By John Pendall
“This is no time for that Zen stuff, John.”
Both of my fathers, birth and step, have said something like that to me. I’ve also been insulted for being a psychology undergrad on more than one occasion, but that’s a different story (no one trusts the psychologist in the family).
Being a Buddhist in the Far East is easy. There are plenty of temples and Sanghas. You can wear robes in public and only tourists look at you funny. You can talk to people about the Dharma and they won’t necessarily think that you have a mental disorder.
Even though Buddhism is one of the largest “religions” in the world, only 1% of North Americans are Buddhist. Most North American Buddhists are Asian immigrants. There are a lot of Zendos and temples in the major cities, but it’s a Buddhist wasteland outside of Urbania. Most immigrants also focus on the folk elements of Buddhism rather than doctrine or practices. In Japan, most people tend to pray to Bodhisattvas more than they meditate.
It isn’t easy being a Buddhist in America. Odds are you’re the only person in your circle of family and friends that practices Buddhism. Even support from the Sangha is limited if you don’t live near a major city. So how do we talk about the Four Noble Truths and Three Marks of Existence to people who don’t care? How we do talk about Buddha to people who think he was a smiling fat guy? How do we talk about the Middle Way in a land that venerates the extremes?
The short answer is that we don’t.
To be a Buddhist in the West means to talk less and practice more. I try to covertly sneak teachings to people here and there using common language, but honestly, I’ve never seen this help a single person. They nod their heads and understand it intellectually, but then they carry on as if they didn’t hear a word.
Seeds don’t sprout unless the soil is ready for them. People aren’t going to be receptive to the teachings unless they’re curious about them. If someone doesn’t know that they’re bound, then they won’t be free. Most people don’t want to be free, they want to be constantly happy. Buddhism doesn’t offer happiness, it offers freedom.
“Actions speak louder than words,” is an old bucket but it still holds water. To be a Buddhist in the West is to practice wholeheartedly and then we’ll naturally behave as Buddhists. When everything is falling apart around us and people are arguing, we remain calm and adaptive. If someone is having a terrible day, we listen to them rant. If someone needs, we give.
If someone asks you why you are the way you are you might say, “Your suffering is my suffering. There is freedom from suffering. I live for freedom. I’m Buddhist.”
The important thing to remember is that we all share the same nature. If I take anything away from practice, it must be that single truth. With that truth, it’s easy to be a Buddhist in a non-Buddhist culture. Our true nature isn’t Buddhist or non-Buddhist. Truth is free from labels, gender, race and creed.
People are character actors who are really into their roles. When I try to share a Dharma scrap and it goes uneaten, I remember what Saint Augustine said: “God, make me good—but not yet.” Ignorance is just a game of hide-and-seek between wisdom and knowledge, between Self and self.
There is no need for us to get frustrated if someone wants to keep playing. All we can do is be kind and be there for them should they grow tired of the game. No one can force a flower to bloom or the sun to rise.
In the meantime, we can honor and love the potential within each of us to be free.
Editor: Dana Gornall