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Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Home Grown Dharma (part one)

It's chilly this morning from a stiff onshore breeze; I've come to sit with my back to the sun, facing north into the meadow. I can see but one plump McIntosh hanging ripe on the tree just in front of me. And yet everywhere the dharma abounds, all around, everywhere you look you encounter the world so ripe with the possibilities derived from endless natural experimentation; it's the same stuff that we are all made of, being equal inheritors per stirpes from birth. Grace seems to be singular but really it's not. Nor is truth subject to monopoly power. It's unfettered and therefore it's also fruitful and abundant as it propagates across the open face of the earth.

* * * * *

Enough preamble. Let me get to the point. There is nothing more powerful than dharma that's home grown. Here in this Port Lorne meadow I'm glad to say we seem to be growing a crop of our own. So I want to tell you a little more about what I've been thinking up here in this Nova Scotia meadow.

* * * * *

Yankee and Red Sox fans alike, we each relish getting our own  turn at bat, individualism being hardwired into our North American operating system and core to our beliefs. That's why the insights of Buddha sometimes strike us as discordant with our native disposition. How is it possible to accept no-self or not-self as an honored member of our home team while continuing to cherish and protect our individual rights, privileges and liberties as North American citizens?
Is there any such thing as dharma that's native to our soul and soil?

But any discordance is imagined not real. From my perch in this meadow I can discern a path that allows us to harmonize our Buddha nature with our distinctive cultural heritage that privileges individualism. This is an important wellspring of my current sense of well being, finally having tapped into a dharma that feels truly home grown.

* * * * *

We are accustomed to think of Buddhism as a spiritual practice that is not indigenous to North America. Of the many varieties of Buddhism that have flourished in here, from Gampo Abbey in the eastern extremity to the Tassajara Center in the far west, they have come as transplants from foreign soil, and even as they take root here they remain strongly identified with their original Asian lineages.  Spread across the continent we can find communities that uphold and preserve the Buddhist traditions from Tibet, Korea, China and Japan but where can we find a sangha built around the notion of a distinctively American practice of Buddhism?

In a way then, the development of Buddhism in America, at least so far, seems quite different from the development path it followed all across Asia, where distinctive regional variants of practice emerged, very different from each other, often heavily influenced by syncretic traditions otherwise indigenous to a particular region. So we end up in Tibet with Varjayana Buddhism that incorporates aspects of Bon and in China Chan practice emerges through the absorption of Daoism into the tenets of the Middle Way. And yet in North America we have on display the widest array of world-wide forms of Buddhist practice, that is all except for one we may truly call our own.

It may be that this lack of a distinctly American form of practice can simply be explained by the relatively early stage of development that Buddhism has so far attained in North America. After all, the regional forms of practice in Asia developed over the course of many centuries, as Buddhism gradually established itself in new terrain, and assimilated to unique local conditions, while Buddhism's entire history in the U.S. only extends back about 150 years, and really it's only in the years after World War II that Buddhism has achieved any significant degree of visibility within mainstream American culture, leaving far too little time for any uniquely North American characteristics of practice to emerge.

There is also a case to be made that Buddhism will always remain exogenous here because the idea of no-self cannot be integrated into our self-absorbed and self-obsessed culture.  By this line of reasoning, it is unrealistic to suppose Narcissus will ever discover Buddha in the waters of the lake (no matter how many swans may come to swim upon it).  Self and no-self will remain forever alien to each other.

But in this Port Lorne meadow I have come to the conclusion that such is not the case.  Here the dharma grows abundantly, all the way to the clearing's edge, and who knows how much further into the surrounding spruce forest.  But in order to see it you must first empty your head, by which I mean to say, you have to be ready to accept the familiar world as the strange and wonderful place it truly is.

* * * * *

My first real taste of home grown dharma came from a book that I knew well, or at least thought I did, from prior readings at a much younger age. But I guess in our youth dharma often passes us by or gets confused for something else, whereas once we reach a ripe old age (and just this year I turned 60) we may stand a better chance of taking due note when it's propounded.

In any case, it was in the pages of Walden Pond that I discovered this entirely new sense of Buddhism as somethingbthat could be practiced in a home grown or indigenous way, not requiring any contortionism in order to suit my native disposition. "In every man's brain is the Sanskrit," as Thoreau himself expressed it so succinctly.  And it is up to each of us to decipher the Sanskrit writ within as best we can.

Now I'm certainly not the first person to comment on the Buddha spirit that animates Thoreau's writing. No less an authority than Rick Fields, the brilliant historian of Buddhism in America, devoted an entire chapter of his seminal book (When the Swans Came to the Lake) to discussing the importance of Emerson and Thoreau in setting the stage for the arrival of Buddhism in America in the second half of the 19th century. Fields in particular singles out Thoreau as being "pre-Buddhist" in spirit, as somehow forecasting the true dharma's subsequent arrival.

I see it differently. I see Thoreau himself as the real deal, not merely a precursor but as a true dispenser of something utterly new in the Buddhist canon - a North American Bodhisattva of the very highest order, perhaps the very first in our domestic lineage, propounding a home grown dharma of our very own.

And the essence of this home grown dharma is quite simple: it shows us a way to reconcile our head and our heart. Ego or the self may become a pathway instead of an obstacle that must be overcome. This is not an observation you'll find in the pages of the Lotus or Heart Sutra. But you will find it very clearly expressed in Walden Pond, in a surprisingly accessible way.

(To be continued ... )


  1. Hello

    I find your text very inspiring, although I don't know if I get in the way you intended. Knowing not much about the buddhist traditions, I rather understand dharma as the rules of being correct and in harmony with the others... not something you can grow on a meadow really, but rather in the meadow of human society, where each human would be a thread...

  2. Thanks for reading and leaving the thoughtful comment. When it comes to home grown dharma I think the meaning received should always be equal (if not exceed) that which was intended.