I read something a few months ago in the Buddhist publication Shambhala Sun that I really liked. There was an interview with Joan Halifax, a Zen teacher. I mostly skimmed the article but one line really caught my eye. It pretty much sums up everything I feel about my particular approach to Buddhism in America. She said, "I am not a 'nice' Buddhist. I'm more interested in plain rice, 'get down in the street and get dirty' Buddhism."
That is what I'm talking about. Buddhism, despite its image as a most holy religion that takes place in lavishly appointed temples, is not that at all. The practice of Buddhism occurs internally, and it's not nice, or pretty or easy. Ms. Halifax says that she originally was very interested in Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, but found his style to be too clean and precise. To his credit, Thich Nhat Hanh is, in fact, a genius, at least when it comes to bringing Buddhism to Westerners. His particular breed of Zen is amazingly soft-spoken and compassionate, as well as being non-judgmental and just generally full of the warm, woolly goodness of your favorite blanket. It is not scary at all.
He makes it look very easy. That's his skill. He radiates a sense of calm accomplishment that makes people feel good about trusting him. That's not what draws me to Buddhism, however. I'm interested in the sweat and the blood. When Joan Halifax talks about Buddhism being "down in the street" and "dirty" she's speaking my language. This practice needs to be brought to folks that have always regarded it as goofy, hippie shit. The image of Buddhism in America is generally one of guys in funny clothes chanting in some unintelligible tongue while they light incense and bow to statues with more arms than is truly necessary. This makes many Americans ambivalent. They're attracted to the exotic nature of it all yet simultaneously put off by the obvious whimsy and ritual. There are lots of people that are interested in a practical approach to freedom. That approach is often obviated by the overt Asian characteristics of the white guys that teach it.
Look, I know Buddhism comes from the East. I know it's way old and other cultures have been steeped in its influence long before we upstarts in the New World ever heard of it. But when I look for someone to teach me its pertinent aspects, I'm looking for someone that will admit we're living in a totally different milieu. The robes are not necessary for me to understand that what's going on here is totally revolutionary. I don't need a crash course in Japanese or Tibetan customs to undertake this path. I would like to be taught by someone who has understood the Buddha's path with an American psyche. Because, like it or not, we ARE different from our Asian cousins.
Despite the fact that Ms. Halifax bears the dubious and much-misunderstood Zen title of "Roshi," her comments in this interview point to an incredibly deep understanding of what it means to be an American Buddhist. This is a nation that was built from the mud up. Our ancestors were European pioneers looking for a fresh start in a totally new land. And so it is with our Dharma. We can't just expect the Buddha's teachings to be transplanted here and grow with the perfect Asian flavors that were cultivated in the East. We don't have thousands of years of tradition to nurture and shape these ideas. What we have, after 234 years of existence, is a nation of outcasts, rebels and skeptics.
America is not a land of hermits and crazy-wise sages living in the wilderness. The Dharma has not taken root here and spread across the countryside like kudzu. We don't have mountaintops that house gurus at their cloudy peaks, ready to entertain the questions of those hardy enough to make the climb. That shit is not us and it never will be. In America, the Dharma is spread in urban canyons. It springs across the digital landscape and is burned into DVDs. It's taught in mid-town Manhattan, Hollywood, CA and the flesh-obsessed alleys of Miami Beach. It's spray painted across concrete and steel and represented by tattooed preachers and multi-pierced disciples from Santa Cruz to Boston, MA.
In short, the Buddha's revolution continues. The dirty, street-level Dharma that Joan Halifax so enjoys is pulsing in our counterculture. Why is it COUNTERculture, you might ask? Because it goes against the avarice, materialism, ignorance, violence, selfishness and ridiculous spiritualism that pervade so much of our society.
Buddhism teaches the way to freedom. And that freedom is sometimes counterintuitive to the world we live in. There's no doubt that it's a radical path, one that often asks us to question the very things that we identify with as Americans. And yet, the opportunities we have here are unique. We shouldn't waste them.
America is the place to get down and dirty. Our practice should reflect that. We haven't been exposed to this philosophy long enough to be perfectly graceful and totally sympathetic with it. It's not a part of our DNA yet. But it will be. And it's going to take a lot of struggling with filthy demons to get there. America is the last, great place where this path can flourish. And we need to live up to our image as iconoclasts by embracing this revolution.