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20th Century Sutras

I'm reading a book called "The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo" by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. In it he takes sayings of his teacher Sawaki Roshi and offers commentary on them, then his student Shohaku Okumura offers commentary on Uchiyama Roshi's commentary. One selection really struck me considering what we're trying to do in Pragmatic Buddhism.

Sawaki Roshi wrote, "A Home-leaver {monk} should be a person who creates a unique way of life." Uchiyama Roshi in his commentary notes that he feels Buddhism in Japan has stagnated because, "priests and scholars merely interpret the old scriptures....At the beginning of the Common Era, for several centuries zazen practitioners produced enormous numbers of Mahayana sutras...Today I want to declare a new age for the creation of Buddhist sutras.". To this Shohaku Okumura adds, "Traditional Buddhist teachings are interpreted and practiced in the context of modern physics, psychology, environmentalism, social activism and other fields. These activities can be considered the evolution o Buddhist sutras for modern times."

What an awakened attitude! Yet how do we so often respond to the challenge of creating modern Buddhist sutras? We either retreat to the traditional scriptures and practices of Japan - or China, or Tibet - afraid of 'doing something wrong' or we reject Buddhism as a vital religion and say we're just following the philosophy taught by Siddhartha Gautama but we're not really 'religious Buddhists'. Both of these responses are abrogating our responsibility to be both stewards and heirs to the great tradition of Buddhist innovators that Uchiyama Roshi was talking about and to be open, inquisitive modern people.

There was an interesting article in the journal “Buddhadharma” defending the need to retain the traditional Japanese components of Zen in particular. The author's abbess used the image of a wheel with the turning outer edge describing how Buddhism encountered changing times and cultures and the inner hub being the dharma. Now, to me that image says that our outer practices should change as they move into different cultures and times and they can change without changing the central meaning of the dharma. To the author, however, the image said that traditions must be maintained while Buddhism encounters new cultures and times.

I’ve always found this to be a problematic attitude - especially for followers of Zen or Chan. After all, they were formed and vitalized by people who were not afraid to take the traditions and practices that came into their countries - and times - and change them to suit the culture. Why then should we cling to those changed traditions, practices and teachings instead of advancing Buddhism into the West. We might as well junk Zen as well as all Mahayana and assume the only ‘real’ Buddhism is Theravada.

At the same time I have problems with people who view Buddhism as a philosophy to help inform their lives but that isn’t really central to them. Religion can be described as, “an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.”. By this definition Western Buddhism is definitely a religion and its practice should become a central aspect of its followers’ lives. This is turn means that we need to develop our own traditions, teachings and practices (including that dreaded word ‘rituals’) that are built from the foundations laid by our dharma ancestors but also spring from that “context of modern physics, psychology, environmentalism, social activism and other fields” that Shohaku sensei talked about. We should not be afraid of either our modern, Western orientation or the rich and vital Buddhism that preceded us. To make our 20th century sutras meaningful and lively we must celebrate the marriage of these two and give birth to a new child of both. Like any marriage it needs to be a true partnership of respect and understanding, neither elevating one nor the other. I call on all our practitioners and monks to join joyfully in this task.


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