Understanding across difference, whatever the difference, lies at the center of spiritual life and aspiration.
Connection is not, however, only about connection with people. For Zen students, it is something to extend to all beings, even inanimate ones. The Zen virtue of menmitsu, a tender caring for objects, extends mindfulness beyond inwardness to caring for gardens, teacups, floorboards, old needles, and so forth— all the things of life. It’s no accident that the koans are full of nonhuman things: bridge, dog, cushion, pitcher, chinrest, duck, pillar, and ox. In Dogen’s words, “Buddha is also tiles and pebbles.”
All this is especially important for modern Westerners. It can be hard for us even to conceive that our interior way of understanding experience is heavily mediated by culture, or that Zen, rather than augmenting our isolated sensibility, challenges it—and has always done so, even in societies that were far less individualistic than our own. Understanding across difference, whatever the difference, lies at the center of spiritual life and aspiration.
Moreover, like it or not, we as Western Buddhists need to do more than simply let the dharma find indigenous expression here. Our situation asks that we facilitate a conversation in which Buddhism speaks to Buddhism. We are the locus where the great traditions are meeting in an unprecedented way. If, under the influence of modern individualism, we blunt the finer points of a tradition with a generic approach that rhymes with our own notions of spirituality, we may risk losing some of what is most vital within each tradition.
Pluralism is not the same as generic practice constructed to suit us. How deeply dharma practices come to affect our society and institutions may in the end depend as much on the warmth of our welcome as on its precision. To valorize singularly an interiorized self, even while engaged in a practice that contains a core recognition of the primacy of relatedness, would be to allow the process of acculturation to obscure the specific treasures of Zen, and affirm our own habits of understanding even where the tradition runs counter to them. It would be to create another spirituality that confirms, rather than upends, the particular way our delusion is constructed.
One story we tell ourselves is that we are born alone, live alone, and die alone—and that is true. In a culture shaped so fully by an ethos of individualism, that is the easy story to see. But there is another story that says just the opposite—and it is harder to see, and goes largely unseen. It is this story that fulfills us, completes us, and heals us.
Written by Henry Shukman and originally published as The Meeting:Zen’s Challenge to An Individual, Interior Spirituality in Tricycle, Spring 2017 .