Buddhism Doesn’t Transplant Well

She walked up as I was finishing my sitting at streamside. Announcing she was a Buddhist lama, ordained by a well-known rinpoche under the Dalai Lama, she said she’d just given a weekend retreat for 20-somethings in town.

The sun had broken through and was low in the sky.

Having had some difficulties before I left, it was good to be alone, in a quiet place in nature, even if it was in the middle of a small city. The sitting had quieted the mind, brought peace to the heart, and induced a fairly deep meditative state.

A duck–a merganser I think–launched the sitting by flying a few feet above the creek at speed, dodging branches and vines with incredible agility. By the end of the hour, the burdens of the day, and what felt like previous lifetimes, had lifted and even dissolved, if only temporarily.

‘The Question’ (Can the breakthrough in consciousness that changes the disastrous course of man happen now?) came up strongly. But as serious and urgent as that work is, it too passed, washing downstream with everything else.

After all these years of meditating in nature, it still strikes me as a little miraculous how the earth can carry away the detritus of experience, allowing one be young, and feel wonder and joy again. Could it do so for anyone? Without doubt. But you have to take the time to deeply attend to your portion of the polluted river of human consciousness.

I live within earshot of a highway, and its din often overwhelms natural sounds in the backyard. Can meditation (the ending of the observer and time, and thereby, thought’s chatter and domination in the brain) occur anywhere, anytime?

Of course, the main impediment is that we humans are active creatures, especially in the lands of frenzied activity. Being busy, busy, busy is the highest virtue, a testament to one’s productivity and worth as a person. One benefit of the financial collapse a few years ago is that some portion of the population has been compelled to slow down, reconsider priorities, and recalibrate their lives.

Feeling that the lama’s appearance was fortuitous, we began to talk about meditation, and the human condition.

“The shift is happening,” she intoned confidently; “people are changing in small ways everywhere.”

In small ways perhaps, I replied, but we’re still plunging headlong toward the abyss as a species, and few people are actually awakening.

“We can only do what we can do in our lives,” she stated authoritatively. “By exercising small acts of compassion we affect the world. And anyone, even a homeless alcoholic, can be a buddha.”

Oh please, I said to myself, not this blather again.

I replied, do you really think human consciousness is changing by all these real or imagined individualistic acts of supposed compassion? I think that’s wishful thinking.

“That’s your perception,” the lama sanguinely said. Yes, that’s my perception, I said.

I persisted, perhaps foolishly. As long as we think in small, individualistic terms, we’ll never know what we can do. If 100 people took responsibility for humanity as a whole, which each of us actually is in microcosm, we would ignite a psychological revolution.

The lama then irrelevantly talked about some writer of books on human consciousness. (Always with the books, as if they inherently possess some greater weight and wisdom.) This was some kind of philosophical authority for her apparently, and she ended with, “I think you should read him.”

Not interested in her secondhand knowledge, I asked about her firsthand experience with the Dalai Lama. He’s giving up his political position as head of the Tibetan people, and has said that he’ll retire soon in order to have more time to meditate. Without intending to either irritate or ingratiate, I mentioned how he has said he isn’t illumined.

“Oh, he’s enlightened,” the American lama said emphatically.

Why would he prevaricate about that?

She didn’t have an adequate explanation, and tried to spiritually fudge the matter, saying, “the Dalai Lama has said he’ll choose the next place of his rebirth, and it may well not be in Tibet.”

Maybe so, but will he be incarnating or reincarnating? (Reincarnation means remaining on the wheel of re-learning for at least another lifetime, while illumination means liberation, and one doesn’t need to come back.)

Again, the lama was emphatic that the Dalai Lama will incarnate, because he’s fully illumined. I was beginning to have the feeling that though we were born in the same country, we were not only speaking different languages, we were living on different planets.

I keep hoping that Buddhism in the West can be something more than a spiritual fuzz ball and intellectual foosball. But we can’t escape our culture, and Westerners can’t transplant an organically grown Eastern cultural ecosystem to a barren soil, and expect to grow mangoes and lotus blossoms.

Still, perhaps the Buddhist fad signifies that more people are heading in the direction of insight. Is that wishful thinking?

Martin LeFevreShe walked up as I was finishing my sitting at streamside. Announcing she was a Buddhist lama, ordained by a well-known rinpoche under the Dalai Lama, she said she’d just given a weekend retreat for 20-somethings in town.

The sun had broken through and was low in the sky.

Having had some difficulties before I left, it was good to be alone, in a quiet place in nature, even if it was in the middle of a small city. The sitting had quieted the mind, brought peace to the heart, and induced a fairly deep meditative state.

A duck–a merganser I think–launched the sitting by flying a few feet above the creek at speed, dodging branches and vines with incredible agility. By the end of the hour, the burdens of the day, and what felt like previous lifetimes, had lifted and even dissolved, if only temporarily.

‘The Question’ (Can the breakthrough in consciousness that changes the disastrous course of man happen now?) came up strongly. But as serious and urgent as that work is, it too passed, washing downstream with everything else.

After all these years of meditating in nature, it still strikes me as a little miraculous how the earth can carry away the detritus of experience, allowing one be young, and feel wonder and joy again. Could it do so for anyone? Without doubt. But you have to take the time to deeply attend to your portion of the polluted river of human consciousness.

I live within earshot of a highway, and its din often overwhelms natural sounds in the backyard. Can meditation (the ending of the observer and time, and thereby, thought’s chatter and domination in the brain) occur anywhere, anytime?

Of course, the main impediment is that we humans are active creatures, especially in the lands of frenzied activity. Being busy, busy, busy is the highest virtue, a testament to one’s productivity and worth as a person. One benefit of the financial collapse a few years ago is that some portion of the population has been compelled to slow down, reconsider priorities, and recalibrate their lives.

Feeling that the lama’s appearance was fortuitous, we began to talk about meditation, and the human condition.

“The shift is happening,” she intoned confidently; “people are changing in small ways everywhere.”

In small ways perhaps, I replied, but we’re still plunging headlong toward the abyss as a species, and few people are actually awakening.

“We can only do what we can do in our lives,” she stated authoritatively. “By exercising small acts of compassion we affect the world. And anyone, even a homeless alcoholic, can be a buddha.”

Oh please, I said to myself, not this blather again.

I replied, do you really think human consciousness is changing by all these real or imagined individualistic acts of supposed compassion? I think that’s wishful thinking.

“That’s your perception,” the lama sanguinely said. Yes, that’s my perception, I said.

I persisted, perhaps foolishly. As long as we think in small, individualistic terms, we’ll never know what we can do. If 100 people took responsibility for humanity as a whole, which each of us actually is in microcosm, we would ignite a psychological revolution.

The lama then irrelevantly talked about some writer of books on human consciousness. (Always with the books, as if they inherently possess some greater weight and wisdom.) This was some kind of philosophical authority for her apparently, and she ended with, “I think you should read him.”

Not interested in her secondhand knowledge, I asked about her firsthand experience with the Dalai Lama. He’s giving up his political position as head of the Tibetan people, and has said that he’ll retire soon in order to have more time to meditate. Without intending to either irritate or ingratiate, I mentioned how he has said he isn’t illumined.

“Oh, he’s enlightened,” the American lama said emphatically.

Why would he prevaricate about that?

She didn’t have an adequate explanation, and tried to spiritually fudge the matter, saying, “the Dalai Lama has said he’ll choose the next place of his rebirth, and it may well not be in Tibet.”

Maybe so, but will he be incarnating or reincarnating? (Reincarnation means remaining on the wheel of re-learning for at least another lifetime, while illumination means liberation, and one doesn’t need to come back.)

Again, the lama was emphatic that the Dalai Lama will incarnate, because he’s fully illumined. I was beginning to have the feeling that though we were born in the same country, we were not only speaking different languages, we were living on different planets.

I keep hoping that Buddhism in the West can be something more than a spiritual fuzz ball and intellectual foosball. But we can’t escape our culture, and Westerners can’t transplant an organically grown Eastern cultural ecosystem to a barren soil, and expect to grow mangoes and lotus blossoms.

Still, perhaps the Buddhist fad signifies that more people are heading in the direction of insight. Is that wishful thinking?

Martin LeFevre