I’ve lost track of how long I’ve been reading this book. Years certainly, but how many I am no longer sure. I get at it in fits and starts between semesters. At a certain points the names and dates and places begin to swim before my eyes and I move on to more intelligible pursuits, but I return to it next time I have some breathing room. As I scanned my bookshelves for long lost ambitions to once again take up over this most recent break, only two made it into my bag for the flight to Omaha. This one I’ve read most, finishing two whole chapters of How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America by Rick Fields. (The second being The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory by Brian Greene.)
Heretofore, I’ve not drawn any conclusions about Buddhism itself from this journalistic narrative of who-taught-who, when, and where. Some names have stood out and others flowed together, lost in the slowly rearranging synapses of my memory. But now I’m drawing ever closer to my own decades and the names suddenly have more weight as personal recognition dawns. These are people I’ve heard of, read, and in many cases, are still alive and teaching as venerated elders. However, at this point in the book they are still students and pioneers, having taken the long trip to Asia to study in the old ways from the old masters in Japan, India, Thailand, and places even more exotic. Fields explains in swift detail the study undertaken in what manner and from what teachers: months of meditation on snowy mountains or in sweltering jungles, thousands of prostrations and mantras, manual labor, memorization of texts, study of koans, quests for kensho (an experience of enlightenment), and advanced tantric visualizations.
Likewise, the Asian masters who left or were forced from their countries to teach Dharma in America were similarly dedicated and hard working. Many came with only the most rudimentary language skills and lived in unflinching poverty in order to build temples, monasteries, and Dharma centers in this always strange and sometimes unwelcoming new country. They did all this following a long path of practice and study, with clear minds fixed on distant goals but also clinging to nothing at all, giving up everything, every bit of daily energy to the cause of Dharma. In each case, the Western students and Eastern teachers, left behind everything that was comfortable and familiar in order to spread the Dharma.
To have a strong practice in comfortable surroundings is difficult. But when you practice with various difficulties that practice has a lot of strength in it … When we practice in the midst of the difficulties of our neighbors’ and our own difficulties, then we will have good practice. – Shunryu Suzuki-roshi in 1967 (p. 267).
The conclusion I come to at last somehow leaves me feeling small and halfhearted, but also renewed and encouraged. These men, and small number of women, practiced. They didn’t merely study from books and spout nonsense in discussion groups. They sat. They chanted. They worked. All for what? To understand the nature of their minds and thereby to understand the nature of human suffering. They achieved not merely knowledge, but realizations, with which came wisdom and compassion. In order to achieve this, they faced real austerity, traveled great distances and petitioned at the gates of temples and monasteries, churches and universities, only to be turned away by masters and abbots and professors and socialites unable or unwilling to welcome them. Yet, they persisted for years.
I have benefited from the foundations laid by the generations before me. They have allowed my meager practice to begin in relative luxury and comfort. I have pursued it with an intellectual fascination, but little true spiritual dedication. The most basic of all Buddhist practices has continued to elude me – meditation. There have been no week-long sesshins or three month dathuns, no prostrations or mantras, no masters or teachers to dedicate myself to. And why? I do not know quite yet, but I would hazard to guess that one (strong) reason among many is simply that it is hard. Truth be told, I don’t want to work that hard. I’ve been a B-student for almost a decade simply because I didn’t want to work hard enough for the A’s. I’d rather sleep, read a book, take long, hot showers, and watch television. What would an A get me anyway? Personal satisfaction? Not really.
All these men and women who tread the path before me saw something clearly that I have only just glimpsed. That something motivated them to diligently pursue the hardest of paths – liberation. They saw suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to that end. They saw egolessness or interdependence or transcendence by whatever name. But when did they see it? When did it click for them that this dedication was worth it, necessary, inescapable? At the very first, when they resolved to go? Soon after they set out? Only after long practice? Perhaps never? These questions Fields’ book cannot answer. And I wonder how much good any answers would do me. Every answer may be different, my own included.
The conclusion I am left to draw is that personal practice is of great importance but that I, sadly, have neglected my practice for many years now. I do not know if this conclusion alone is enough motivation to seek what I have heretofore gone without. However, I believe this: if I truly want to help people, I must start with myself. I am good enough as I am now (and so are you), to begin helping others, but I will not be of most benefit until I have cultivated something a good deal more or deeper.
I fully believe I have the ability to do this work. We all do. It is our buddhanature. I just have to set out. So do you. We have to set out every day anew, as if every step were the only step we would be able to take in the whole of our lives.