A Wonderful Ten Days Presenting Dharma
I am now at the end of what has been a wonderfully successful visit to the Bay Area in California, staying at San Francisco Zen Center, attending the Mindfulness & Compassion Conference at SF State Uni and the post conference meeting at the Mangalam Centre and, finally, conducting a wedding.
Last weekend I gave a day seminar at SFZC on Buddhist psychology and on the Sunday I spoke at Stone Creek Zen Center on the theme “All One Dharma”. Both meetings went very well with attentive audiences and intelligent discussion.
In the Mindfulness and Compassion conference I spoke firstly in a panel, emphasising the importance of compassion as a basis for all aspects of Buddhist practice. Then, in my main presentation I spoke about how mindfulness in Buddha’s original intention and mindfulness as it is currently popular are not the same thing. The mind always has an object, so is always paying attention to something. Is the person walking I passed on the street that morning who was walking along with eyes half closed and headphones on being mindful or not? Attention fixes the mind on one thing and simultaneously excludes other things, thus attention creates more unconsciousness than consciousness. It may well be that many of the effects of mindfulness as attention are really the positive effects of distraction. One feels less stress because the mind has been distracted from its worries. Buddha’s mindfulness was less a distractor and more a protector. To be mindful was to have in mind something higher that would carry one through difficulties.
In the Friday night talk at SF Zen Center I spoke about how Buddhism can be looked at as science, spirituality, therapy and/or religion. I spoke of them in this order suggesting that each subsequent perspective goes a little deeper. As an inner science, Buddhism cultivates objectivity in regard to the flow of human experience. Buddhism is spiritual in that so many of its major historical developments (Buddha’s going forth, Atisha going to Indonesia and subsequently becoming the great teacher of Tibet, Shinran going to become a disciple of Honen Shonin, and so on) were precipitated by powerful spiritual experiences or divine interventions in the lives of people who were thus empowered to take actions that became pivotal and highly consequential. Looking at Buddhism through the therapeutic window we see that the transmission of the Dharma is a person to person affair in which lives are radically changed through encounter. Finally, Buddhism is a religion, both in its social forms which include just about every known aspect of religious expression (temples, rituals, priesthood, monks, liturgy, altars, icons, etc.) and also in its fundamental sensibility as a faith that creates and unites communities in a spirit of faith and practice.
The conference at the Mangalam Center was called “Conversations at the Edge” and I was part of a panel with Stephen Jenkins, Humboldt State University and Steven Stanley, Cardiff University to address “Buddhist philosophy and the perennial concerns of Western philosophy”. I had already had some good contact with Stephen and Steven and this proved a good conversation. An emergent theme was the manner in which the Western tendency is to look for a key true principle as the unifying meaning of the message whereas much in Buddhism is more concerned with opening up possibilities and appreciating the nuanced subtlety of ethical situations and wisdom propositions. The manner in which Dogen or Shinran approach texts, for instance, is very different and more creative than the Western academic search for the one true authentic original meaning. Another preoccupation of Western thought is the relationship between the individual and the collective. I talked about how “individualism” is generally not real independence in the sense intended by the Buddhist term ekagata, but rather a pose that is socially constructed and intended for social consumption. I also talked about some of the ideas of the French philosopher Alain Badiou in relation to Western and Buddhist ideas about oneness, voidness and complexity.
Subsequent discussions looked at
(1) how, on the one hand, Buddhism adapts when it enters a new culture, but, on the other hand, it also contains powerful resources to critique a culture and change it.
(2) how the current conversation between Buddhism and neuro-science serves both parties but also involves substantial compromise on both sides.
(3) the importance of opening up conversations between Buddhism and other areas of Western academic culture was proposed.
All in all, the visit has been a huge success, especially in my connection with SFZC where I have felt myself to be among good friends throughout. It is very nice to feel such a good connection between Buddhists.