Talking & Listening: A Perspective on the future of Buddhism in America

Ed note: Originally this piece was supposed to be posted elsewhere, but in the end an editorial decision was made to nix it. Without wasting anything, I’ve decided to use it here.

As it stands, the future and growth of Buddhism in America is still a bit murky. We can only assume what it’ll be like, so herein lies my assumption.

Technology has made the Dharma very accessible to us here in the US. What was once a misunderstood, mystical belief system, can now be a reality with a few clicks of a mouse and a simple Google search. From Zen koans, to Tibetan sutras, to Dharma talks in mp3 format or via video on YouTube, it’s all at our fingertips. Have a question? Jump into a forum and ask away. There are many folks who have practiced for a while that lay in wait to help those willing to break the ice and start a discussion.

I’ve used many forums, especially when I first stumbled on the path, and for the most part the responses were always helpful. Most people will go out of their way to make sure the answer is correct to the best of their ability. If these same people don’t have the answer, most of the time they’ll do some research to get it for you. But that’s not every forum or site you’ll find…

This is where things get murky to me. Depending on where you go for answers, you can get a good and helpful one or you could be berated and put down for your “ignorance” on the subject of Buddhism. This is quite a shame, because those asking the questions, for the most part, are serious about learning.

I’ve encountered a forum or two where if you asked a question, maybe unknown to you, the question is a controversial one. Being controversial, others think you to be some sort of rabble-rouser and are quick to judge ignorance. Specifically, I’ve asked questions on a forum about the ever volatile subject of Shugden worship. I was dead serious in trying to understand the whole thing, but because it was so touchy I was banned on at least one forum for asking the question. I never got my answer, instead I was reminded of how stupid I was and that I was no longer able to post because I had brought the subject up.

There have also been recent arguments between bloggers, magazine writers/ editors, etc. The last thing I want to do is feed into this malarkey, but I think our ego can sometimes get in the way when we are hurt or offended, especially if someone challenges our interpretation of things. Sometimes, whether someone isn’t following us on twitter, befriending us on Facebook, or adding a link to a blogroll our fragile ego also becomes bruised. This is where I think our understanding of the Dharma can be misplaced, because some folks believe our bruised ego gives us the opportunity to react without a second thought. To me, a second thought, or even a third one is necessary. Instinctively, most of us have been taught this knee jerk reaction pattern. I think this is where our Dharma training should come into play, or better yet our ability to use mindfulness.

I’ve used this story before, but I want to share it again to show how a normal knee jerk reaction can be changed with mindfulness. A while back, I was in an accident at work. I was already pulled out of my spot and had put the gear shifter in drive. As I did this I looked up and saw someone backing toward me from their parking spot. I honked, honked again and than crunch, they hit my front end. I could feel the hooks of reaction setting in, but I was able to stop for a split second and ask myself whether or not the reaction would be helpful. A lightbulb went off in my head and I was shocked. Instead of wanting to yell and scream like a complete fool I was more concerned for the person who hit my car. I got out, and she kind of cringed, expecting me to fly off the handle. I asked if she was ok, and she smiled.

This particular incident might have been easier because it was face to face, there was a human element to it. I can’t say there haven’t been times when a reader of my blog comments and says something I take WAY out of context. I can feel the irritation, the anger welling up. But after a second thought, I try to re-read the comment, sometimes out loud. I read it out loud because then I can hear the emotion that was maybe being conveyed. It’s difficult to truly know what someone is feeling online, the internet is a cold, dark place sometimes. That’s part of the reason I think that if we continue to use the internet as our only source of teachings and learning, the future of American Buddhism may be bleak.

Things aren’t all doom and gloom though. Currently, there are many teachers here in the West that speak clearly and are very accessable. Guys like Noah Levine, and Brad Warner are coming from a certain niche` and that works well for them and the people seeking their wisdom. Ethan Nichtern, founder of the Interdependence Project, is bringing people together in a way that is revolutionary. The project aims to engage the community at large, not only with the classes they run, but the meditation sit-ins they stage all around NYC. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Gen-X Tibetan teacher, is transmitting traditional Tibetan teachings to the Western world.

There are loads of teachers out in the world. The great thing about the internet is, for the most part, teachers are willing and able to engage. There are folks like Chokyi Nyimgma Rinpoche, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, Jundo Cohen who do online sessions. Whether it is meditation instruction or Dharma transmission, it is out there. Tricycle Magazine has recently introduced online retreats with very well-known teachers here in the West and abroad.

I think we got started off on the wrong foot here at the beginning of the article, but the point I was trying to make is, how we engage the knowledge that is readily available. We can argue and pander to our own ill-conceived notion of what the Dharma is, or we can listen. I am reminded of some lyrics to a song and hope it ties this all together for you.

“People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening”

-lyrics from Simon & Garfunkel (although my true inspiration was from Nevermore’s cover of the song)


  1. “We can argue and pander to our own ill-conceived notion of what the Dharma is, or we can listen”

    I always am prudent when someone claim to own the truth as I myself always question my truth. I will never follow anyone blindly and neither should you. Even the greatest masters have moments of failing.

  2. Well-said. We have to continually remind ourselves to be curious – about our own hot buttons and patterns, our tendencies, first. Deep, painful honesty with ourselves over time, with self-compassion, naturally leads to genuine curiosity and compassion about other. It seems like an early stage of the maturing process for a newbie buddhist in a largely non-buddhist culture that we get arrogant about what we think we know about buddhism. I’ve been there; I lived there for a long time. It’s imporant to get past that stage as quickly as possible, because we can do a lot of harm – expanding ego while we turn others off of a potentially enlightening path.

  3. “We don’t know what we don’t know ….”

    How do we realize our own ignorance? By constantly polishing, constantly developing our states of mindfulness. There have been many times I have fallen into delusion “of being.

    In the five aggregates that make up the temporary existence of “us” there is the aggregate of vedana (the aggregate of sensation). To us there is the sensation of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. To an unwise mind, these sensation (out of ignorance) feed the three poisons of hatred, greed and delusion (or better translated aversion, craving and ignorance).

    Of all the poisons, ignorance is the most insidious. We can feel the pull of aversion and craving. But the poison of ignorance/delusion is invisible to all but the most practiced eye. The neutral feeling that we feel holds no sway over us, actually creates the desire of things “to be.”

    In no way is this better illustrated than in our practice when we feel that we have accomplished a level of knowledge or practice in our Buddhist lives. When we “think we know” is when we should be the most alert for ego, ignorance and a concentrated shot of delusion straight into the consciousness.

    This is the time to meditate and develop more tranquility to hear the whispers of the ego and find our where it hides within us, tugging at our strings.

  4. It’s refreshing to hear someone advocate for Buddhist patience with the noobs. As a relative newbie to Buddhism, I appreciate less reactivity to my ignorant questions and comments and more educational helpfulness. It’s also important to acknowledge the “awakening factor” that’s at work at all times and which, in my experience, gets super-poignant once I’ve asked a sincere question about life, either inwardly or outwardly. As TMcG mentions, it’s helpful to look at habitual reactions whenever they arise. It’s an opportunity to watch my reaction, watch my mind, and open my heart to the other, the way you did after your car accident. That’s something we can do as a newbie questioner, when we get a response we don’t like, or as a seasoned practitioner whose buttons are pushed by a noob. :) Thanks for this thoughtful post!

  5. I think we sometimes hold Buddhists up to a golden standard of behaviour and get shocked when people don’t fit into our expectation. When I first started practicing in a sangha, I saw quite a bit of actions that I thought weren’t necessarily ‘Buddhist’ and realized that sometimes things come onto our path as a way to teach us something, namely as you illustrate in your post, that it’s worth investigating our habitual tendencies and reactions rather then blindly going along with them.

    Whether it’s a forum for Star Trek vs Star Wars, Apple vs Mac or any other subject matter, there will be trolls and sometimes those trolls are in Bodhisattva’s clothing.

    Thanks for this post. Digital dharma is at best enlightening and at worst, no better than TMZ. I often need a reminder to keep my ego in check and my passion and aggression in line.

  6. As someone prone to asking “dumb” noob questions, I appreciate this!

    And Nevermore is great!

  7. I believe that the spread of Buddhism in America has as much to do with the change in the American mindset as it is technology. With that being said, I agree that there is no filter for competence, wisdom or education: there are many bloggers and “teachers” out there that are offering distracting educations on the dhamma. However, as the saying goes “we don’t know what we don’t know.” Many bloggers are offering what they think is great dhamma because they do not know anything more than they do.

    Ignorance is bliss.

    To develop mindfulness, patience, skillfulness of speech and action; and kindnesss– these are the qualities that help clear the path for the teachings of the dhamma. These are the qualities that calm the ripples on the pond to reveal the wisdoms beneath. These are the ways we loosen the tethers to the ego, and eventually the “I.”

    Like a wooden ball that was whittled from a tree, we constantly polish it to make it smoother and smoother. When we think we have finished, we find something forever more delicate that still find roughness that tugs and clings to our ball. So we polish and shine some more, only to find a finer and finer material that still find roughness. It is only when we have sanded the ball away to nothing that we are without friction with the world.

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