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The Buddha of Compassion

I should not be doing what I am doing.

I have read that, when people from the United States first started traveling to Asia to study Buddhism with enlightened masters, they despaired that no enlightened masters existed any more because no one advertised themselves as such.

This was a very American misunderstanding. In the United States, the prevailing ethos is, if you got it, flaunt it. It pays to advertise.

Few Asians, and fewer Buddhist Asians, think this way. Enlightened Buddhist masters do not advertise themselves as such. Enlightened masters are as common in Asia now as they ever were, if one knows how to recognize them.

I have also read about a young Asian monk who planned a trip to the United States. His fellow monks warned him that Americans would ask him really hard questions, so he should prepare very carefully. When he arrived in the United States, one of the first questions he got was, how can anyone know that they are enlightened? The monk found this to be an impossibly stupid question. Having grown up in a predominantly Buddhist culture, the monk considered obvious the point that people who are enlightened know it.

I know I am not fully awakened at the level of the Buddha. If I get there, I will tell you.

Awakening, at least on the Buddhist path — there are others — requires thinking in ways that are not familiar to most people in the United States.

Recurring to an earlier post on this topic, in my opinion, having many outstanding Buddhist teachers who have studied with Asian masters in Asia is a wonderful problem to have in the United States. Again, I intellectualize everything and came up with my own, intellectually satisfying, explanation for what the Buddha accomplished in order to continue on the path he described.

The dharma name that the senior teacher in the Shambhala lineage gave me when I took refuge is Intellect Lord. People in the audience guffawed audibly when he announced it. I will admit to more intellectual arrogance than is good for a person. We all need to let go of everything. I’m working on it.

But I never let the fact of teachers having studied in Asia with masters, enlightened or not (I have never heard a teacher explicitly address the issue), slow me down. I set my sights on complete enlightenment and I am still working on that project. The Buddha said we all have the capacity if we just find a way to recognize it in ourselves.

I spent six years getting a Ph.D. I enjoyed teaching U.S. history to undergraduates. I think I was pretty good at it. I learned that what is obvious and easy for me is not obvious and easy for a lot of other people. Compassion is a cardinal virtue for Buddhists, one that I have to work on, but I am a lot better now than I was when I started.

I think having an ordinary, American shmoe who has never been to Asia explaining Buddhism to other ordinary, American shmoes who have never been to Asia is a good thing.

Buddhism, again, is full of paradoxes. A sort of existential paradox for Buddhists is that, in some important sense, all explanations are counterproductive because they are abstractions from the direct experience of awakening, but very few people who know nothing of Buddhism will awaken without some explanation.

So we try to explain the inexplicable.

At some level, I believe the consistent message of Buddhist teachers that full awakening is right in front of me. All I have to do is recognize it. Sounds simple, but it is maddeningly elusive. Who knows? Maybe this short, plain statement of the case, to borrow a legal phrase, has allowed some fortunate reader to awaken just from reading it. I doubt it, but if so, please let me know.

I have had glimpses and made far more than enough progress to keep me treading the path in my own way.

The key is meditation. It really is that simple. This answer will not appeal to a lot of people in the United States. It takes time and effort. It is not a pill you can swallow to fix your problems. Medications wear off. Interim flashes of enlightenment also wear off, but complete enlightenment is durable. Many times I have had dreams in which I was fully enlightened, only to awaken to being unawakened as usual.

I have had a significant meditation practice for over sixteen years now. At the beginning, I did participate in a series of weekend, miniature meditation retreats, which gave me a very solid grounding in meditation. I discovered early on that meditation takes over your life, with a regular practice, which is a good thing.

You just have to surrender to it completely, which is the hard part.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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