Updates to the Now
By the way (to digress for a beat), books are a Buddhist origin, in and of themselves. Did you know? Movable type was invented in Asia to disseminate Buddha's teachings, before Gutenberg.
Anyway, Trungpa Rinpoche's lineage evolved into what's now a worldwide network of centers for meditation and community, known as Shambhala. He also founded Naropa, America's first accredited Buddhist university. And an early newsletter morphed into a leading English-language Buddhist magazine, Shambhala Sun again gaining a wide readership. Its subtitle is Buddhism - Culture - Meditation - Life.
While texts transmitting teachers' living words have always played a role in Buddhism, we see now a newer trend, that of applications -- "news you can use"—be it dealing with illness or aging, or in relationships or at work. In this year's anthology are two entries on food (and what spiritual tradition doesn't express thanks for food?), also surfing . . . Alice in Wonderland . . . fire . . . and diarrhea. It's all potential Dharma (all the literal stuff of truth).
One step more along this vector, we discover the West giving birth to a marvelous new genre: Buddhist memoir. Self as subject isn't a venerable tradition in the East, as it is here. In Stephen Batchelor's current title, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, for instance, we can hear the echo of St. Augustine's confessions. Yet Buddhist memoirs are, in fact, quite apt, given how this path is experiential, first-person. As the Buddha said, "Come and see." (Ehipassiko.) It's for each of us, that is, to see for ourselves.
And, as traditions from different nationalities meet and cross-fertilize in the West, there's increasing engagement of Buddhists in contemporary social and political issues, most commonly environmental. David Loy's piece, "Why Buddhism Needs the West," is a sharp case in point. The title draws upon a trope from American Buddhist ecopoet Gary Snyder, from forty years ago: "The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both."
Naturally, for Buddhism to take root in America, it must accommodate ethnic and class diversity, women taking an active role, gays, vigils, marches, writing elected officials, environmentalism, and so on. One way Buddhism uniquely informs political engagement and social justice is in applying its critique of self on larger degrees of scale (corporation, political entity, etc.), as equally liable to, and capable of liberation from, the same suffering as so-called individual self. Work on self and work on the world are one.
Allen Ginsberg once wrote: "While I'm here, I'll do the work. What's the work? To ease the pain of living. Everything else, drunken dumb show." The Best Buddhist Writing encourages the work. The real work, timely in any season.
This article was first published at American Book Review, and is reprinted with permission.