

One Dharma explores the answer to this question. It is neither a scholarly examination of comparative Buddhism nor an exhaustive study of particular traditions; rather, it is an inquiry born from my own meditation practice and from a compelling interest in understanding and realizing the essence of freedom.
Which fork in the road do you take when both signposts seem to point in the right direction?

Which fork in the road do you take when both signposts seem to point in the right direction?

This exploration leads to some fundamental and thorny issues: What is the ultimate nature of the liberated mind? Is it something already here that we need to recognize, as some of the traditions suggest? Or does it have a transcendent nature quite apart from our ordinary experience? Is it the total absence of any nature at all? Is it all of these? Do different methods of meditation practice in fact lead to different ends? Or, on the path of One Dharma, is there a way of holding even opposing perspectives in a greater unity?

The investigation of these questions requires great humility. When we step outside the safe bounds of the various individual traditions, each consistent within itself, we need to acknowledge the exploratory nature of a unified theory of Dharma, continually testing it against both our experience and the teachings as they have been passed down over thousands of years.

In Buddhism there are many names for ultimate freedom: Buddha-Nature, the Unconditioned, Dharmakaya, the Unborn, the Pure Heart, Mind Essence, Nature of Mind, Ultimate Bodhicitta, Nirvana. Various Buddhist traditions give it different names, each emphasizing certain aspects of this absolute nature. Although philosophical disputes often arise because of these different perspectives. Some of these issues have been debated for thousands of years. A harmonizing understanding comes when we move away from the confines of metaphysical systems or statements and enter into the world of direct experience.

Excerpted from One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism. (c) 2002 by Joseph Goldstein. Reprinted with permission of Harper San Francisco. All rights reserved.

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