Last week I attended (online) the Buddhist Geeks conference. It was an interesting mix of researchers and dharma teachers speaking on the Dharma and creativity. Steven Batchelor gave a beautiful talk that stuck at the heart of the transformative nature of the dharma itself. He compared Buddhism to a living organism, constantly adapting to the environments in which it finds itself.
We have many examples of Buddhism’s chameleon-like nature as it has moved around the globe, adapting its outer form to include existing indigenous religious trappings, while maintaining its core teachings on meditation, ethics, and philosophy. Probably the most significant adaptation occurred one hundred years after the Buddha’s parinirvana at the second Buddhist Council. Buddhist thought was divided into two main schools: Sthaviravada or the Doctrine of the Elders became what we know as the Theravadan vehicle and Mahasamghika or the Great Community became what we know as the Mahayana vehicle. Scholars have differing theories about the origins of the Mahayana teachings which emphasize a life lived primarily from the Bodhisattvic ideal of compassion grounded in a determination to free all beings from their suffering rather than striving only for personal enlightenment. Some scholars attribute this change to the shifting away from solely addressing Buddhist life in monastic communities toward embracing a Buddhism that would speak to the needs and struggles of householders living ordinary lives in the world.
Not given to grasping at traditionalist ideals, Batchelor stated that in his mind, the dharma has yet to find a “truly modern form.” Though he didn’t point to his recent efforts to strip the dharma of religiosity and archaic notions of reincarnation, ritual, and superstitions, I sensed his idea of a truly modern form of Buddhism would be largely empirical, objective, scientific, and logic-based.
Would this kind of Buddhism be dry? Would it lack the juiciness most westerners demand from the activities they spend time, energy and money pursuing? One answer came form Batchelor himself who shared a very personal vision of his own relationship with the dharma that sounded very juicy to me. “Do I want my dharma practice to be that of an artist or an art historian? I see my dharma practice as that of the artist—my experience is the raw materials of my art; forging a new way of being in the world.”
This very individualistic view of Buddhist practice seems to me, to be quintessentially western and modern. It almost invites a kind of letting go of any outside instruction, in favor of exclusively trusting the first-person experience as the main source of wise view, wise understanding, wise intention and wise action in the world. On the other hand it is also quintessentially Buddhist in that this is exactly where the Buddha ended up when he chose to forsake all the techniques and philosophies he had practiced for six years, and just sit under a tree and not get up until he had realized the ultimate nature of his mind and of reality.