By Joe Lamport
It’s chilly this morning from a stiff onshore breeze; I’ve come to sit with my back to the sun, facing north into the meadow.
I can see but one plump McIntosh apple hanging ripe on the tree just in front of me. And yet everywhere the dharma abounds, all around there’s a world so ripe with the possibilities derived from endless natural experimentation; and it’s the same stuff that we are all made of, being equal inheritors per stirpes from birth. Grace seems to be singular but really it’s not. Nor is truth subject to monopoly power. It’s unfettered and therefore it’s also fruitful and abundant as it propagates across the open face of the earth.
There is nothing more powerful than dharma that’s homegrown.
Here in this Port Lorne meadow I’m glad to say we seem to be growing a crop of our own. So I want to tell you a little more about what I’ve been thinking, while I’m sitting up here in this meadow.
Yankee and Red Sox fans alike, each of us relishes getting our own turn at bat, individualism having been hardwired into our North American operating system and core to our beliefs. That’s why the insights of Buddha sometimes strike us as discordant with our native disposition. How is it possible to accept no-self or not-self as an honored member of the home team while continuing to cherish and protect our individual rights, privileges and liberties as North American citizens?
In other words, is there any such thing as a dharma that’s native to our soul and soil?
Here in this high upland meadow, I’ve come to the conclusion that any discordance is imagined not real. As I’ve come to see it, the Bodhisattva spirit and the North American predilection for individualism ultimately can be harmonized. This is an important source of my current sense of wellbeing; perched in the midst of a Nova Scotia meadow, I finally find myself surrounded by a dharma that feels truly homegrown.
We have been long accustomed to think that Buddhism is a spiritual practice that is not indigenous to North America. Of the many varieties of Buddhism that have flourished here, from Gampo Abbey in the eastern extremity to the Tassajara Center in the far west, they have all come as transplants from foreign soil, and even as they have taken root they remain strongly identified with their original Asian lineages. Spread across the continent we can find communities that uphold and preserve the Buddhist traditions from Tibet, Korea, China and Japan but where can we find a sangha built around the notion of a distinctively American practice of Buddhism?
In a way then, the development of Buddhism in America, at least so far, seems quite different from the development path it followed all across Asia. There, distinctive regional variants of practice emerged—all very different from each other—often heavily influenced by syncretic traditions otherwise indigenous to a particular region. So we end up in Tibet with Nyingma Buddhism that incorporates aspects of Bon whereas in China Chan practice emerges through the absorption of Daoism into the tenets of the Middle Way.
And yet in North America we have on display the widest array of world-wide forms of Buddhist practice, that is all except for one we may truly embrace as our own.
It may be that this lack of a distinctly American form of practice can simply be explained by the relatively early stage of development that Buddhism has so far attained in North America. After all, the regional forms of practice in Asia developed over the course of many centuries, as Buddhism gradually established itself in new terrain, and assimilated to unique local conditions.
Buddhism’s entire history in the U.S. only extends back about 150 years; and really it’s only in the years since World War II that Buddhism has achieved any significant degree of visibility within mainstream American culture, leaving far too little time for any uniquely North American characteristics of practice to emerge.
There is also a case to be made that Buddhism will always remain exogenous here because the idea of no-self cannot be integrated into our self-absorbed and self-obsessed culture. By this line of reasoning, it is unrealistic to suppose Narcissus will ever discover Buddha in the waters of the lake (no matter how many swans may come to swim upon it).
Self and no-self will remain forever alien to each other.
But in this Nova Scotia meadow, I have come to the conclusion that such is not the case. Here the dharma grows abundantly, all the way to the clearing’s edge, and who knows how much further into the surrounding spruce forest. But in order to see it you must first empty your head, by which I mean to say, you have to be ready to accept the familiar world as the strange and wonderful place it truly is.
I’m sure I wouldn’t have noticed this dharma growing all around me if not for the book I happened to be reading as I sat there in the midst of the meadow.
On my lap was a copy of Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau. This is a book I knew well, or at least thought I did, from prior readings at a younger age. But as I sat and re-read it, I sensed an entirely new vista opening in front of me. In our youth, I suppose, dharma often passes us by or tends to get confused for something else, whereas once we reach a ripe old age (and just this year I turned 60) we may stand a better chance of taking due note when it’s being propounded.
In any case, it was in the pages of Walden Pond that I discovered this entirely new sense of Buddhism as something that could be practiced in a homegrown or indigenous way, not requiring any contortionism in order to suit my native disposition. “In every man’s brain is the Sanskrit,” as Thoreau himself expressed it so succinctly. And it is up to each of us to decipher the Sanskrit that’s written within as best we can.
Now I’m certainly not the first person to comment on the Buddha spirit that animates Thoreau’s writing. No less an authority than Rick Fields, the brilliant historian of Buddhism in America, devoted an entire chapter of his seminal book (When the Swans Came to the Lake) to discussing the importance of Emerson and Thoreau in setting the stage for the arrival of Buddhism in America in the second half of the 19th century. Fields singles out Thoreau as being particularly “pre-Buddhist” in spirit, as if he somehow forecasted the true dharma’s subsequent arrival.
I’ve come to see it differently. I see Thoreau himself as the real deal, not merely a precursor but as a true dispenser of something utterly new in the Buddhist canon—a North American Bodhisattva of the very highest order, perhaps the very first in our domestic lineage, who propounded a home grown dharma we can accept as our very own.
And the essence of this home grown dharma is quite simple: it shows us a way to reconcile our head and our heart. Ego or the self may become a pathway instead of an obstacle that must be overcome. This is not an observation you’ll find in the pages of the Lotus or Heart Sutra. But you will find it very clearly expressed in Walden Pond, in a surprisingly accessible way.
This is the vista that opened up for me as I sat overlooking the meadow, with Thoreau’s wisdom to guide me.
Joe Lamport is a writer and translator and a fellow traveler of the Middle Way. His spiritual practice is intimately connected with the translation of classical Chinese poetry, including the Buddhist inspired poetry of Bai Juyi and Wang Wang Wei. He has several published books to his credit, including most recently an all verse translation of The Adventures of Monkey King, by Wu Cheng En (you can read the first chapter of his translation which was published online by Brooklyn Rail’s InTranslation here: The Birth of Monkey King). In addition, his translations of Tang poetry have been published extensively online and in print, as he previously served as a regular contributor to The Epoch Times. He has written a short essay on Tang poetics, which was published here: A Journey into the Yu Gong Valley. Follow him on Twitter and check out his personal blog, http://lampoetry.blogspot.com.
Editor: Dana Gornall