Is Buddhism a Religion? (November 2013)
Is Buddhism a Religion?
Is it a religion, psychology, or way of life? The “religion without God” has baffled Western thinkers for hundreds of years. Our three experts, CHARLES PREBISH ("Yes"), DZOGCHEN PONLOP RINPOCHE ("No"), and JOAN SUTHERLAND ("Kind of"), join the debate.
By CHARLES PREBISH
If you got together a big room of religious studies scholars and asked each of them to offer their own definition of religion, you’d likely get as many different answers as there were people in the room. There would be similarities, but also a lot of differences.
Therein lies the problem. People who say, “Buddhism is a religion” and people who say, “Buddhism is not a religion” may not be using the same standards and criteria.
So the first challenge is finding a reasonable definition of religion. For me, the definition that has always made the most sense is the one offered by the late Buddhologist Frederick Streng. In his classic book Understanding Religious Life, he said, “Religion is a means to ultimate transformation.”
This definition sounds almost too easy, but it really isn’t. It was designed to offer a common set of standards by which to measure potential religions, without making value judgments regarding theological, practical, or ethical concerns. In this definition, theism is not favored over non-theism; prayer is not favored over meditation; one set of ethical standards is not preferred over another.
What Streng meant to say was that for something to be considered a religion, it must posit a clear and distinct ultimate reality. That ultimate reality can be a God or gods, an impersonal absolute, a force of nature, a ground of being, or some other entity or experience. But without something ultimate — beyond which it is impossible to go — the system at hand is not a religion. In addition, in order to be considered a religion, the system must offer some clear and distinct path, or choice of paths, to the experience of that ultimate reality. While it doesn’t matter whether that path is prayer, ritual, yoga, meditation, some other method, or some combination thereof, there must be a straightforward way for the religious aspirant to gain the experience of the ultimate reality.
Finally, for something to be a religion, there must be a personal transformation that results from the individual’s experience of ultimate reality. This is most usually demonstrated by a positive change in morality and/or ethics, expressions of compassion, kindness, or similar forms of conduct. If we apply this definition, it’s clear that Buddhism is a religion. First of all, Buddhism absolutely offers an ultimate reality. Some forms of Buddhism may call this nirvana, others buddhahood, and so forth, but all schools and sects of Buddhism do have a notion of ultimacy.
Second, all schools and sects of Buddhism offer a clear path to the attainment of ultimate reality. Whether it’s the eightfold path that we find in Theravada, the bodhisattva path of Mahayana, or something else altogether, Buddhist practitioners are always provided with a straightforward series of practices that culminate in enlightenment.
Finally, are Buddhists who attain the experience of ultimate reality “transformed” by their experience? Of course they are. Their ethics and behaviors are changed. This may yield more compassionate behavior or finer social engagement. The person is now manifesting their buddhanature.
I found in my forty years of classroom teaching that a lot of my students started off presuming that Buddhism was not a religion but a “way of life.” Once confronted with the above, most changed their opinion. Those students who started from the assumption that Buddhism was indeed a religion now had some logical basis to support their assumption. The same was true with practitioners I met in the various Buddhist communities I visited during my time researching and practicing American Buddhism.
Yet do bear in mind that some researchers, scholars, and practitioners who subscribe to a different definition of religion than the one I cited may come to the opposite conclusion.
Professor emeritus Charles Prebish has written and edited numerous books on Buddhism, including Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America.
By DZOGCHEN PONLOP RINPOCHE
If you search “world religions,” you’ll find “Buddhism” on every list. Does that make Buddhism a religion? Not necessarily. I can argue that Buddhism is a science of mind — a way of exploring how we think, feel, and act that leads us to profound truths about who we are. I can also say that Buddhism is a philosophy of life — a way to live that maximizes our chances for happiness.
What Buddhism is, at this point, is out of the Buddha’s hands. His teachings passed into the hands of his followers thousands of years ago. They passed from wandering beggars to monastic institutions, from the illiterate to the learned, from the esoteric East to the outspoken West. In its travels, Buddhism has been many things to many people. But what did the Buddha intend when he taught?
At the start of his own spiritual quest, Siddhartha left his royal home determined to find answers to life’s most perplexing questions. Are we born into the world just to suffer, grow old, and die? What’s the meaning of it all? After years of experimenting with different forms of religious practice, he abandoned his austerities and all his concepts about his spiritual journey — all the beliefs and doctrines that had led him to where he was. Then, with only an open and curious mind, he discovered what he was looking for: the great mind of enlightenment. He saw beyond all belief systems to the profound reality of the mind itself, a state of clear awareness and supreme happiness. Along with that knowledge came an understanding of how to lead a meaningful and compassionate life. For the next forty-five years, he taught how to work with the mind: how to look at it, how to free it from misunderstandings, and how to realize the greatness of its potential.
Today those teachings still describe an inner journey that’s spiritual, yes, but not religious. The Buddha wasn’t a god; he wasn’t even a Buddhist. You’re not required to have more faith in the Buddha than you do in yourself. His power lies in his teachings, which show us how to work with our minds to realize our full capacity for wakefulness and happiness. These teachings can help us satisfy our search for the truth — our need to know who and what we really are.
Where do we find this truth? We start by bringing an open, inquisitive, and skeptical mind to whatever we hear, read, or see that presents itself as the truth. We examine it with reason and we put it to the test in meditation and in our lives. As we gain insight into the workings of the mind, we learn how to recognize and deal with our day-to-day experiences of thoughts and emotions. We uncover inaccurate and unhelpful habits of thinking and begin to correct them. Eventually we’re able to overcome the confusion that makes it so hard to see the mind’s naturally brilliant awareness. In this sense, the Buddha’s teachings are a method of investigation, or a science of mind.
Religion, on the other hand, often provides us with answers to life’s big questions from the start. We learn what to think and believe, and our job is to live up to that, not to question it. If we relate to the Buddha’s teachings as final answers that don’t need to be examined, then we’re practicing Buddhism as a religion.
In any case, we still have to live our lives. We can’t escape having a “philosophy of life” because we’re challenged every day to choose one action over another — kindness or indifference, generosity or selfishness, patience or blame. When our decisions and actions reflect the knowledge we’ve gained by working with our minds, that’s adopting Buddhism as a way of life.
As the teachings of the Buddha pass into our hands, what determines what they will be for us? It’s all in how we use them. As long as they help clear up our confusion and inspire confidence that we can fulfill our potential, then they’re doing the job that the Buddha intended.
Siddhartha was a truth seeker, nothing more. He wasn’t looking for religion, as such; he wasn’t particularly interested in religion. He was searching for the truth. He was looking for a genuine path to freedom from suffering. Aren’t all of us searching for the same thing? If we look at the life of Siddhartha, we can see that he found the truth and freedom he was seeking only after he abandoned religious practices. Isn’t that significant? The one who became the Buddha, the Awakened One, didn’t find enlightenment through religion — he found it when he began to leave religion behind.
A widely respected teacher in the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche is the founder of Nalandabodhi and Nitartha International. His most recent book is Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom.
By JOAN SUTHERLAND
Buddhism covers many traditions, evolving over vast stretches of geography and time and accommodating everything from a statue of Lord Buddha on a taxi dashboard to some of the most abstruse philosophical treatises ever written. The religious, the agnostic, and the completely irreligious, as well as those inclined psychologically, mystically, shamanically, or sociopolitically, can all find a home in the very big tent of Buddhism.
So is Buddhism a religion? My seat under the tent is in the Chan and Zen koan section. From this perspective, the answer is a resounding “Yes-no-kind-of,” inside of which might be one of Buddhism’s most powerful possibilities.
At its etymological root, religion is what rebinds or reunites us with the sacred. Many of us long for this return from exile and then discover that it leads us toward existential danger — the deconstruction and rearrangement of our very sense of self and reality. In common usage, religion often refers to the belief systems and institutions that surround this longing. These religious structures can sometimes be attempts to control the inherent wildness and risk of the root religious impulse. Is it possible to stay true to that first meaning of religion without calling into being the empires of the second?
The religious event at the heart of the koan tradition is awakening, which reunites us with the sacred, or true, nature of things. The revelation of awakening is of the universe as one undivided whole, simultaneously eternal and shimmering in and out of existence. Awakening deepens as we integrate that revelation with our experiences in the everyday world of cause and effect, and in the nonlinear world of myth and dream. It’s an instantaneous reunion followed by a lifelong rebinding of our lives to the life of the world.
The koan tradition supports this by way of a culture of awakening rather than through organized religion. Instead of infallible scriptures, there’s a body of conversations, stories, commentaries, songs, poetry, jokes — whatever has proven helpful in waking people up over the centuries. Quotes from Buddhist sutras are turned into koans, sometimes upending their traditional meanings. If there is a sacred text, it’s the world itself, which is called the Great Sutra, something we’re learning to interpret.
Zhaozhou said of reading the Great Sutra, “When I come upon an unfamiliar word, I might not know the meaning yet, but I recognize the handwriting.” We don’t always understand why something’s happening or what it means, but we come to trust that we, and it, are part of the same sutra. Then our response in any circumstance begins with something like Notice what happens, a deceptively simple, easily portable, and gorgeously subversive suggestion.
This doesn’t require or deny God or any other form of divinity. The koans are constantly urging us to see the radiance of each thing, galaxies to earthworms. Divinities, spirits, and mythological figures shine with the same light as everything else. Authority comes from how clearly the voice of awakening speaks through someone, regardless of title or position. Awakening is as likely to be sparked by a tree in sudden bloom as by a famous teacher. Interposing as few filters and preconceptions as possible between ourselves and our experiences, we become a welcoming home for all the moments of the day, including teachers and companions in whatever forms they arrive.
Being crazy in love with awakening and committed to it for every being in the universe is a pretty strong religious impulse. Yet the koans and other traditions in the Buddhist big tent undermine attempts to solidify religion around that impulse. We don’t always succeed, but the fact that some keep trying is one of the powerful potentials of Buddhism: being deeply religious, without religion.
Joan Sutherland Roshi is a teacher in the Zen koan tradition. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she teaches and leads the Awakened Life community.
How It Helps Me (November 2013)
How It Helps Me
Six non-Buddhists — KIM STANLEY ROBINSON, DONNA M. JOHNSON, PICO IYER, CHRISTIAN MCEWEN, SETH GREENLAND, and JESSICA LITTLE — on how Buddhism has benefited their lives.
Chop Wood, Carry Water
By KIM STANLEY ROBINSON
I don’t think of myself as a Buddhist or as a particularly religious person, but I like Buddhism because it helps me think about my day-to-day life. I like it also that I feel the Buddha and most practicing Buddhists would be fine with this use I make of Buddhism. Sometimes I call my attitude a Californian or hippie or New Age Buddhism, but what I mean is Buddhism feels like mine.
I use it most in structuring my feelings as I go about daily life. I think this may be expressed best by the Zen saying “Chop wood, carry water,” which suggests to me that the repetitive activities of ordinary existence can be performed as devotional acts that express the sense that the universe is miraculous and sacred, that life is precious and we are lucky to be here. We move in a flow of time, and nothing endures. Everything is always changing, but while we are here, if we are not in too much pain, there is beauty\ everywhere to be appreciated and lived. This is a feeling to be shared and spread to others, if possible, but first we have to feel it in ourselves.
This feeling comes to me most when I am gardening, walking, running, washing dishes, writing, hiking in the mountains, cleaning the house, and talking with family or friends. Since we can’t hold on to anything past its moment, including our own lives, this sense of performing a devotional as we go through time is the best way to feel a love of life. I call this realization a Zen perception and am thankful that my readings in Buddhism suggested it to me in my youth. It’s been a comfort and a joy ever since, and I trust it will continue so.
A science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. His new novel, Shaman, was released in September.
Illustration(s) by Eric Hansen.
The Curtain Lifted
By DONNA M. JOHNSON
There came a time in childhood, a brief time, when I was forced to spend hours at a stretch outdoors alone. It seems a harsh sentence for a kid of four or five. Yet when I recall the felt experience of those days, it’s with a kind of awe at what transpired.
I passed the time playing a solitary version of hopscotch, scratching panoramas into the dirt, and constructing rambling internal narratives to which I routinely added new chapters. Each day I came to a point where the responsibility of the made-up world exhausted me, and my attention turned to the world around me. I became a fierce watcher of rain, clouds, insects, birds, airborne tufts of cottonwood. When I watched something long enough, the curtain that separated me from it sometimes lifted. An odd expansiveness rushed in, and I experienced a sense of connectedness. With my next breath the curtain fell, and I was once more a discrete entity, bound by skin and senses.
These experiences continued, though I never spoke or thought of them. I couldn’t because I didn’t posses the necessary vocabulary. That changed in my teens when I first encountered Buddhist thought. The emphasis on interconnectedness caught my attention, and I wondered about my early experience and what it might mean. Someone gave me a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a book I studied for years. I meditated and extended my reading to other Buddhist thinkers and to Christian theologians influenced by Eastern philosophy.
All of this happened a long time ago, and it is still happening. Over time, Buddhism has helped me construct a spiritual framework deeply rooted in my direct experience, thus encouraging me to trust my own perception. It inspires in me a confidence that hearkens back to childhood — to that radical knowing rooted in the immediacy of the real world and the wild imagination of beginner’s mind.
Donna M. Johnson was the organist for the apocalyptic tent preacher Brother David Terrell. Holy Ghost Girl is her memoir of growing up amid miracles and human frailty.
Doctors of the Mind
By PICO IYER
I’ve never been eager to be part of any group or to figure out what kind of forces are at play beyond our comprehension. We all have enough to worry about right here, right now, with our loved ones, our bosses, our trials, and our joys.
But part of the practicality, the universality of Buddhism, as I understand it, is that it’s never been a religion. It doesn’t insist on a sense of God (or no God); it doesn’t necessarily concern itself with ideas of nirvana or the hereafter. It simply offers a training of the mind that encourages us to wake up to what is and, as the Buddha did, to see things as they are — not without metaphysical supplements but with open-eyed awareness and compassion.
I’ve never had a Buddhist practice. But I can see how and why this training in realism could be a help and companion to anyone, even if he or she still decides to identify as Jewish or Catholic or nothing at all. (Half the friends I have these days seem to style themselves “Buddhist Catholic” or “Jewish Buddhist.”) To me, the Buddha and many of his later students — the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, for example — are really doctors of the mind, offering diagnoses and prescriptions.
You don’t have to share their fundamental assumptions to accept their diagnoses. They’re simply suggesting one response to the confusion and predicament of life, and whether or not you take to it has nothing to do with ultimate matters.
A Buddhist can be spiritual, religious, or — absolutely — none of the above.
A British-born essayist, Pico Iyer is the author of The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto.
One Ordinary Day
By CHRISTIAN MCEWEN
This past June I was teaching on Tanera Mor, a tiny island off the coast of Scotland. One quiet afternoon, I made my way to a small hummocky islet, looking out across two bright-eyed lochans, and settled back against a lichen-covered rock. For more than an hour I did precisely nothing.
Gulls swooped and squabbled overhead. The scent of bog myrtle carried on the breeze. A cuckoo called — once, twice! — across the hill.
I follow an eclectic spiritual path. But ever since I was a child, I’ve practiced what I call “placefulness,” a sense-based meditation drawn from one specific place. There is no question that Buddhist practice has helped me with this. That day on Tanera, I let my eye wander and my ear too, moment after moment unfurling with gentle authority.
Even in that most perfect of places, on that most perfect of days, it wasn’t easy to stay present. So I began to sketch a little poem in honor of the island, eager to pay witness to each passing moment, to register the subtlest and most minuscule of changes. It was mindfulness entwined with placefulness. Looking, listening, listening out. The record of one ordinary day.
Wind blows the grasses, and the grasses tremble
the heather yields and crunches underfoot
tadpoles idle in the peaty shallows
a black sheep tears its fleece against a fence
one gull dabbles the bright surface of the water
another one swoops in from far away
a collared dove calls coo, roo-coo, roo-coo!
a piece of sandstone flakes off in the sun
ripples spread and glitter like a starry net
the lochan shifts from black to radiant blue
I sat for a while with the scrawled piece of paper in my lap. And then I found myself another rock, another watching-post, and began to sit again.
Christian McEwen is the author of World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down and coeditor of the anthology The Alphabet of the Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing.
It’s a Puppy!
By SETH GREENLAND
One of the most appealing things about Buddhism for me, a non-Buddhist, is the concept of beginner’s mind. A beginner is the opposite of an expert. If you’re an expert, everyone is looking at you. They expect you to know everything, to have gamed out all possibilities, to be godlike. That’s an awful lot of pressure because humans are, well, they’re human. Imperfect. Inexpert. And what expert wants to admit he doesn’t know something? Because if he admits he doesn’t know something, then he’s not an expert. More pressure. It exhausts me just to think about it.
But if you’re a beginner, there is no pressure. There is no expectation that you will know anything. No one judges a beginner. They’re like puppies. You don’t get angry at a puppy when it poops on the kitchen floor. It’s a puppy! A beginner. So cute! Being a beginner significantly decreases anxiety. And in my world — one of ringing cell phones, deadlines, and a dog that can’t stop shaking when it rains — any way to manage anxiety that doesn’t involve a prescription is wonderful.
To do my best work as a writer, to dig the deepest and reach a level of perception that did not exist five minutes earlier, I need to be open, eager, and lacking in preconception. Sound familiar? According to the renowned Buddhist text Wikipedia, this perfectly describes the condition of beginner’s mind. If I believed in tattoos I would get Openness, Eagerness, and Lack of Preconception engraved on my bicep (next to a mermaid) so I could check in with these ideas while at my desk.
And I like vipassana, too, but the editor told me to keep this under three hundred words.
Seth Greenland was a writer/producer on the HBO series Big Love. His novel The Angry Buddhist was released in 2012.
Fifth Graders After Lunch
By JESSICA LITTLE
It’s Tuesday and I have the fifth graders after lunch. It’s a notoriously rowdy class, and after lunch they rarely want to calm down and spend an hour speaking, reading, and writing their second language. But it’s my job to teach these kids English.
I always take five minutes before my classes to breathe. While I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, I am a strong believer in meditation. I don’t meditate as often or as long as I’d like, but I never go without my pre-class “mini-meditation.” If I go into the class calm and anchored, the children feel it, and it helps them calm down after their noisy lunch break. So I turn off the lights, sit at my desk, and breathe.
Five minutes later, the bell rings and the kids come streaming in from outside. They are sweaty and out of breath. One girl is chasing a boy and trying to write on his arm with a blue highlighter. The boy tells her to quit it and races through the classroom, shoving chairs out of his way. Other students drag their feet. They ask questions like, “Can I go to the washroom?” “Did we have homework?” and “Are we doing anything fun today?”
I do exactly what I do every time I teach this class. It is a ritual. I speak slowly and quietly. I ask them to turn to the handout waiting on their desks and read it in silence for five minutes. It might look like regular old instruction: the teacher gives the students work to do, and the students do the work. But it’s really a mini-meditation for the students. Call it “silent reading meditation.” And it works. The students calm down, and we can begin our English class.
Jessica Little is a teacher who lives in Montreal with her partner, Simon, and their seven-year-old son, Zachary.
Are You Spiritual But Not Religious? 10 Reasons Why Buddhism Will Enrich Your Path (November 2013)
Are You Spiritual But Not Religious?
10 Reasons Why Buddhism Will Enrich Your Path
by Melvin McLeod
It wasn’t so long ago that most Americans took their religion for granted. You were born into a religion, you lived in it, and you died in it.
Except for a few daring freethinkers, that’s the way it was as recently as the 1950s, and that’s still the way it is in most of the world today. It’s the way we’ve related to religion for thousands of years. Until now. Today, a significant and growing number of Americans do not identify themselves as members of any religion.
According to a Pew Research Report, 20 percent of Americans — one-fifth of the adult population — describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. That’s up from 15 percent just five years ago, and the percentage goes higher the younger you are — up to 72 percent for Generation Y.
There are many different reasons why people become disenchanted with organized religion — the litany is long and depressing — but most continue to yearn for something more than a life of materialism, for something that gives deeper meaning and happiness, for something they describe as “spiritual.”
About a third of the religiously unaffiliated describe themselves as atheists. But the rest — some thirty million Americans — maintain some type of spiritual belief and practice, even though they no longer feel at home in a church, synagogue, or mosque. These are the famous “spiritual but not religious,” philosophically the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. Generally, they’re educated, liberal, and open-minded, with a deep sense of connection to the Earth and a belief that there’s more to life than what appears on the surface.
Perhaps this describes you. Perhaps, as a reader of the Shambhala Sun, you’re one of the many people who has discovered that Buddhism has a lot to offer your life and spiritual practice, without some of the downsides of institutionalized religion.
To put it another way: Is Buddhism the religion for people who don’t like religion?
Buddhism is unique among the world’s major world religions. (In a few pages we’ll debate whether Buddhism is in fact a religion, but for now let’s assume it is.) Buddhism is the one world religion that has no God. It is the nontheistic religion.
That changes everything. Yes, like other religions Buddhism describes a nonmaterial, spiritual reality (perhaps the realer reality) and addresses what happens after we die. But at the same time, it is down-to-earth and practical: it is about us, our minds, and our suffering. It’s about being fully and deeply human, and it has something to offer everyone: Buddhists of course; but also the spiritual but not religious, members of other religions, and even those who don’t think they’re spiritual at all. Because who doesn’t know the value of being present and aware?
First, a couple of cautions. Like other religions, Buddhism is practiced at different levels of subtlety, and sometimes it can be just as theistic as any other religion. Buddhism is practiced by people, so there’s good and bad. We come to Buddhism as we are, so there’s definitely going to be ego involved. That’s no problem — it’s the working basis of the path. The key is where we go from there.
Also, much of what I’m saying about Buddhism also applies to the contemplative traditions of other religions. In fact, contemplatives of different faiths often have more in common with each other than they do with practitioners of their own religion. It comes down to how much we personify or solidify the absolute —whether it’s a supreme being who passes judgment on us or an open expanse of love and awareness. In their experience of God, Thomas Merton, Rumi, and Martin Buber had more in common with the Buddha (and each other) than with most practitioners of their own faith.
The difference is that meditation is the very essence of Buddhism, not just the practice of a rarified elite of mystics. It’s fair to say that Buddhism is the most contemplative of the world’s major religions, which is a reflection of its basic nontheism.
Buddhism is about realization and experience, not institutions or divine authority. This makes it especially suited to those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious. Here are ten reasons why:
1. There is no Buddhist God.
Different schools of Buddhism have different views about who the Buddha was. Some say he was an ordinary human being who discovered the path to awakening; others say he was already enlightened but followed the path to show us how it’s done. But one thing is certain: he was not a God, deity, or divine being. His faculties were purely human, any of us can follow his path, and our enlightenment will be exactly the same as his. Ultimately, we are no different from him, and vice versa.
Admittedly, there are lots of Buddhist images that look like gods and deities, all kinds of colorful and exotic beings. The Buddhist cosmos is a vast one, containing infinite beings of different minds, bodies, faculties, and realms. Some are more subtle and awakened, and others are grosser and more confused. Yet these are just the endless variations on the reality we experience right now. It may be infinitely vast and profoundly deep, it may be mysterious beyond concept, it may be far different than we think it is, but whatever reality is, this is it. There is nothing and nobody fundamentally different from or outside of it.
2. It’s about your basic goodness.
Buddhism is not about salvation or original sin. It’s not about becoming somebody different or going somewhere else. Because both you and your world are basically good. With all its ups and downs, this world of ours works. It warms us; it feeds us; it offers us color, sound, and touch. We don’t have to struggle against our world. It is neither for us nor against us. It is a simple, vivid world of direct experience we can investigate, care for, enjoy, make love to.
We are basically good as well, confused as we may be. In Buddhism, our true nature has many names, such as buddhanature, ordinary mind, sugatagarbha, Vajradhara, or just plain buddha — fundamental awakeness. The thing is, we can’t solidify, identify, or conceptualize it in any way. Then it’s just the same old game we’re stuck in now. We do not own this basic goodness. It is not inside of us, it is not outside of us, it is beyond the reach of conventional mind. It is empty of all form, yet everything we experience is its manifestation. It is nothing and the source of everything — how do you wrap your mind around that? All you can do is look directly, relax, and let go.
3. The problem is suffering. The answer is waking up.
Buddhism exists to address one problem: suffering. The Buddha called the truth of suffering “noble,” because recognizing our suffering is the starting place and inspiration of the spiritual path.
His second noble truth was the cause of suffering. In the West, Buddhists call this “ego.” It’s a small word that encompasses pretty much everything that’s wrong with the world. Because according to the Buddha, all suffering, large and small, starts with our false belief in a solid, separate, and continuous “I,” whose survival we devote our lives to.
It feels like we’re hopelessly caught in this bad dream of “me and them” we’ve created, but we can wake up from it. This is the third noble truth, the cessation of suffering. We do this by recognizing our ignorance, the falseness of our belief in this “I.” Finally, the Buddha told us that there is a concrete way we can get there, which basically consists of discipline, effort, meditation, and wisdom. This is the fourth noble truth, the truth of the path.
4. The way to do that is by working with your mind.
So, according to the Buddha, the problem is suffering, the cause is ignorance, the remedy is waking up, and the path is living mindfully, meditating, and cultivating our wisdom. There’s really only one place all that happens: in our minds. The mind is the source of both our suffering and our joy. Meditation — taming the mind — is what gets us from one to the other. Meditation is Buddhism’s basic remedy for the human condition, and its special genius.
The Buddhist path of meditation begins with practices to calm our wild mind. Once the mind is focused enough to look undistractedly into reality, we develop insight into the nature of our experience, which is marked by impermanence, suffering, nonego, and emptiness. We naturally develop compassion for ourselves and all beings who suffer, and our insight allows us to help them skillfully. Finally, we experience ourselves and our world for what they have been since beginningless time, are right now, and always will be — nothing but enlightenment itself, great perfection in every way.
5. No one can do it for you. But you can do it.
In Buddhism, there is no savior. There’s no one who’s going to do it for us, no place we can hide out for safety. We have to face reality squarely, and we have to do it alone. Even when Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, what they’re really taking refuge in is the truth that there’s no refuge. Not seeking protection is the only real protection.
So that’s the bad news — we have to do it alone. The good news is, we can do it. As human beings, we have the resources we need: intelligence, strength, loving hearts, and proven, effective methods. Because of that, we can rouse our confidence and renounce our depression and resentment.
But while no one can do that for us, help and guidance is available. There are teachers — women and men who are further along the path — who offer us instruction and inspiration. They prove to us it can be done. Our fellow practitioners support our path, while never allowing us to use them as crutches. The Buddhist teachings offer us wisdom that goes back 2,600 years to the Buddha himself. We can go right to the source, because the lineage that started with Gautama Buddha is unbroken to this day.
6. There is a spiritual, nonmaterial reality.
Some people describe Buddhism as the rational, “scientific” religion, helping us lead better and more caring lives without contradicting our modern worldview. It is certainly true that many Buddhist practices work very nicely in the modern world, don’t require any exotic beliefs, and bring demonstrable benefit to people’s lives. But that’s only part of the story.
Buddhism definitely asserts there is a reality that is not material. Other religions say that too; the difference is that in Buddhism this spiritual reality is not God. It is mind.
This is something you can investigate for yourself: Is my mind made of matter or is it something else?
Does my mind have characteristics, like thoughts, feelings, and identity, or is it the space within which these things arise?
Does my mind change constantly or is it continuous? Is it one thing or many?
Where is the boundary of my mind? Is it large or small? Is it inside me looking at the material world outside? Or are my perceptions and my experience of them both mind? (And if so, perhaps it’s the material world we should be questioning the reality of.)
7. But you don’t have to take anything on faith.
There is no received wisdom in Buddhism, nothing we must accept purely on the basis of somebody else’s spiritual authority. The Dalai Lama has said that Buddhism must give up any belief that modern science disproves. The Buddha himself famously said, “Be a lamp unto yourselves,” and told his students they must test everything he said against their own experience. But it is easy to misinterpret this advice. Our modern egos are keen to take advantage of it. While we shouldn’t accept what others say at face value, this doesn’t mean we should just accept what we tell ourselves. We have to test the teachings of Buddhism against our direct life experience, not against our opinions.
And while modern science can prove or disprove old beliefs about astronomy or human physiology, it cannot measure or test the nonmaterial. Buddhism values the rational mind and seeks not to contradict it in its own sphere. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Finally, it is the rare person who can navigate the spiritual path alone. While retaining our self-respect and judgment, we must be willing to accept the guidance, even leadership, of those who are further along the path. In a society that exalts the individual and questions the hierarchy of the teacher-student relationship, it is a challenge to find a middle way between too much self and not enough.
8. Buddhism offers a wealth of skillful means for different people’s needs.
Buddhism is not a one-path-fits-all religion. It’s highly pragmatic, because it’s about whatever helps reduce suffering.
Beings are infinite. So are their problems and states of mind. Buddhism offers a wealth of skillful means to meet their different needs. If people are not ready for the final truth, but a partial truth will help, that’s no problem — as long as it actually helps. The problem is that things that feel helpful — like going along with our usual tricks — can sometimes make things worse. So the Buddhist teachings are gentle, but they can also be tough. We need to face the ways we cause ourselves and others suffering.
Buddhist meditators have been studying the mind for thousand of years. In that time, they’ve tested and proven many techniques to tame the mind, lessen our suffering, and discover who we are and what is real (and not). There are meditations to calm and focus the mind, contemplations to open the heart, and ways to bring ease and grace to the body. It’s fair to say, as many people have, that Buddhism is the world’s most developed science of mind.
Today, people who want to explore Buddhism have many resources at their disposal. For the first time in history, all the schools and traditions of Buddhism are gathered in one place. There are fine books, excellent teachers (many of them now American), practice centers, communities, and indeed, magazines.
These are all available for you to explore according to your own needs and path. You can practice meditation at home or go to a local center and practice with others. You can read a book, attend classes, or hear a lecture by a Buddhist teacher. Whatever works for you — no pressure.
9. It’s open, progressive, and not institutional.
While Buddhism in its Asian homelands can be conservative, convert Buddhists in the West are generally liberal, both socially and politically. Whether this is an accident of history or a natural reflection of the Buddhist teachings, Buddhist communities embrace diversity and work against sexism and racism.
Identities of all sorts, including gender, nationality, ethnicity, and even religion, are not seen as fixed and ultimately true. Yet they are not denied; differences are acknowledged, celebrated, and enjoyed. Of course, Buddhists are still people and still part of a society, so it’s a work in progress. But they’re trying.
Many Americans have turned away from organized religion because it feels like just another bureaucracy, rigid and self-serving. Buddhism has been described as disorganized religion. There’s no Buddhist pope. (No, the Dalai Lama is not the head of world Buddhism. He’s not even the head of all Tibetan Buddhism, just of one sect.) There is no overarching church, just a loose collection of different schools and communities. As you’ll quickly discover if you go to your local Buddhist center, things may run smoothly (or not), but the atmosphere is likely to be open and relaxed. It probably won’t feel institutional.
10. And it works.
We can’t see or measure subjective experience, so we can’t judge directly the effect Buddhism is having on someone else’s mind and heart. But we can see how they act and treat other people. We can hear what they say about what they’re experiencing inside.
What we find is that Buddhism works. For millennia, Buddhism has been making people more aware, caring, and skillful. All you have to do is meet someone who’s been practicing meditation a lot to know that. In our own time, hundreds of thousands of Americans are reporting that even a modest Buddhist practice has made their life better — they’re calmer, happier, and not as carried away when strong emotions arise. They’re kinder to themselves and others.
But it’s really important not to burden ourselves with unrealistic expectations. Change comes very slowly. You’ll also see that when you meet a Buddhist meditator, even one who’s been at it for a long time. Don’t expect perfection. We’re working with patterns of ignorance, greed, and anger that have developed over a lifetime — if not much longer. Change comes slowly for most of us. But it does come. If you stick with it, that’s guaranteed. Buddhism works.
This is not an attempt to convert anyone to Buddhism. There is no need for that. But those who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious can find a lot in Buddhism to help them on their personal path, however they define it.
When I first encountered Buddhism, what struck me was its absolute integrity. I saw that it was not trying to manipulate me by telling me what I wanted to hear. It always tells the truth. Sometimes that truth is gentle, softening our hearts and bringing tears to our eyes. Sometimes it is tough, forcing us to face our problems and cutting through our comfortable illusions. But always it is skillful. Always it offers us what we need. We are free to take what we wish.
Melvin McLeod is editor-in-chief of the Shambhala Sun.
Painting(s) by Michael Newhall.
Know Your Enemy (November 2013)
Shambhala Sun | November 2013
Know Your Enemy
We call people who harm us enemies, but is that who they really are? When we see the person behind the label, say Buddhist teachers SHARON SALZBERG and ROBERT THURMAN, everyone benefits.
Crushing the Competition
Competition today is tantamount to a blood sport—and not just on the playing field or in the ring. The psychoanalytic theorist Karen Horney introduced the concept of hypercompetitiveness as a neurotic personality trait almost 70 years ago. She characterized the hypercompetitive coping strategy as “moving against people” (in contrast to moving toward or away from people). Her observations are now all too evident in our culture. Extreme us-versus-them behavior has created a lonely world. There is always some new adversary to move against, so we get locked into a vicious circle of measuring our strength by disparaging others. I remember watching the ice-dancing competition at the Winter Olympics one year. One couple had barely finished their intricate dance when the commentator barked out, “Lacks artistry!” Although bolstering our status by dismissing the efforts of others is presented as normal behavior by our culture, the feeling of superiority it produces is hollow. In contrast, mutual respect and appreciation among competitors breed a sense of solidarity.
The Insight Meditation Society once held a retreat for our board members, during which a consultant we were working with gave us an exercise. We were separated into pairs to play
a game resembling tic-tac-toe. Each player was to tally his or her
points. Most of us figured we were competing against our partner to see
who could score more points. But one of the pairs got the idea that if
they cooperated rather than competed and pooled their points, their
combined score would be higher than everyone else’s. Unlike the rest of
us, who had assumed that every twosome would have a winner and a loser,
this cooperative pair decided not to play as if they were battling each
other. They outscored the rest of us because they had chosen to work
Competition is natural, a part of the human arsenal for survival, but when it creates enmity, we need to question its power in our lives. This is where sympathetic joy — joy in the happiness of others — comes in. If we’re in a competitive frame of mind, when something good happens to someone else, we think it somehow diminishes us. It doesn’t really, of course, but being consumed with jealousy and envy clouds our judgment. Even when we’re not in the running, extreme competitiveness makes us feel as if we were.
However, if we approach other people’s successes with an attitude of sympathetic joy, we can genuinely and wholeheartedly receive happiness from their good fortune. Instead of running an internal monologue that goes something like, Oh no, you got that, but it was meant for me! It should be mine, and you took it away, we can accept that the prize was never ours and rejoice in the other person’s success. If we approach life from a place of scarcity, a mind-set that emphasizes what we lack instead of what we have, then anyone who has something we want becomes the enemy. But when we can rejoice in other people’s happiness, we
realize that joy and fulfillment are not finite quantities we have to grab while we can. They are always available because they are internal qualities that flow naturally if we allow them to.
An accessible path to sympathetic joy runs through compassion, or the movement of the heart in response to pain or suffering with the wish to relieve that suffering. Compassion is an energized and empowering quality. As Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera says, “It is compassion that removes the heavy bar, opens the door to freedom, makes the narrow heart as wide as the world. Compassion takes away from the heart the inert weight, the paralyzing heaviness; it gives wings to those who cling to the lowlands of self.” Looking closely at the life of someone we consider to be the competition, we are bound to see hardships that the person has endured or understand how tenuous status and good fortune can be. When we can connect with a perceived enemy on the level of human suffering, winning or losing seems less important.
A few years ago I led a meditation group at an elementary school in Washington, D.C. The walls of the school corridors were plastered with homilies: Treat people the way you would like to be treated. Play fair. Don’t hurt others on the inside or the outside. The message that stopped me short, however, was Everyone can play.
Everyone can play is now the precept I live by. We may not agree with one another. We may argue. We may compete. But everybody gets to play, no matter what. We all deserve a shot at life.
Co-creating the Enemy
Our perception of others as enemies is influenced by how we have interacted with them in the past and how they have interacted with us. Our view of them is seldom an objective reflection of their qualities but tends to be a projection of our own aversion. Maybe someone harmed us in the past, so now we are afraid of them. Maybe we did something a person didn’t like, so now they are angry with us. We have a mental template of what we consider harmful, injurious, and frightening, and, with or without provocation, we project that onto people, turning them into enemies.
When someone looks unpleasant or threatening — when they fit our mental image of a frightening person — then we assume they intend to harm us, and we can’t wait to get rid of them. And if we can’t get rid of them, we feel frustrated and angry, which reinforces our view of them as an enemy.
The last thing most of us want to hear is that we might have any responsibility for creating our own enemies. After all, it wasn’t our car that drove over our newly sodded lawn. And we’re not the ones who spread that malicious gossip about a loved one, nor are we the one who seemed to take great pleasure in stealing a colleague’s clients. But if we are ever to get rid of our enemies, or at least render them powerless over us, we will have to own up to our part in creating the enmity.
Every person has the potential to be unpleasant and harmful, just as every person has the potential to be pleasant and helpful. Think of someone you love dearly; if you look back, you can probably find a time when they did something that harmed you, even unwittingly, or a time when you were angry with them or they were angry with you.
“Enemy,” then, is not a fixed definition, a label permanently affixed to anyone we believe has harmed us. It’s a temporary identity we assign people when they don’t do what we want or they do something we don’t want. But whatever others have or have not done, enemy-making always comes back to us.
A friend who was raised as a Christian once told me that from a very young age, whenever he heard the commandment “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” his heart would soar. Then inevitably, his next thought would be the troubled question: But how?
How, indeed. What if you actually hate your neighbors, or are afraid of them, or simply find them unappealing? What if you actually hate yourself or don’t find much good about your actions when you evaluate your day? What if all too often, when confronted by a decidedly unneighborly world, you feel defensive, hostile, cut off, and alone? We can start unraveling this response by looking at our conditioning.
We have a strong urge to dichotomize human beings, to separate them into opposing categories. Stereotyping is an evolutionary mechanism designed to enhance survival, a form of shorthand
for getting by in a dangerous world. We try to manage the messiness of life by creating an orderly zone of recognizable types characterized by certain traits that are associated, however loosely. Then we generalize our preconceived typologies to all members of a class or group or nation.
The problem is that once we have organized everyone into tidy categories, we may be unwilling to look beyond those labels. We commonly designate our own group as the norm, the Ins, while everyone else is the Other. Designating our own family or group as the standard, while assigning everyone else to categories that are somehow inferior, boosts our feeling of self-worth. But it also locks us into the us-versus-them mindset, virtually assuring us an unending supply of enemies.
Familiarity can stop this cycle of enemy-making. A recent study of prejudice revealed that mutual trust can catch on and spread between different racial groups just as quickly as suspicion does. Through something known as the “extended-contact effect,” amity travels like a benign virus through opposing groups. This effect is so powerful that, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts, bias can evaporate in a matter of hours. Peaceful exposure to the Other, the “enemy,” is key. As just one example, a Palestinian-Jewish summer camp known as Oseh Shalom–Sanea al-Salam enables Jewish and Arab youths and their families to spend time together in shared activities and dialogue amid natural surroundings.
Such organizations offer clues to how larger-scale initiatives might be devised to break down the us-versus-them stockade.
We have to be able to enlarge the perspective with which we view the world if we hope to become truly empathic. Think of the Dalai Lama learning about Christianity from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Archbishop Tutu learning about Buddhism from the Dalai Lama. Neither of these spiritual masters appears to be out to convert the other, nor do they need to agree in order to feel connected. Each maintains strong loyalty to his own traditions, creed, and people, but they are very good friends who are not constrained by the cult of either/or.
Once we divide the world into us and them, self and other, even others we love right now may turn into enemies later on. All they have to do is harm or displease us, and immediately we’ll fear and dislike them.
Taking action toward the good is the best way to expand our attention and dissolve the boundary of us-versus-them. Even simple things like working in a soup kitchen and helping feed the hungry, or having thoughtful conversations with the people next door, can ease feelings of separation from those who are unlike us on the surface.
By aligning ourselves with issues larger than our own selfish concerns — “turning off the Me and turning on the We,” as Jonathan Haidt puts it — we transcend alienation through simple human contact. In the spirit of “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” more and more people start to seem like our neighbors, and we learn in real terms how to love them.
Working with the Outer Enemy
Once we divide the world into us and them, self and other, “other” is filled with potential enemies. Even others we love right now may turn into enemies later on. All they have to do is harm or displease us in some way, and immediately we will fear and dislike them.
How we deal with our enemies, then, is to see them as human beings and to see ourselves from their perspective, being conscious of our own prejudices and preoccupations and realizing that our enemies are operating out of their own prejudices and preoccupations. “Working with the Outer Enemy,” the exercise that follows, will show you how you create outer enemies and how to reverse that process.
When it comes down to it, the outer enemy is a distraction. Focusing on someone who seems to have it in for us allows us to ignore the real enemy, the enemy within. But when we can see the enemy’s hatred as a challenge, it becomes a spur to our own growth, a gift to wake us from our complacency.
Think of someone you don’t like, someone you feel real antipathy toward. It may be someone you find frightening, someone you find challenging, someone you see as a rival, someone who has harmed you in some way. Bring the person clearly to mind and visualize them sitting before you. Really get in touch with your feelings toward that person. Feel the anger or fear or distaste as it arises in you.
Now put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine being that person, sitting there looking at you. See yourself from your enemy’s perspective. Realize that your enemy is mirroring your feelings toward them. Just as you see your enemy, your enemy sees you the same way. Perhaps you are jealous of them, if they seem to be one-up and looking down at you. Or you may feel superior and therefore have a condescending attitude toward the enemy. Look at yourself through eyes of jealousy, envy, competitiveness, and condescension.
When you have thoroughly immersed yourself in the negative feelings you have for your enemy and your enemy has for you, realize that you don’t have to harbor those feelings. You can see your enemy in a different way. Try to imagine how their loved ones see them, how their child sees them, or their pet dog. If your enemy seems particularly bad, imagine how their partner in crime sees them — as an ally, a co-conspirator, a friend. And then note how stressed your enemy feels on seeing or thinking of you. It is the same stress that you feel when you see or think of your enemy.
As you look at yourself through this other person’s eyes, note the tone of voice you are using in your mind. Be aware of how your condescension, competitiveness, contempt, or jealousy is conveyed in the little things you do and say. Your emotions emerge in your voice and speech and gestures and body language, just as your enemy’s emotions are written all over their face and behavior.
Now try to see something beautiful in your enemy. Imagine that person being really happy at having fallen in love or won an election or won the lottery. (If you’re really daring, imagine your enemy winning the battle with you. That should make your enemy feel good!) Imagine your enemy being happy to see you, or if you can’t quite summon up that vision, imagine them at least as not being angry with you. Imagine your enemy being happy enough with their own life to have neither the time nor the inclination to bother you. Think of what would make your enemy truly satisfied, truly pleased. It may not be what you assume your enemy wants — that is, domination over you. When you are no longer bothering your enemy, no longer standing in the way of what that person wants, then your enemy will no longer be interested in bothering you.
In visualizing yourself from the enemy’s perspective, you start to see that what makes you vulnerable to your enemies is your sense of being fundamentally different from them. But when you realize that in very basic ways you are the same — at a minimum, you share a desire to be happy and not to be in pain — then you don’t want to spoil the happiness of your enemies any more than you want them to spoil yours.
When you truly grasp that it is the projection of your own hurt and anger and fear that turns someone into your enemy, and you are able to recognize your kinship as fellow human beings, it releases the energy you previously invested in defending yourself and your ego. Now you can use this precious energy to work on rooting out the inner enemies, such as anger, fear, and jealousy. In this way, the enemy you so disliked becomes your ally: your teacher, your helper, even — dare I say it — your friend.
Eventually you will even be able to see the beauty in your enemy, and you will feel free of inner anxiety about them. Then, whenever you happen to meet that person, you will notice that they seem less troublesome to you. And your new attitude toward your former enemy will affect them, too, and they will be less antagonistic toward you, though they may not consciously know why. Now you can meditate on seeing your life as one of being among friends.
From Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit and Be a Whole Lot Happier, by Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman. © 2013 by Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman. Published with permission of Hay House
Illustrations by Tiery Le.
Alice Walker: The Beautiful Truth (November 2013)
Alice Walker: The Beautiful Truth
From her childhood in the Jim Crow South to her ascent as a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Alice Walker has been on a journey to see things as they really are. COLLEEN MORTON BUSCH explores Walker’s life, work, and spiritual path.
If The Color Purple is a “Buddha book that’s not Buddhism”—as author Alice Walker once described her Pulitzer Prize winning novel—Walker’s own spirituality might be called a Buddha path that’s not Buddhist. Walker has long been a meditator, and she credits Pema Chödrön’s teachings on awakening compassion with helping to open her heart, again and again. But Walker doesn’t consider herself Buddhist. She draws on many spiritual teachings and pledges allegiance to none.
As an author and activist, she is known for searing portraits of difficult subjects, but when I meet her on a warm afternoon in Berkeley, California, she radiates a quiet wonder and steadfast appreciation for the unadorned bounty of the Earth, including the red Russian kale leaf that seems to grow bigger by the minute in the planter bed in her garden. “The one that looked as big as my hand last night is almost twice as big as my hand now,” she says. “That’s what I like to watch.”
Walker greets me just inside the garden gate at her home, wearing a soft, loose-fitting, blue linen outfit, her hair short and smoky gray. She leads me briskly through the sun-drenched garden to the living room, past a bench lined with copies of her latest books, and settles on her sofa, legs outstretched.
Walker is not one to stay within prescribed lines or to heed perceived limitations, whether in her spiritual path, her art, or her life. She has loved and partnered with men and women.
She’s a poet, novelist, essayist, and blogger whose writing has garnered both lavish praise and stinging criticism. She’s an activist, seeker, and meditator — though for Walker meditation comes in as many varieties and uses as the kale she blends into breakfast smoothies or sautés for supper.
This year, Walker celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of her Pulitzer Prize (and National Book Award) for The Color Purple and the release of Beauty in Truth, a documentary about her life that premiered in London to sold-out crowds. She has published more than thirty books, most recently poetry (The World Will Follow Joy) and journal-like essays (The Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way). Early next year, she will turn seventy.
Pratibha Parmar, the director of Beauty in Truth, felt “transported safely across the threshold of another world full of possibilities” the first time she read Walker. The book was In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. And what is a garden if not a world of possibility? Walker loves to plant seeds and see what grows, just as her mother did before her. “Hers was a literal garden,” she says, “but my garden is basically everything.”
Preparing the Ground
Walker was born in a community named for its church: Ward’s Chapel, Georgia, just outside of Eatonton. As a child, she could often be found behind a book or rambling outdoors. Sipping tea from a plain white mug, she tells me that her family accepted her love for solitude and nature, though they experienced it at times as distancing or just plain spaciness. “When you grow up in a small house with many people in it, the interior space, if you’re fortunate, becomes very spacious. In my case, it did.”
Walker’s parents, Minnie Lou and Willie Lee Walker, were sharecroppers, with numerous mouths to feed and not much money to spare. Minnie Lou would return from a long day of For Walker, joy comes from gathering pine cones and twigs to make a fire, or from the blooms on the rosebush in her garden — common, everyday miracles.
laboring on someone else’s land to tend her beloved flower beds. The family belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal church and were, as Walker puts it, “deeply Christian. They really believed in the teachings of Jesus.” Whereas Walker’s siblings were made to attend services on Sundays, by the time she reached her teenage years—the last of eight children — her parents lacked the energy for enforcement. Walker fell away from the church and its gospel, drawn to the inspiration she discovered right outside her front door. She watched storms and the wind that carried them. She observed her mother’s garden bloom and fade. She strolled through the forest. “It was like walking meditation but without any trappings,” she says. “You were just there in the middle of a miracle, aware that everything was not only connected to you but coming through you.”
Walker wrote from an early age — exploring what she calls the “foreign territory” inside the self — scribbling in the margins of catalogs. But the pivotal moment of her childhood, the one that made her a writer dedicated to truthful depiction of the world around her, was an accident she didn’t speak or write about for years. She was eight years old, playing cowboys and Indians, when one of her brothers shot a BB gun and pierced her right eye. The pain was excruciating, the scar tissue disfiguring. It took the family a week after the injury to gather enough money for a doctor. “He said — right in front of me and my parents — ‘If one eye is blind, the other will become blind,’” Walker remembers. “It sparked in me a real desire to see before I could not see.” While she eventually had surgery to remove the scar tissue, Walker never recovered the vision in her right eye. “That in itself has been a discipline. To see clearly, to affirm what is actually happening as opposed to what you may be told is happening.”
In 1961, Walker enrolled at Spelman College in Atlanta. Boarding the bus to college, Walker sat in front, and when a white woman complained, the driver ordered her to move to the back. Walker knew then she would join the struggle for freedom, and as the civil rights movement grew, the aspiring young writer and activist began to feel stifled at Spelman. After a favorite professor — historian-activist Howard Zinn — was fired, presumably for his progressive views, she transferred in 1964 to Sarah Lawrence College in New York State on a full scholarship. There, Walker studied with the poet Murial Rukeyser, who was so impressed by the poems her student pushed under her door that she forwarded Walker’s work to her own agent. The poems were eventually published in Walker’s first book, Once. Another pivotal moment came on Walker’s second day on campus. Browsing the bookstore, she discovered a Zen poem:
and the grass grows by itself.
It was a moment of recognition, of connection to her experience of nature as a child. It was all right there, says Walker, a consciousness-raising in language so simple and direct. “In those few lines, you get the information and the wisdom that things are moving in their own way.
Each chair around Walker’s large dining table is a different color — bright hues of green, orange, and yellow. Artwork fills the room: a painting of Billie Holiday by an artist in Amsterdam and a wooden sculpture inspired by Walker’s novel The Temple of My Familiar. There’s a packed bookshelf in an adjacent room. The house feels lived in, cared for.
Just as we begin to discuss Walker’s early career — her civil rights work, marriage and motherhood, and ascent as a celebrated writer — there’s a burst of barking from the front of the house. “There’s my little Yorkie!” says Walker. But instead a medium-sized dog named Ziggy who belongs to a friend pads into the room and then disappears, followed by a tan-and-white mixed breed named Miles who plunks down next to Walker between the sofa and the coffee table.
In 1966, Walker received her diploma from Sarah Lawrence and packed her bags for Mississippi. She’d accepted a job with the NAACP in one of the toughest environments in the Jim Crow South. Her first assignment was to interview black sharecroppers evicted from their homes for attempting to register to vote. There, Walker met Melvyn Leventhal, a Jewish lawyer working for the civil rights movement, and they fell in love. Years of both fruition and heartbreak followed.
Walker and her husband’s work in Mississippi — not to mention their union — was dangerous. They were menaced by racist taunts, threatening phone calls, and hostile letters. Despite the obstacles, the couple married and had a daughter, Rebecca. In 1970, Walker published her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, about the depredations of a sharecropping family in Georgia, followed by collections of poems and stories. But the racist atmosphere in Mississippi took a toll on Walker, and by 1974, she wanted out. She moved to New York City, became an editor at Ms. Magazine and a teacher at Wellesley. In 1976, she divorced Leventhal, whom she still loved. “Mississippi, with all its hatreds and hardships, had worn them out,” writes Walker’s biographer, Evelyn C. White.
Walker’s star was rising as a writer, but not without some clouds. After the dissolution of her marriage, caught between motherhood and her dedication to the solitary craft of writing, Walker struggled with depression. “I have my despairs,” she tells me. “Despair happens. But I have a faith in my own ability to speak on it, whatever the disaster is, whatever seems to call for consciousness.” Poetry had often rescued Walker from dark spells after calamity — the eye injury, an abortion during college. This time, in addition to pouring herself into her writing, Walker turned to meditation. She wasn’t immediately encouraged when she first sat down on her cushion. But she stuck with it and eventually noticed she felt less agitated, more willing to open to her own suffering.
In 1978, Walker moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. She wanted to leave New York, and she felt a need to go to the countryside, where her characters wanted to be — the ones helping Walker tell their story in the soon-to-be prize-winning novel The Color Purple. The move was a watershed in Walker’s journey as a writer. In 1983, she became the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer for fiction, the famous author of a book people love or hate or love to hate, even those who’ve never read it, a book that has been praised, blamed, banned from classrooms, made into an Oscar-nominated movie, and staged in a Broadway play.
I asked Walker how she feels now about the novel that is so inseparable from her name. Though she rarely goes back to the book herself, she says she’s grateful for the enduring relevance of a story “about God and what your idea of God is and how you have to get rid of the God that has been forced on you, the deaf, blind one who hates you.”
Walker was surprised by The Color Purple’s reception — both the accolades and the demonization from those who felt the themes of rape, incest, and love between women were prurient or traitorous and demeaning to black men. Feeling attacked, ostracized, and often misrepresented by what was written about her in the wake of the book’s success, Walker learned to trust her own compass. “The way people speak about you is always a reflection of who and where they are,” she says, quoting Pema Chödrön, one of her teachers. Despite the painful backlash, Walker kept writing. She also founded her own publishing company. Our suffering can bear spiritual fruit, she says now, adding, “Otherwise, I’m not sure we need it.”
In the early days of her meditation practice, Walker had a disciplined daily routine. She’d sit and then she’d write. But she doesn’t meditate every day anymore. “Sitting meditation is great, and I’m not knocking it, but I think that state is meant to be integrated,” she says. “That’s where you can live.”
Now, Walker only writes when something is “writing itself” inside her. Writing can be an affliction, she knows. When she’s involved in the world of her characters, “trying to see six or eight people through various life passages, there’s not enough of me to also be present to the people I live with.”
Walker begins to reflect on what life has brought her when her Yorkshire terrier races into the room. He hurls himself onto Walker’s lap, whirls in circles, wiggles on his back, then hurdles the cushions to stand alert on the back edge of the sofa — close-cropped grooming making his ears appear huge. “Hi Charlie! Mama missed you!” Walker coos, then resumes her train of thought: “I’ve had many loves, family. That’s life — it always gives you just what you don’t expect.”
Like a public rift with your only child. Rebecca Walker — also a writer — has openly aired complaints about the mothering she received, and mother and daughter have not spoken in several years. In our interview, just a few days after Mother’s Day, Walker praises her own mother’s dedication and resourcefulness but doesn’t volunteer details of her troubled relationship with Rebecca. Walker is first a poet, and these resonant lines from “Despair Is the Ground Bounced Back From” in her new collection point to the hurt:
When the best mothering
you can muster
is kicked to the curb
with a sneer…
there is something
to be gained
to be learned
even in this pit.
In an email exchange later, Walker acknowledges the pain of the estrangement, but she doesn’t dwell there. “I was turned back to a deeper understanding of what motherhood has meant in traditional African American communities: taking care of, mothering, all the children within reach. This does not make up for losing my only daughter to forces I don’t yet understand, but it does redirect me to something useful, I believe, to the lives of the inheritors of our planet: its children.”
Twenty-five years after she and Leventhal split, Walker published a book of stories written from the ruins of her marriage, The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart. As it was with her divorce and the blind eye, so it may be with her daughter: it can take time to uncover what the something is to be learned from such a sharp, unexpected, and intimate pain and to wish to speak of it.
Watching What Grows
A lifelong activist, Walker still speaks out regularly on issues that matter to her—Palestine, Cuba, drone warfare, war in general. When I ask if she is encouraged by the Obama presidency, she says she’s not encouraged by “the political system” but is inspired that the American people put Barack Obama and his family in the White House. “I love seeing them there, especially given the history of the White House as a slave-built mansion. That taught us what we can do.”
Walker’s political positions are often uncompromising, but she approaches her activist work like a seasoned meditator, neither wholly optimistic nor solely pessimistic. She is committed to making an effort without being attached to results and knows that transformation must begin close to home. Though we may want to start “over there with those poor people,” says Walker, we always have to start with “our poor selves.” To nurture her meditation practice over the years, Walker has mostly chosen a sangha of her own creation. For ten years, Vipassana teacher and author Jack Kornfield came to Walker’s home in Berkeley to teach her and a dozen other women, because, she says, “It’s not comfortable in some of the very white Buddhist settings. People bring their whiteness in a really unconscious, oppressive way.”
Kornfield would give talks, or the women would. In a sangha that wasn’t tied to a traditional Buddhist structure, the mutuality of learning was understood and readily embraced. At Emory University, which is home to the Alice Walker Literary Society and her archives, Walker has sat beside the Dalai Lama onstage, discussing spirituality and creativity. She’s traveled to India, Japan, Burma, Congo, Cuba, Palestine, South Africa, and Rwanda and written about the spirit in these places, which, she says, “knows how to dance in the face of disaster” and will “never be crushed.” So when I ask Walker if a transformation is necessary—some consciousness-raising on the part of Buddhist practitioners to cultivate real diversity
and liberation—I’m not surprised at her reply.
“It really isn’t about just what your color is,” Walker says. “Think of all the people who showed up to listen to the Buddha, all the people who showed up to hear the words of Jesus. They are attracted to a certain spirit, which is often lacking in places where people profess to be about spirit. History was designed to make people feel they don’t have a connection to other people when they don’t look the same. But racism is not an affliction forever — you can actually work on it.”
She calls this “deep-trench activity.” It’s the work Walker has long been dedicated to, as a storyteller, poet, and activist—to heal ourselves and to heal our ancestors. For Walker, healing the self has meant acceptance and letting go. “I am just this being. I’m a me,” she says. “Whatever I create comes naturally from this being. Some people don’t like mangos, for instance. You’re free to not like mangos, to not like me. But that’s what this tree produces.” She goes on to say that her responsibility is only to create. After she’s done her part, it’s others’ responsibility to take, use, or discard what she’s created.
Healing our ancestors, Walker believes, requires that we encounter them inside ourselves and understand the connections between who we are today and who they were then. “If there are people back there who need working with, now is your chance,” she says. “You won’t have another chance outside of meditation to do the deep work of understanding how you got to be in whatever weirdness you are in.”
The aim of deep-trench activity is not necessarily to forgive. It may in fact be more difficult and far-reaching than mere forgiveness. Whether your ancestor was an indentured servant, beaten and hungry, or the holder of the whip, buying the title to another’s life, Walker says you have to “become this demon and learn to love them.” To tear down the walls of segregation, you have to start with the segregation in the heart.
It seems impossible that desire
can sometimes transform into devotion;
but this has happened.
And that is how I’ve survived:
how the hole
I carefully tended
in the garden of my heart
grew a heart
to fill it.
Those are the closing lines from “Desire,” one of the most moving poems in Walker’s new collection, The World Will Follow Joy.
“Joy” is one of Walker’s favorite words, as is “useful.” Joy can come from gathering pine cones and twigs and scrolls of eucalyptus bark to make a fire, or from beholding the blooms on the rosebush in her garden — common, everyday miracles. “Joy is everywhere, closer to you than disasters usually,” says Walker. And joy can be put to good use. It’s the foundation for gratitude. It’s what fills the hole in the garden of the heart.
Charlie the Yorkshire terrier, who is not much bigger than a Coulter pine cone, has been curled at Walker’s feet as we talk, but as I stand to leave, he revives, barking, growling, weaving circles of protest around me.
“He doesn’t like people to leave,” Walker explains, scooping him up.
Walker recognizes that someday she’ll be an ancestor herself, but she has no plans to leave soon — a relative of hers lived to be 125, so seventy isn’t intimidating. “I want to be a useful ancestor,” she tells me. “If I were a tree, I’d be fruiting and they’d eat up the fruit, spitting out the seeds, and more trees would come up from those seeds.”
Colleen Morton Busch is the author of Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire. She has worked as a college instructor in New Orleans and Beijing and as a senior editor of Yoga Journal.
Photo(s) by Andrea Roth.
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